|IN HIS HEYDAY AS AN ACTIVIST in legal reforms in the 1990s, the Rev Timothy Njoya once argued that peasants who own land were poorer than those who didn’t.
Up to that point, that was one of the most profound statements I had ever heard. I wondered why people were so obsessed with land when letting go would improve their fortunes.
And that brings me to my point: That for displaced families to progress in life, they must give up their agrarian ways and seek greener pastures in towns where they have found refuge.
Many of those who fled Rift Valley at the height of the violence in January have often expressed unwillingness to return. And this is not just because their houses were burnt and their property stolen or destroyed; they realise that they can never make it in life if they go back.
It has occurred to them that their lives will be disrupted every five years. If they can gather the courage to stand by their decision despite the odds facing them in the short term, this will be the most rational decision they will have made for themselves and their children.
One of the problems that has held back many families from improving their fortunes is that they have an irrational attachment to land.
Yet, this land does not provide them with either sufficient nourishment or financial returns to justify the time, money and energy they invest to coax a harvest from it every year.
Historically, it takes a drastic — and sometimes calamitous — shake-up of the social, political and economic order for the vast majority to critically re-examine their goals and redefine their priorities. That time has come for Kenyan peasants who have been displaced by violence. An illustration will suffice.
For many years, planters in the southern states of America refused to abolish slavery even when it was evident slave labour was more costly than wage labour.
AS THOSE WHO ABANDONED SLAVE labour prospered, those who held on to the old ways were pushed to the verge of economic ruin. A war had to be fought to change the social order, abolish slavery and usher in the era of capitalism, which has transformed the US.
In Kenya, families that in the past relied on land for subsistence must now look elsewhere if they are to ensure that their descendants do not suffer the fate their parents did in January.
They can take courage from the words of Naoko Takahashi, a Japanese professor of economics, who is the daughter of a teacher and granddaughter of a peasant. She said:
“In the past, the children of peasants in Japan were doomed to become peasants while the children of teachers walked in the footsteps of their parents. But when Japan was confronted by the possibility of colonisation, it mobilised its population to learn the tricks that the colonisers were using. The answer lay in education — and the technology to make guns.”
Displaced families can learn from the experience of the Japanese and vote with their feet like the freed slaves who left cotton plantations in the south to work as labourers in northern American towns.
It may be a bitter lesson, but it can help them to secure a prosperous and modern future for their children.
The first generation may end up as hawkers competing for space at Muthurwa market, but with education and vocational skills, their children can become anything they want to be.
And as for the land left behind in the Rift Valley breadbasket, the Government can redistribute it to increase production and feed the working population expected to grow by leaps and bounds.
Mr Mbugua is a sub-editor with the Nation