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Photo courtesy of  Womin (participants from Kitui forum)

“When people rise, power changes hands. Instead of the governments imposing projects on us as local communities, they will resort to consultations before investing on mega projects. Also, power in the hands of the locals will enhance community ownership in any project which has an adverse impact on their lives.”

Those are some of the remarks made by Said Hindu Salim, a woman leader from Save Lamu during the visit held in Kitui County on May 18 and 19.

Kitui County is about 3.5 hours drive from Nairobi. It houses Mui basin, the only confirmed coal bank in Kenya, with more prospecting still underway across the country.

The two-day community visit in Kitui was an initiative premiered by Womin – a pan-African women’s organisation campaigning on human rights and the extractives industry- in collaboration with decoalonize Kenya Network. During that visit, women from three different communities: Harare, Kitui and Lamu got a chance to interact and hear stories from each other on impacts of coal, despite the fact that civic education hasn’t always been well perceived in Mui by the government. Exercising the right to freedom of assembly and information, the courageous activists gathered in Kitui to activate community resistance against coal projects in Kenya and across Africa.

This was a 100% women lead and organised community forum with a special invitation of one climate activist from 350.org.

Coal, as most African governments including Kenya’s would argue, is the cheapest form of energy for Africa. A statement that cannot be substantiated considering the costs of both environmental, social and health impacts these projects have on the communities around. It is a laughable and sickening argument when even high ranking African leaders like Koffi Annan, former UN Secretary-General supporting coal power for Africa’s development future.

Coal from Kitui was initially meant to power the proposed Lamu coal power plant but as time lapsed and following community uprising and refusing to sell their lands to the government, there has been a shift of a narrative that the coal deposits in Kitui would not be enough for the stage one operation of the Lamu Coal power plant. The government since then has embarked on a mission to import coal from South Africa and China among other countries. The Mui coal basin is another court case battle with the government currently but based on concession struggles and lands rights.

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Photo courtesy of Womin (Elizabeth Munjiru-from Kitui)

A woman leader Elizabeth Munjiru briefed the audience about the coal issue in Kitui which posed several hard questions among the community: “It all started around 2013 when there were lorries streaming into our villages with Chinese and Africans drivers. We later heard from stories that there was something called coal underground and it was going to be drilled. We were also told that this coal was closer above the ground and it would take the whole community to vacate their lands for its extraction. We sat down and asked amongst ourselves: if this coal will make us be forcefully evicted, where will we go? What will happen to us? What about our families and clans? And were they going to move us with our living dead? And our ancestors?”

Deep into these sharing moments, it emerged that within the interior villages, nobody knows about the reality of coal in Kitui. So many rumours have been spread around to incite residents selling their lands, the craziest being that the dug well had big snakes…Only the dwellers and those within the urban periphery who have little knowledge about coal deposits. The gathering concurred on the fact that the main reason why they attended was to give themselves a chance to learn, lead and not wait for political leaders to guide them. Participants felt that it was high time that they stop looking up to their elected officials for directions. They realised that most of them were not for their own good. They also noted that this is not the time to sit back and relax. “This is business and wherever there is money, our leaders will never tell us what they are going to put in their pockets under the table!” concluded Munjiru.

After the confirmation of a coal deposit in Mui basin, a dubious business on land emerged. Neighbourhood crooks would pretend to want to buy land from within their community while the real land buyers would turn out to be some wealthy and scrupulous businessmen targeting the purchase in order to gain them higher returns when the government finally settles on the land buying spree for the coal mining companies. Another inhuman land business emerged and involved land authorities issuing fake title deeds to the locals. During the gathering, we were told that majority of local land owners would be issued title deeds that indicated that their parcels of land were smaller in hectares. “If you owned three acres of that then your title deed would indicate one acre or even less,” said one participant! Women who are normally excluded when it comes to land ownership fear that if the government forces them to agree to a compensation plan, they might turn into homeless beggars as their husbands would move to urban centres and disappear.

Khadija Shekuwe, a prominent member of Save Lamu updated the women fellow about the current status of the project: “At the moment, we are at the environmental tribunal. Our lawyers are arguing out with the fossil fuel investors lead by Amu Power. We are not going to be left behind. We will continue touring across villages and cities enlightening communities about the impacts of coal. Today we are here to ask for your support and partnership in the fight against coal mining. If you succeed to stop this plan, then we succeed too because the power plant will not have the raw materials it needs to survive”.

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Photo courtesy of Womin (break out session at the Kitui forum)

Talking about the intimidation and threats faced by activists from certain governmental officials, Mella from Womin reacted: “Who is the government: I am the government! You are the government! What I own is mine and nobody can take it away from me. They will intimidate me; they will intimidate my family. They will intimidate my friends! It is not going to be easy but we have to push on. If we don’t stand up for anything, then we are not going to have the Wangari Maathai’s of this Nation, we are not going to have the big resolves of Syokimaus, Kinjekitiles and the Wa Makweris. We must organise ourselves. We must form legal organisations just like Save Lamu. But above all, we must be courageous. We are here to ensure that their stories, your stories: women’s stories are told; not just told but heard by the right people both locally, nationally and internationally because we are going to decoalonize Africa.” concluded Mella from Womin

Connecting people in their own mother tongue is connecting people to their roots. A mother tongue has a way of eliciting the best form of expression and reaction for a social change. This forum was conducted majorly on the local dialect, Kamba and to some extent Swahili (a national and official Kenyan language). More insightful details might have been lost through translations as foreign languages have a way of lessening the strength of the actual sentiments. Thus the need to Africanize the fight against coal and take it to levels of the impacted communities. Africa has its way of effecting change and that is the best way we will embrace it to deCOALonize our land.

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Photo courtesy of Womin (Hindu Salim on activism)