Chetambe Hills historical fort debate

Residents have resisted the move, but the state says they have already been compensated

In Summary

• The area is occupied by over 30,000 people, with heavy development, including public amenities. Residents risk being rendered homeless.

• In the 19th Century, the hills harboured a fort for the great ruler of the Tachoni and Bukusu communities also known as Chetambe Yifile.

Homes in Chetambe Hills
Homes in Chetambe Hills
Webuye Pan Paper mills
Webuye Pan Paper mills

Residents of Webuye East in Bungoma have resisted the move by the government to gazette Chetambe Hills as a forest.

Environment CS Keriako Tobiko recently gazetted 406 hectares (1,003 acres) as a forest area.

The area is occupied by over 30,000 people, with heavy development, including public amenities. Residents risk being rendered homeless.

The gazetted area touches half of Webuye town, part of Pan Paper factory, a recently built interchange on the great North road and residential areas.

While the government insists that it is a forest area as people have already been compensated, residents hold that it is their ancestral home. 

Chetambe Hills is part and parcel of the history and culture of the western region.

In the 19th Century, the hills harboured a fort for the great ruler of the Tachoni and Bukusu communities also known as Chetambe Yifile.

This fort had houses for the families and a cattle kraal. In the middle of the fort, there was a sacred tree known as the omutoto, which was regarded as holy. It was the place where elders paid their respects and offered animal sacrifices to the gods.

Mihuu retired chief Stephen Murumba told the Star that the government compensated residents for the land between 1973 and 1975.

Each was given between Sh3,000 and Sh7,000.

"This is government land and people were compensated," he said.

Murumba said that after the compensation, those who had moved out started coming back slowly. Others sold land to unsuspecting Kenyans.

But MCA Martin Wanyonyi said most residents were never compensated.

"Only a few people were compensated in a very small section of the land. The land in question is more than 1,000 acres, cutting across almost the entire Webuye town and its environs," he said.

Wanyonyi said before the gazettement, the government should have carried out a public participation drive to listen to the views of residents.

"These people have been living here for decades and the government is aware of this," he said.

He asked why the government invested millions of shillings to construct the Pan Paper factory, schools, a National Cereals and Produce Board depot and government offices in the area and then gazette it as a forest.

Also affected is Webuye Falls, which is a key tourist attraction site that has several high-end hotels.

Tachoni Council of Elders chairperson Patrick Sitati faulted the government's failure to compensate everyone in the 1970s.

"Yes, we agree that the compensation scheme started in the 1970s, but not all were compensated. Some people did not receive any money," he said.

Sitati said so many people were promised that they would be resettled in Trans Nzoia county, but this has not been done.

He said those who received compensation no longer stay in the area.

"We are calling for due diligence before the government acts rather than blanket evictions that they intend to carry out," Sitati said.

Former mayor Joab Macheso said the land in question was formerly owned by residents, but the government bought it.

"I was born here and the truth is many people were compensated," Macheso, 86, said.

"The government watched as part of the land was grabbed while some natives took advantage of new developers who ended up buying government land."

Bungoma county Kenya Forest Service ecosystem conservator Vitalis Osodo told the Star that the government will not or relent on its efforts to reclaim government land.

"We are not going to negotiate on that matter. Forest land is government land," he said.

Osodo said there are no records to show some people were not compensated.

Residents want the government to produce a map of the land. But the gazette notice indicated that a map is available at the national survey office in Nairobi.

The Star is in possession of documents from former administrators showing the names and amounts of those compensated by the government in the 1970s.

It is not, however, clear how those compensated started trooping back or selling land with the government's approval.

Resident Joseck Wafula blamed unscrupulous Lands officials for selling government land in the 1980s and 1990s to private developers.

"How do you explain the fact that these fellows have genuine title deeds when they have been compensated," Macheso said.

Observers said that if the gazette notice takes effect, it will render Webuye town dead.

"This basically means that Webuye town will die a natural death. It cuts out almost the entire town," Isaac Wanjekeche said.

He said if key installations are affected, it will drastically change the way of life among residents as the majority will be forced out.

Wanjekeche said the move will obviously meet resistance, owing to the fact that most residents have nowhere to go.

Kimilili MP Didmus Barasa has said he will rally residents to resist the gazettement, saying the area has a historical attachment to the Bukusu and Tachoni communities.

"Our people died resisting colonial rules and fighting for Independence in the famous Chetambe war. We will rally them to resist in equal measures," Barasa said.

He said the government is insensitive to residents.

Edited by A.N

Chetambe Hills
Chetambe Hills