Squatting in Kenya

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Squatting in Kenya is the occupation of unused land or derelict buildings without the permission of the owner. During colonial occupation, indigenous peoples working on farms owned by white settlers were known as "squatters". As of 1945, there were over 200,000 of these licensed squatters in the Highlands and more than half were Kikuyu. The Mau Mau rebellion began amongst squatters in the late 1940s and after independence in the early 1960s, peasants started squatting land in rural areas.

In recent years, community groups including indigenous peoples and squatters have challenged agricultural companies over land they regard as belonging to them following the foundation of the National Land Commission. In 2007, 55 per cent of Kenya's urban population lived in slums, in which people either owned, rented or squatted their houses and as of 2019, 4.39 million people lived in the capital Nairobi, with around half living in informal settlements such as Huruma, Kibera and Mathare.


During colonial occupation, white settlers took the best land such as the fertile so-called White Highlands and indigenous peoples were moved into reserves.[1][2] For example the Kikuyu people had most of their land confiscated and by 1948, 1.25 million Kikuyus were confined to 5,200 km² and 30,000 settlers occupied 31,000 km².[3]: 6  Kenyan labourers who worked for white settlers were permitted a small amount of land where they lived and grew food. By the 1920s, these labourers had become known as "squatters".[4]: 172–173  A similar process occurred in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa.[5] Some Kikuyu squatters moved to the Rift Valley because the land was more fertile than where they had previously lived and also settlers protected the men from conscription.[6]: 13–14  Crops included coffee, tea and pyrethrum.[6]: 81  Tabitha Kanogo argues in Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau, 1905-63 that in the Rift Valley Province the settlers needed labourers and the squatters also wanted land to farm, so "each group needed to exploit the resources controlled by the other".[6]: 8, 18  She notes that alongside the squatting system there was also illegal squatting and so-called Kaffir farming, in which labourers paid the settlers to use their land. In 1910, there were 20,000 Kikuyu Kaffir farmers and during World War I, the labourers maintained the farms on behalf of the settlers.[6]: 15–16 

The 1918 Resident Native Labourers Ordinance was brought in as an attempt to regulate illegal squatting and to control labourers, with measures such as the abolition of Kaffir farming and the insistence that labourers must work at least 180 days in the year at a specific farm.[6]: 25, 37  Labourers reacted by going on strike, leaving their jobs, engaging in sabotage and starting to squat illegally.[6]: 36, 50  Settler attempts to control the squatters culminated in the 1937 Resident Native Labourers Ordinance, which stated squatters only had rights to live in the Highlands when allowed by a settler and enforced a limit on how much squatters could farm. Whilst World War II slowed its implementation, in the late 1940s its effects were felt and labourers were forced to organise in groups such as the Kikuyu Highlands Squatters Association.[6]: 97, 98, 103 

As of 1945, there were over 200,000 licensed squatters in the Highlands and over half were Kikuyu.[6]: 126  Following incidents such as the Olenguruone crisis, the Mau Mau rebellion began amongst squatters in the late 1940s and by September 1952, 412 people had been jailed for allegedly being part of the insurrection.[6]: 108, 136–137 [7] The events led to a forced displacement of squatters from the Highlands to reserves and there was a period of armed struggle between 1952 and 1956.[6]: 142, 162  The 1954 Swynnerton Plan had recommended a new land registration plan.[8] After independence in the early 1960s, peasants started squatting land in rural areas in the centre of the country and on the coast.[1]


Map of locations of slum in Nairobi
Slums in Nairobi

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) estimated in 2007 that 55 per cent of Kenya's urban population lived in slums, in which people either owned, rented or squatted their houses.[9] As of 2019, 4.39 million people lived in the capital Nairobi and around half lived in informal settlements, occupying just 1 per cent of the city's land. Many slums (for example Huruma, Kibera and Mathare) were clustered in a belt around 4 km from the Central Business District.[10] Research in 2020 using Geographic information system (GIS) technology suggested the population of Kibera was around 283,000, lower than mainstream media estimates;[10] the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) had previously estimated there to be between 300,000 and 1 million inhabitants.[11] Mathare is a collection of squatted villages in the valley of the Mathare River, which were founded in the 1960s.[12]

GIS analysis was also used to plot occupations in the Chyulu Hills, where squatters have come into conflict with conservationists.[13] In 2014, the government sent the military to the Embobut forest in order to evict over 15,000 Sengwer people from their own land. International groups such as Survival International and Forest Peoples Programme condemned the evictions, saying they were illegal and further that the government should not call the Sengwer squatters.[14] In 2009, the government had evicted an estimated 30,000 families from the Mau forest.[15]

Community groups including indigenous peoples and squatters have challenged agricultural companies such as Del Monte Kenya and Kakuzi Limited over land they regard as belonging to them following the foundation of the National Land Commission in 2012.[16][17] President Uhuru Kenyatta has pledged to give two thirds of all Kenyans title to their land by 2022. In 2020, land at Mikanjuni in Kilifi, Coast Province, was purchased by the state to give to 1,300 squatter families.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Lele, Uma (1976). "On Developing Rural Settlements". Finance & Development. International Monetary Fund. 13 (1): 8–11.
  2. ^ Morgan, W. T. W. (1963). "The 'White Highlands' of Kenya". The Geographical Journal. 129 (2): 140–155. doi:10.2307/1792632.
  3. ^ Alao, Abiodun (2006). Mau-Mau Warrior. Oxford: Osprey. ISBN 978-1-84603-024-6.
  4. ^ Ormsby-Gore, W.; Church, A. G.; Linfield, F. C. (1925). Report of the East Africa Commission (PDF). London: His Majesty's Stationery Office.
  5. ^ Youé, Christopher (2002). "Black Squatters on White Farms: Segregation and Agrarian Change in Kenya, South Africa, and Rhodesia, 1902–1963". The International History Review. 24 (3): 558–602. doi:10.1080/07075332.2002.9640974.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Kanogo, Tabitha M. (1987). Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau, 1905-63. London: J. Currey. ISBN 978-1-78204-979-1.
  7. ^ Feichtinger, Moritz (January 2017). "'A Great Reformatory': Social Planning and Strategic Resettlement in Late Colonial Kenya and Algeria, 1952–63". Journal of Contemporary History. 52 (1): 45–72. doi:10.1177/0022009415616867.
  8. ^ Wily, Liz Alden (2012). "Land Reform in Africa: A Reappraisal". In Wily, Liz Alden (ed.). Rights to Resources in Crisis: Reviewing the Fate of Customary Tenure in Africa (PDF). Rights and Resources Institute. p. 2.
  9. ^ Gulyani, Sumila; Bassett, Ellen M.; Talukdar, Debabrata (2012). "Living Conditions, Rents, and Their Determinants in the Slums of Nairobi and Dakar". Land Economics. 88 (2): 251–274. ISSN 0023-7639.
  10. ^ a b Ren, Hang; Guo, Wei; Zhang, Zhenke; Kisovi, Leonard Musyoka; Das, Priyanko (18 September 2020). "Population Density and Spatial Patterns of Informal Settlements in Nairobi, Kenya". Sustainability. 12 (18). doi:10.3390/su12187717.
  11. ^ "Participating countries". UN-HABITAT. Retrieved 12 February 2021.
  12. ^ Ross, Marc Howard (October 1973). "Community Formation in an Urban Squatter Settlement". Comparative Political Studies. 6 (3): 296–328. doi:10.1177/001041407300600302.
  13. ^ Muriuki, Grace; Seabrook, Leonie; McAlpine, Clive; Jacobson, Chris; Price, Bronwyn; Baxter, Greg (February 2011). "Land cover change under unplanned human settlements: A study of the Chyulu Hills squatters, Kenya". Landscape and Urban Planning. 99 (2): 154–165. doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2010.10.002.
  14. ^ Tickell, Oliver (9 January 2014). "Kenya - Forest people facing violent eviction". The Ecologist. Retrieved 22 April 2022.
  15. ^ Rice, Xan (18 November 2009). "Kenya evicts thousands of forest squatters in attempt to save Rift valley". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 April 2022.
  16. ^ "Squatters in Kenya's Murang'a county speak of 'colonisation' on ancestral lands". RFI. 26 December 2020. Retrieved 8 April 2022.
  17. ^ Wangui, Joseph (20 October 2020). "Del Monte fight for prime Thika land to proceed in court". Nation. Retrieved 8 April 2022.
  18. ^ Lwanga, Charles (12 October 2020). "Uhuru plan to settle 1,300 squatters finally rolls out". Nation. Retrieved 14 April 2022.

Further reading[edit]