Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Concept of Land and Market in Colonial Kenya

The concept of the market as it exists today was virtually unknown in the pre-colonial Kenya. The notion of exclusive land ownership was in fact non-existent prior to the advent of market transactions. Unlike the European concept of ownership, which implied exclusivity, the pre-colonial land tenures permitted
simultaneous user rights both to previous and incumbent owners. Thus, the Western notion of land ownership meant that ‘to own presupposed that there were others who do did not own’.

Access to land depended on the clan, sub-clan, tribe or ethnic group to which one belonged. The task of land allocation was vested in the leaders of lineages. They allocated tracts of land to constituent household heads depending on the magnitude of their needs. They were also responsible for adjudicating land disputes involving different households. Sometimes, land could be acquired by force. But even then, the previous owners still enjoyed some residual user rights. The arrival of the Europeans towards the end of the 19th Century dramatically changed the face of pre-colonial land tenure patterns. The penetration of market forces rapidly transformed the apparently harmonious economic, social and political relations that flourished in the country-side.

The broad land policy that the colonialists embraced is quite essential to understanding the subsequent policy instruments that used the market to realise their intended objectives. The land was divided into the reserves and the highlands, designed exclusively as the residential areas of the natives and whites, respectively. The natives in the reserves were involved in subsistence crop production on very small holdings. On the other hand, the settler farmers in the highlands were engaged in large scale farming of lucrative crops such as tea, coffee etc. The demarcation of land into the white highlands and the reserves was intended to deprive the natives of access to capital, roads and well paying crops. The question, then, is how was the market used as an instrument of political control and exploitation.

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