If you think Obama-mania is out of control in the United States, you should get a hit of it in Kenya. When US Senator Barack Obama announced he was considering a presidential bid, it was front-page news in the East African nation where his father was born. Taxi drivers love to ask Americans what they’d think of having their first Kenyan President. One Nairobi-based safari company even operates tours to the Senator’s ancestral village, complete with “evening tea and a photograph with [Obama’s] grandmother.”
Some Kenyans wish the attention to the place where Obama claims his roots would translate into a new dose of concern about the people who currently live there. Dorothy Owiti hails from the same part of the country as Obama’s father: Siaya province, on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria. While the Senator’s ancestral home is becoming a tourist attraction, Owiti’s lies submerged beneath floodwaters, thanks to the operations of a US company. This January, Owiti and several of her neighbors attended the World Social Forum in Nairobi with a message for the Senator.
“I would like to tell Barack Obama that somewhere down here in his homeland, we are really suffering,” she told RadioNation. “If he has us at heart, let him do something. Tell the president of Dominion Farms to stop destroying our lives in Africa.”
Dominion Farms, an affiliate of Dominion Group, based in Oklahoma, moved into Siaya in 2003 through an arrangement with the local and state authorities. After several years of negotiations, Dominion CEO Calvin Burgess leased public land from the government on a pledge to develop a high-tech fish and rice farming operation that he promised would bring jobs, reduce hunger and make Siaya and neighboring Bondo provinces the “breadbasket” of Kenya. (In the United States, Dominion builds for-profit prisons and federal buildings.)
Until Dominion came along, the people of this part of Kenya made their living drawing water from the local Yala River. They raised goats and cows and farmed small plots of land. Widows and children harvested papyrus and sisal from the nearby swamp from which they crafted rough mats and baskets. A major habitat for endangered fish and birds, the Yala Swamp is recognized by environmentalists as one of the richest and most delicate ecosystems in East Africa. The half-million or so local residents weren’t rich but they were self-sufficient, says Owiti. Now they’re forced to live on the generosity of churches or on the corporation’s handouts.
“Development should not bring harm to the local community,” said Owiti at the World Social Forum. But that, she says, is just what has happened. In the last four years, Dominion Farms has built a dam on the Yala River, drained much of the swamp, subjected the fields to aerial spraying and drowned not only public land but, residents claim, private property without legal authority.
Dominion offered residents compensation to leave their homes (generally 45,000 Kenyan shillings, approximately $64). Many, like Salome, a local grandmother, refused, but their land was submerged anyway. “I grew cabbages, I made mats, I planted maize and millet. Now all my fields are flooded,” said Salome.
For those that remain, the company’s dam blocks access to the river, the one available source of fresh water. “Now they want us to use standing water,” explained Paul Obeira, another Yala Swamp resident. But with the standing water comes infection. Malaria and typhoid rates are rising. Now aerial spraying is killing livestock. “I have lost 110 goats and our women are suffering from health problems because of the spraying,” added Obeira. Dominion Farms has applied for a permit to spray the pesticide DDT, which has been banned in this part of the world because of its negative health consequences.
Begun as a counterpoint to the elite World Economic Forum, which is held each year in Davos, Switzerland, the World Social Forum casts itself as a meeting place for those on the receiving end of the kind of trade and development policy promoted at Davos. Peter Kimani, a correspondent for Kenya’s Daily Nation, sees in the Yala Swamp story a classic example of problems the Social Forum tries to spotlight. “Here is a world multinational impoverishing local people in the name of development,” said Kimani last week.
Some call it recolonization by corporations. In Siaya, the managers at Dominion Farms erected a massive thirty-foot cross over their compound. According to Kimani and several Yala Swamp residents, the company threatens residents that opposition to the project constitutes opposition to God’s will. Some say they’ve been threatened with crucifixion. “It’s a classical colonial strategy to use the cross to hoodwink the people,” says Cecil Agutu, organizer of a residents’ support group, Friends of Yala Swamp. “At least [under colonial rule] we could see the British. Right now we have one American who flies in and out on a private plane. We can’t even see him and yet he controls our resources.”
Next time he visits Kenya, Obama could pay Calvin Burgess a visit. Swamp residents have help from groups like Action Aid International (based in Britain) and the Boulder, Colorado-based Global Response organization. But they are up against some powerful players. Dominion Farms is part of the multinational Kenya National Council, launched by the World Economic Forum last year. Council members include Unilever, Coca Cola, Monsanto, the Kenyan phone company Safaricom and the National Oil Corporation of Kenya.
“It’s forty-four years since Kenyans won independence. Now they’re fighting for self determination again,” said Paula Palmer of Global Response. A helping hand from Siaya’s most famous child could make all the difference.
For more information about the Friends of Yala Swamp campaign, contact Global Response.