Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Company

Mwatate town lives its life in the shadow of two dominant features, one natural and one less natural. To the northwest, north of the road leading to Tanzania, there’s Bura Bluff, a high and vertical cliff towering above the plain. To the southeast, south of the road leading to Voi, there’s a vast, synthetic looking green mat pierced by a small hill: The Teita Sisal Estate.

I wouldn’t call it just a commercial plantation, already in itself a term with a very dark ring to it in an African context. It seems to be the prototype of a malicious commercial plantation, the ultimate 'rip-off industry'.
The Teita Sisal Estate (the misspelling in is apparently a conscious one) is said to be the largest of its kind in the world. Basically it’s a world of its own. Its huge area (More than 30 000 acres, still grabbing) contains its own homes, schools, shops, health facilities etc. It’s like an independent city in the middle of the dry countryside. Rumors state that there are people who have not left the compounds of the estate once in their lifetime. Everything is closed to outsiders, naturally.

And everything is of course owned by foreigners from the more developed world, in this case two Greek brothers named Kostas and Philip Kyriazi. Does it sound familiar? Entering through the gates is like driving a century back in time. It is all in all such a delightful relic of colonial times that it would be funny, were it not actually a very serious part of so many peoples’ lives.

By chance I happened to do an interview for Ms. G with a man in Mwatate who had just retired from the estate, so the discussion quite naturally took that road. It seems to me like it not only sounds colonial but actually is. I cannot comment on the level of income of the workers, but ignoring that, people have forever been contracted and let off with little regulation or logic or contracted as occasional labor so as to minimize costs related to fixed employment. The water and waste management has drawn some not very positive attention to it with relation to the fragile environment. The Sisal is planted, harvested and to some extent processed by the plantation within the plantation with minimal connection to the surrounding community. As the staff of the estate do not even shop in Mwatate, it is easy for people outside the plantation to claim that it brings no benefits whatsoever to the town, contrary to what I’m sure the company would give as a motivation for their existence.

Yes, they probably on paper pay proper taxes, property rights, community support etc. to the central government, but then it is not for nothing the Kiswahili word for government, sirikali, also translates to 'a big secret'.

Mwatate and the Teita Sisal Estate
So people do what they always do because there are few options. The other day, an unusually large group of workers were let off. Riots ensued. Some tractors were burned, lots of walkie-talkies and other equipment destroyed along with stretches of road (some not belonging to the estate) until the authorities reacted and a compromise was found. I don’t know what the compromise is, but does it really matter?

This is what is meant by the term ‘extractive industry’, right?

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