Developing Neighborhood and Community Support Systems

Summer Symposium on Community, Work, and Community Support at the School of Social Work Theory and Practice of the Inter-University Centre, Dubrovnik, Croatia, 13–19 June 2004.
Lessons under the mango tree: Making place out of space and community out of place in the 21st century



Mark Lawrence, PhD
Department of Geography & Political Science
Bemidji State University
1500 Birchmont Drive N.E.
Bemidji, MN 56601
Eddie Mwanzia
Executive Director, Foundation Agency for Rural Development
P.O. Box 400, Kibwezi


Geography traditionally has focused on how humans meaningfully make place out of space, particularly as ‘community’. However, new conditions of mobility and linkage between various sites of development challenge the notion that anything remains of a human geography stable enough to encounter. For consumer publics multiplying around the globe, community is now not merely kitsch and ersatz but, worryingly for some, receding into the merely ‘virtual’. For others, the reality of multicultural places is even more challenging: ethnic and religious diversity supposedly prompting less social generosity and generating more burdens than opportunities for governance. Arguably, we should reexamine what ‘community’ can mean when the conditions of lived experience are so easily volatilized. Using a community-in-formation in East Africa, simultaneously typically rural but also increasingly connected to the outside world, this paper offers an analytical framework for raising questions about how hopes for a sustainable sense of place might be achieved, and indeed why such a project should be undertaken at all. Ecological, social, human, political, and economic capital need to be considered intergenerationally, thereby freeing the idea of community from a spatially fixed context, existing as it does, now more than before, across multiple scales and with multiple interacting temporalities.


Our times are perhaps more schizophrenic than any hitherto. On the one hand, there are those who celebrate the increasingly ‘one-world’ sensibility of the age now dawning. At the heart of such optimism is a belief that investments in the basic neighborliness of ‘social capital’ now matter at least as much as investments of other kinds. However, there are also the Cassandras among us who warn that all the couplings and fusions and mutations of cultural identities and political agendas we see now are not a sign of greater opportunity but of increasing desperation. Given the vertigo experienced from such a standpoint, social capital is seen as seriously eroded, leaving us ‘bowling alone’ (Putnam 2000).


The foundation of either vision, utopic or dystopic, is laid atop the bedrock issue of Geography as a social science: that is, how humans meaningfully make place out of space, particularly in terms of ‘community‘. Yet new conditions of mobility and linkage between various sites of development challenge the notion that anything remains of a human geography stable enough to encounter. For rapidly proliferating consumer publics, any former ‘authenticity‘ of community seems at risk of now being lost, not only to kitsch and the ersatz but also, worryingly for some, receding into the merely ‘virtual’ (Hampton and Wellman 1999; Kavanaugh and Patterson 2001; Rheingold 2000; Scherlis 1998; Wellman et al. 1996). There is also concern that increased ethnic and religious diversity, particularly in old colonial metropoles, might prompt less social generosity and generate more burdens than opportunities for governance (see for example, Economist 2004). Yet are levels of trust and cooperation higher in places that are culturally and in other ways homogeneous? Even if this is case, maybe there is as much to be said for the industriousness of more self-directed, atomized communities, too. What are the regional variations involved in assessing these issues, and do such variations matter? Should we continue to emphasize and work to enable grass-roots organizations in the development of sustainable communities, or is this now antiquated thinking? To formulate effective interventions to assist populations in need, arguably it is time to reexamine what we can mean by ‘community’ when the conditions of lived experience are so easily volatilized. Using a community-in-formation in East Africa (Kibwezi, Kenya), this article offers an analytical framework for raising questions about how hopes for a sustainable sense of place might be achieved, and indeed why such a project should be undertaken at all.



Geographers have long been aware of the connection between place and epistemology (Lowenthal 1961): that is, we do not simply occupy locations but meaningfully make place out of space. Moreover, the significance of a place is often defined as much by what it is not about, who does not live there, and what does not happen there. Thus, places are always imbricated in relationships of orientation toward other places. To this sense of breadth is added depth, defined by interactions as local as those within the household and its immediate neighborhood and, simultaneously, as extra-local as involvement in the world-system. Finally, defining a place with respect to scale and cultural context requires historical sensitivity because places are not simply made, but made over again and again.


This dynamic, only ever partially stabilized, sense of a place is shaped by multiple investments of different forms of capital in its ongoing history. Much depends on the character and health of the ecosystems occupied, modified, and utilized aesthetically and as a resource base. Investments in environmental capital distinguish community links to this complex natural context (Berkes and Farvar 1989). This assumes investments in human capital involving recognition, use, and increase of local people’s skills and knowledge. While skillful manipulation of resources can be carried out in an uncoordinated way, places as such are arguably recognizable precisely because they represent efforts at some sort of articulated order. Cultural systems of land use, definitions of well-being and of status, as well as of interpersonal and intergenerational obligation (see for example, Shipton 1994, Shipton and Goheen 1992) – all this (and more) conditions investments in the social capital that constitute intimately localized relationships between individuals and groups promoting or constraining community initiative, responsibility and adaptability.


Without adequate power or money, no amount of ability or culturally influenced readiness to work on the making (and remaking) of place is likely to be effective. Thus, economic (i.e. ‘ordinary’) capital exists not only in terms of the diversity of existing enterprises and the material assets and infrastructure available for further development but also as the breadth and depth of poverty across the local population. Likewise, political capital is not only the form and quality of political leadership and the established rules of participation in the political process but at least also as the set of legal regulations concerning ownership and use of resources.


Arguably, social, human, and environmental capital internally characterize what the community is like, what is likely to become of it, and whether or not such future development is sustainable. By contrast, economic and political capital most explicitly connect a community to networks of other places (see Figure 1). However, economic and political outcomes of interactions between the locale, the region, the nation, and the world are not always determined from ‘above’ (Woolcock 1998; 2001; Becker and Murphy 2000). While political and economic structures channel human energies in generally organized ways, peculiar everyday local reality displays an ambiguous ‘language of human action’, full of indecisiveness, innuendo, accident, and strategy (Philo 1984). The strategic ambiguity of how local relationships are formed, maintained, and reformed lies at the heart of understanding investments in social capital.




All this still begs the question of precisely what is meant by the term ‘social capital’ (Adam and Roncevic 2003; Portes 1998; Schuller, Baron and Field 2000). Sometimes sharp theoretical differences can be found between perspectives focusing on participation in voluntary organizations (Putnam 1993), as embedded in less organizationally specifiable network ties (Burt 1997; 2001; Granovetter 1985; Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993), and as the even less static intersection of social structure and social action over time (Coleman 1988; 1990). Diversity of approaches does less to define the concept than to reflect real-world contexts of community actors accumulating and deploying social capital as enthusiasts, tacticians, or skeptics regarding social change (Edwards 2000).


Critiques of the ‘fungibility’ of the social capital notion therefore emphasize that most accounts are concerned with its supposed effects, centrally failing to explain how social capital is created (Hyden 2001). Far from deploying a ‘lean and mean’ definition when discussing grass-roots initiatives (Gittell and Vidal 1998), some believe the social capital concept of social capital has remained entirely too ‘plump and benevolent’ (Fine 2003). It enjoys politically liberal application across the social sciences, with considerable contextual selectivity (Evans 1996; Foley and Edwards 1999). Searching for more radical application of the concept, a distinction can be drawn between ‘bonding’ and ‘bridging’ forms of social capital (Fernandez and Nichols 2002; Norris 2004), suggesting that while groups may come together for collective action, they may compete with similar groups with which they otherwise could form more powerfully effective organizations.


We agree that placing emphasis on the need to attend to social capital analysis ‘gives renewed impetus to a romantic naive view of rural communities, where civic harmony and inclusion triumphs and there is little room for power struggles, exclusionary tactics by privileged groups, or ideological conflicts’ (Shortall 2004; see also Bebbington 1997; Falk and Kilpatrick 2000). However, we take exception to the suggestion that ‘the problems posed by area-based development do not represent questions for local partnerships to address, but rather ones that must be taken up by national governments’. We should be at least as cautious about waxing romantic concerning the virtuous nature of political leaders, electoral processes, and bureaucracies as we should be about an antiquated rural idyll. Especially regarding developing countries or those still emerging from Cold War institutional arrangements, there is considerable need to be concerned about ‘producing trust out of thin air and resentment’ (Jung 2003; Angelusi and Tardos 2001).



In part, such anxiety (and its probable antidote) exist because investments in social capital articulate local interests to those operating in extra-local theatres of action, thereby potentially leveraging place from space to community (see Figure 2). Undertaking one or another kind of maneuver (for purposes of survival, improved comfort, status increase, or even broader change in what it means to receive the entitlements of membership in the community) involves expenditures of social capital. Thus, local community can be thought of as a site of tactical maneuver in the interstices of larger contemporary social structures (Burt 2001).



For this reason, some analyses of social capital (see for example, Carroll 1992; Christofferson and Lawrence 2001; Lawrence and Titilola 1998; McNulty and Lawrence 1996; Zekeri, Wilkinson and Humphrey 1994) have responded to the imposition of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) by the center on the periphery since the 1980s. SAPs successfully slowed rural-to-urban migration and encouraged greater entrepreneurial activity in many less-developed regions, but also crippled millions by ending subsidies, privatizing protected industries, imposing unsupportable fees for necessary services, and furthering the progress of resource consolidation in the hands of the wealthy few that had been ongoing since before the end of the Imperial Period (Klopp 2000). Hope for ‘grass-roots’ solutions to persistent problems is especially relevant with today’s ‘war-on-terror’ discourses, enabling further degradation of institutional responsibilities for public services. Bwibo et al. (1994) writes about the African Medical and Research Foundation’s (AMREF) mobilization of Kibwezi (the community that concerns us here) to improve its nutritional health during drought. Woodhouse (1990) reviews the work of sustainable water use projects in Kibwezi. Hesseling (1996) more generally talks about participation of informal social networks in local environmental management. In such writings, a ‘community’ is presumed to exist which can respond to the changing visions governments and international donors have of whatever is supposed to constitute development.


Cynically, this amounts to a shift of accountability from political to civil society (Ribot 1999; Schroeder 1993), but even optimistically it highlights the signal failure of top-down approaches to development in the last half of the 20th century. Increasingly in Africa, indigenous non-governmental organizations (INGOs) mediate between local and non-local actors, tapping highly idiosyncratic social capital for development of particular places (Esman and Uphoff 1988; Edwards and Hulme 1992; Bebbington and Mitlin 1996). INGOs are dynamic components of civil society (age cadres, social clubs, church groups, voluntary associations, etc.), especially important in the light of Africa’s persistently suspect, inefficient political society (the executive and legislative structures of government, political parties, the judiciary, bureaucracies, etc. (Gupta 1999)).


Studies of how social capital stitches an African community together to weather and even encourage change face great expectations (Brown and Ashman 1996). For example, social capital analysis supposedly increases understanding of apparently random healthcare-seeking behaviors of poor households in Kinshasa. It might also improve access to modern treatment facilities and trained personnel by encouraging greater participation by the community’s network of traditional healers (Roy 2002). Or again, there is hope in post-apartheid South Africa that the collective investments of social capital by INGOs can assist such projects as agricultural cooperatives (Nel, Binns and Motteux 2001). Indeed, variations in the type and degree of social capital available to farmers in Burkina Faso are considered even more important than ensembles of natural resources and agricultural technologies for surviving ‘production shocks’ (Carter 1997). Similar examples can be found in examining INGO activities in Kenya (Ndegwa 1993; Zamberia 1996).



As suggested earlier, either as autonomous local force or as conduit for partnership with authorities made more accountable to community interests, we need to guard against accepting social capital as the standard of a ‘new moral authoritarianism’ (Ecclestone and Field 2003; McNulty and Lawrence 1996). For instance, an exploratory study of links between sexual health and social capital in a South African mining community found no consistent relationship between avoidance of behaviors associated with risk of HIV infection and membership of residents’ associations, participation in youth groups, or church attendance (Campbell, Williams and Gilgen 2002). Networks of social capital sometimes informed young people about preventative healthcare practices, but in other instances, familiarity and habitual interaction encouraged risky behaviors such as alcohol consumption and casual sexual activity. Likewise, Rutherford and Nyamuda (2000) report the collapse of an adult literacy center in rural Zimbabwe due to ‘the varied hierarchies and arrangements “in the margins” of development’, suggesting that the grass-roots, so often celebrated as a site of more authentic social change, is as likely as any other locale to be an arena of conflict. Merely assuming that considerable breadth and depth of social capital is good for a community is to be potentially blind to unexpected and often unwanted consequences (Adler and Kwon 2000).


It is worth listening to Halima, a Taita woman, who relocated to Kibwezi with her Luo husband in 1955. Ethnically, Kibwezi is primarily Akamba. Numbering about two million, the Akamba were historically important in efforts made by those on the coast to establish steady contact with the interior, i.e. the British originally headquartering their colonial ambitions in Machakos, the largest of the Akamba towns. Farming is better in the higher altitudes of Machakos District than in other Akamba areas, but proximity to Nairobi and assignment of large acreages to white landowners meant the native population was left crowded into only a small reserve. By 1930 only 5% of the area remained tree-covered, with fully three-quarters of the district suffering soil erosion (Tiffen and Mortimore 1992). Population pressure meant fragmentation of family farms into plots too small to be viable. Subsequent environmental recovery (Tiffen, Mortimore, and Gichuki 1994) came at the cost of culture change, including land consolidation and altered forms of household resource management (Murton 1999; Asamba and Thomas-Slayter 1995). Notably, significant numbers of small-scale Akamba peasant farmers (wananchi) relocated after Independence in 1963, out of Machakos District and south-east into the lowlands of Makueni District, where land is considerably less productive but nonetheless plentiful. Akamba ethnic predominance has telling effects. Now in her mid-sixties, Halima has seen the town change from a small stop on the railroad to the rapidly growing community it is today. Her family moved to Kibwezi before the land rush, in the hope of purchasing their own farm, and today Halima still owns 4 acres herself. Despite such long-term presence in the community and success at maintaining access to land, Halima believes that people like her who come to Kibwezi from other regions are ‘lost here to stay’. She says her Taita family considers her lost because she has been away from home for so long, even after her husband’s death. She stays in Kibwezi simply because there is nowhere else for her to go, her personal history of social capital accumulation there notwithstanding.


Writing about the uwezo concept in the Iringa area of southern Tanzania, Gregersen (2003) similarly notes that those who have the opportunities to utilize social capital can protect themselves from the environmentally degrading effects of increased population density on marginal lands, even as agricultural yields decline. De-peasantization does not follow the collapse of rural productive capacity for those who can maximize uwezo; instead, it is those poorest in social capital who must rely more on waged work. For Halima, social capital is insufficient as a barrier against privation, and in Iringa it actually contributes to greater stratification of the community. Similar warnings about the populist peril of social capital involve hardening definitions of citizenship in Botswana (Nyamnjoh 2002), formerly known for its culture of inclusion, and more aggressively in the Ivory Coast, now split by civil war along fault lines of those who do or do not possess what the government considers a sufficient sense of ‘Ivoirité’.


In search of a dialectic: Distinguishing investments in social capital from investments of social capital

Generally speaking, we need to be sensitive to the dialectic of social capital as a form of capital. Concerning the politics of intergenerational exchanges of social capital in rural Malawi, Weinreb (2000) wonders ‘how wide is the familial support network?’ In other words, social capital is not merely quantifiable (Cassidy 2001; Paxton 1999), even if we analytically allow for multiple sources, forms, and reasons for its deployment (Hyden 2001). Instead, it is a type of creative energy simultaneously flowing within networks of communal interaction and reinscribing the circuitry of those networks on changing landscapes of civil and political life. Building on the distinction between bonding and bridging forms of social capital, there is also a need to consider investments in as much as investments of social capital. Thus, ethnographic accounts from South Africa disaggregate networks of trust, collective action, and civic engagement (Haddad and Maluccio 2003; Jung 2003), to emphasize that social capital never exists in a state of equilibrium, neither permanently present nor permanently absent. In a neighborhood of Cape Town, creation of generalized feelings of trust can motivate continued support for a sense of community even after periods of collective mobilization have passed. Social capital thus has a tidal nature about it, with crests and troughs of significant effect on such matters as household welfare over time (Maluccio, Haddad and May 2000; Rothberg 2001). This requires a better theorization of what kinds of social connections generate sustained trust between members of a community that might eventually be catalyzed into some sort of activity (Sztompka 1999).


Thus, social capital is not just tied to achievement of particular objectives but is always of ‘contingent’ value in pursuit of social change (Burt 1997). Its dialectical nature galvanizes groups into pursuit of objectives, the achievement of which has the net effect of doing away with the very reasons for investments of social capital in the first place. Community consciousness describes a circle, requiring a new round of investment in social capital to reassert those networks of familiarity existing before changed circumstances created by collective action. Therefore, social capital exists not only as the ties that bind, but also in the ‘strength of weak ties’ (Granovetter 1973) – ‘We should develop a glue that is sticky enough to build common outlooks in times of need, but is not so sticky and cumbersome that it cements us into uniformity’ (Economist 2004). This is why social capital should not be identified with only immediately visible change agents in social movements. Investments in and of all forms of capital – social, human, ecological, political, and economic – need to be considered intergenerationally, freeing the idea of community from any spatially fixed context, existing as it does not only across multiple scales but also across multiple interacting temporalities. While particular investments of social capital seek more or less clearly describable forms of social change (the building of a school or clinic, the digging of irrigation canals, etc.), investments in social capital emphasize an only-ever implied future, deliberately maintaining this distance from focused objectives.


In this regard, ethnography is critical to understanding the potential roles of social capital in building, modifying, and sustaining community. Appreciating ways in which social capital is tied up with cultural capital (Bourdieu 1983; 1986; Castells 1997) is helpful in studying rural Africa. Cultural perspectives on health make sense of how, despite macroeconomic structural adjustments – which should otherwise have ruined many communities after the imposition of user fees for medical services – poor people are instead able to continue accessing the treatments they need (Aye, Champagne and Contandriopoulos 2002). This is because illness is seen as a collective problem, requiring a communal rather than merely personal response in securing treatment. A sick person cannot contribute to community life, so until he/she is restored to health the community is out of balance. Consequently, there are many examples in Africa of group payment of individual medical fees. In Kibwezi, a similar example involves village payment of individual transport costs for those traveling to the district’s distant headquarters to register for landownership or to enter court for litigation concerning land rights. This also strengthens networks of trust and mutual obligation promoting communal sustainability. Similarly, ‘shadow education’ in Kenya (Buchmann 2002) involves communal assistance of an adolescent’s school success and consequent development of human capital. Social capital can even become ‘symbolic’ capital, as was the case of the rhetoric and performance of ethnically Zulu ‘languages of defiance’ in industrial trade unionism before the collapse of apartheid in South Africa (Sitas 1997).



These discussions about the social capital concept bring us to the particular case we have been studying continuously since 1999: namely, that of a community-in-formation in Kibwezi, Kenya. A market town serving as regional center for a much larger rural area, Kibwezi (population 3000) presents such postmodern contrasts as being generally without electricity but increasingly full of cell phones. Likewise, it lies astride East Africa’s main highway and railway, but its ring road is crumbling tarmac ending in a three-foot drop to a dusty trail over lava boulders, and traveled more often by livestock and pedestrians than by motorized transport. In short, Kibwezi is an in-between place, neither developed nor undeveloped, neither modern nor traditional, but in transition to becoming a community. Communities, as such, take shape over time when long-term investments in social capital are undertaken more often and vigorously than are short-term investments (really, deployments) of social capital in search of significant moments of change. This has not yet happened in Kibwezi, given complex patterns of settlement, land use, rural poverty, and property tenure issues, which again emphasizes the geographic variability of how social capital is involved in the making of place out of space and community out of place.


Almost 70% of the Kenyan population earns its living directly from the one-fifth of the country that is arable, though more than 40% is held by 1% of households in farms averaging 1000 hectares in size (Government of Kenya 1994: 41). By 1990, the poorest one-fifth of the population earned 3% of GNP, the richest one-fifth 60%; consequently, increased food production has actually been accompanied by a decline in per capita food output. This is because areas of high agricultural potential produce export crops. Rates of land clearance and cultivation are therefore accelerating across low-potential zones, so it is easy to understand how peasants often unintentionally contribute to substantial environmental degradation (Darkoh 1989). One low-potential zone is Makueni District, the southernmost administrative area of the Akamba homeland (Rocheleau, Benjamin, and Diang’a 1995; Rocheleau et al. 1995). Incorporating Kibwezi Division and Kibwezi Town within it, Makueni qualifies as a ‘hardship’ district, ranking 64th out of Kenya’s 67 districts in terms of household income, educational achievement rates, general health trends, and food security. Nearly all farms in the area depend on the rainy season; however, the rains fail 75% of the time. Most of the population around Kibwezi has arrived only in the last 25 years, following land consolidation in neighboring Machakos District. About half the population of Kibwezi Division is younger than 16. Hygiene and health are severely compromised without running water or adequate sanitation. Also notable regionally are government efforts to protect major wildlife, with large territories attached to the Tsavo National Park removed from use by farmers. This includes the Chyulu Hills, the regional watershed.



Kibwezi has a complicated settlement history (Jacobsen, Lawrence, and Sutton 2004). Pastoralists and hunters were resident in the area as for centuries throughout the pre-Colonial Period. Nonetheless, in 1897 the British granted 64 km2 around Mbuinzau Hill to the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) in an agreement signed in South Africa. The PCEA was later allowed to sell the land without compensating the indigenes evicted from the area. The area was subsequently declared Trust Land, held inviolately by a new population settled by the British with the implementation of the 1902 Native Reserves Ordinance (NRO). The NRO forced removal of people from a large area stretching from the Tsavo River in the south to the Kiboko River in the north and from the Chyulu Hills in the west to the Athi River in the east. People were first shifted north-west into an area near Kiboko called Cyale, then allowed to colonize the Chyulu, and then moved east again onto and around Mbuinzau Hill, north of Kibwezi Town. The NRO also permitted whites to secure 88-year leases to Crown Lands, those areas taken from natives and controlled directly by the British administration. By 1915 all land in Kibwezi Division (with the exception of Mbuinzau and two other smaller areas of Trust Land around Cyale and Mikuyuni) was declared government property under the Crown Lands Ordinance (CLO). The CLO also increased lease periods to 999 years. Following World War I, 375 large private sugar, rubber, and sisal estates were given to white veterans in a lottery held in Nairobi. Needless to say, the prospects for establishment and maintenance of social networks in the Kibwezi area have been challenging for more than a century.


Due to their isolation and the region’s poor land quality, all of the white estates collapsed, except for the Dwa Estate, established in 1909 as a sisal plantation and granted a 947-year lease in 1962. At one point, Dwa controlled about 50,000 acres immediately east of Kibwezi Town, including 20,000 acres transferred to the company on the eve of Independence. Only about two-thirds of the current estate is in production, with 8500 acres remaing idle. Meanwhile, both the quantity and quality of East African sisal has fallen since replacement of natural fibers by synthetics on world markets. Further, Dwa has another plantation in Kilifi on Kenya’s coast, much less remote than Kibwezi. While 5000 people live on the estate, another 4000 live in a disputed border zone along its western edge, where Dwa claims an area covering nearly half of Kibwezi Town.


Shortly before Independence, efforts were made to relieve population pressure on Akamba farms in the area around Machakos Town (Murton 1999). However, since higher potential areas to the north were held by European ranchers and administratively excluded from the resettlement schemes, increasing numbers of peasants moved into Kibwezi Division where the best land was found in the Chyulu Hills. Population growth in the area achieved a rate of 8% annually by the 1980s, twice the national average before the impact of AIDS and some concerted efforts at family planning (Carnegie Quarterly 1987). However, in 1992, Machakos District was subdivided, with Kibwezi located in Makueni District, a new administrative region with few resources to look after its rapidly expanding population. This loss of political capital compounded the difficulties of people in the Kibwezi area organizing for collective action on such matters as secured access to basic public services.


Then, the Chyulu were attached to Tsavo West National Park, while part of Kitui District to the north was attached to Tsavo East (O’Leary 1984). The government’s efforts focused on protecting endangered wildlife (especially in the north when faced by Somali poachers). North-east of Kibwezi, a University of Nairobi agricultural research farm seized 16,000 acres of Kasayani and Matinga. The Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority (a commercial agriculture parastatal) evicted people from Kevanda. Military force was sometimes used, especially in the Chyulu, to burn down crops and houses and seize animals. In Kevanda, people were killed. Altogether, about 60,000 Akamba were evicted, some relocated to Masongaleni Resettlement Scheme (MRS) organized out of the failed white plantations and the eastern half of Dwa’s sold to the government at a profit. As official resettlement allotments have still not been adequately distributed, people have sought land elsewhere in Kibwezi Division (about 1100 km2).


By 2002 the total population of Makueni District was estimated at 800,000, having risen from 470,048 in 1979 (AMREF 1998); as many as 87,000 lived in Kibwezi Division, with nearly a quarter (21,000) found in the MRS 1. The rise in population has been dramatic, up by 64% since 1996 (Action Aid Kenya 1990; 1997); by 1993, the population of Kikumbulyu Location (including Kibwezi Town and areas to the north-northwest) was estimated at 28,890.



Relatively recent arrival emphasizes the difficulty of establishing bridging social capital for cooperative development of Kibwezi’s future (Freeman, Lawrence and Kiilu 2003). Some newcomers are not Akamba, and there is resentment that ethnic Gikuyu and Maasai were not always removed during the Chyulu clearances. Earlier, when white settlers at nearby Kwakyai abandoned their unproductive plantations in 1947, land was quickly settled by Akamba and some up-country Luos. Ethnic tension prompted the British District Officer to evict the Luos after their sugarcane was burned in 1949. The land was purchased by Dwa. Had the Africans bridged their differences, there might have been less opportunity for the whites to exploit the community. Still, local leaders forestalled violent eviction of Gikuyus from Kibwezi Town in 1997 (Action Aid Kenya 1997). Today, Kibwezi Town has Maasai, Taita, Swahili, Luhya, and other populations; additionally, it includes a small but historically important Muslim population (mostly Akamba but with international connections) in an otherwise Catholic and Protestant Christian area.


Shifting settlement patterns have increased availability of bonding social capital, given common experiences of eviction and forcible relocation, but its continued viability is also problematic. When the University of Nairobi farm was established, people in Kasayani East lost land, homes and livestock, while their Kasayani West neighbors were left undisturbed. Establishing meaningful connections between households in the MRS is also difficult since refugees were evicted not only from the Chyulu and Kasayani but also from Kalembani. Resettlement allotments were based on a ballot system, destroying social capital, since former neighbors rarely found themselves living together after being moved. Also, division of resettlement schemes into parcels assigned by ‘family’ has ignored variable household sizes. Division of parcels among inheritors of resettled family heads has exacerbated the land-hunger crisis, with smaller families maintaining relatively larger farms. Due to high prices per acre, only 200 landowners have successfully registered land claims in the MRS and most of these are absentee owners of large farms. Even within Kibwezi Town landownership is uncertain; overall, Makueni District officials claim that 70% of all land transactions are conducted without official Land Control Board involvement.


The contingent nature of social capital is further demonstrated by two other stories involving the Dwa Estate. Shortly before Independence, the British administration asked Dwa to dam the Kibwezi River at a place called Kivongoni. The Kibwezi is one of only four permanent rivers in the Division (others rely on seasonal floods) and it is the only one that is non-saline, but the river often submerges below the local volcanic topography. The most accessible course lies within the area covered by the Estate, and in some places there is enough water to support small populations of crocodiles and hippopotami, despite a semiarid landscape of highly acidic soil and meager vegetation.

Dwa eventually surrounded Kivongoni Dam with a second dam that was exclusively a company project (i.e. not contracted by the government) and now claims both dams as private property. Today, the adjacent MRS is at risk of collapsing as land quality is quite poor, especially compromised by lack of water. When a group of resettled peasants, the Masongaleni Community Organisation for Sustainable Development (MACOSUD), dug an 11 kilometer trench to lay pipes to draw water from Kivongoni Dam they were stopped at Dwa’s eastern border, with the Estate insisting on a conveyance fee to be paid for every liter pumped. Rank-and-file MACOSUD members cannot afford this, so the project failed. MACOSUD’s leadership retreated into archival research of regional land rights history to prepare a legal case against Dwa, but several years have since passed and the poor of Masongaleni cannot afford the likely court costs anyway. Consequently, some MACOSUD members have abandoned the group, expecting compensation from its leadership for their work on the project.


Meanwhile, several villages dispute Dwa’s current western border, a particularly bitter issue since in 1995 the Estate paid for a boundary survey and subsequently spent three days invading adjacent areas, clearing brushlands by fire. It also subjected a 4.5 kilometer line east and north of Kibwezi Town to extensive herbicide spraying, destroying crops when subsequent rains carried the high volume of chemical pollutants into farms. Peasants sought compensation of more than 5 million Kenya shillings (about $65,000 today) for losses on two dozen 24 homesteads, but no payment has been made because villagers cannot provide the court with title deeds for the properties affected. Refusing to capitulate, in early 2003, plans by the Ene Muthanga peasant group to enter Dwa by force were thwarted by estate security agents accompanied by local police. As with MACOSUD’s failure to access Kivongoni Dam, Ene Muthanga’s failure quickly led to accusations by some members that their chairman and two associates embezzled fees after promising land upon completion of the incursion. Investments of social capital again failed so spectacularly that consequent investments in social capital arguably have wasted much energy that instead could have been redirected towards more productive action. In neither case has there been much effort beyond that which bound group members together for collective action. That is, effort was not made to bridge differences of perspective about the issues at hand between one group organized to take action and other groups in the area so that strategy and tactics involved in planning and executing actions could be refined.



In short, Kibwezi is a community-in-formation. A powerful symbol of this being more than a place but less than a ‘community’ is the mango tree logo used by the Foundation Agency for Rural Development (FARD), which like MACOSUD is a Kibwezi-based INGO. When the heat of the equatorial summer is unbearable, people gather under the mango as it provides more and better shade than other trees. This is recognized as an opportunity for neighbors and friends to share concerns and formulate plans for collective effort at effecting changes they wish to make in the area. Yet how many people can fit under the shade of mango tree, and how many are willing to come together there for discussion and planning of collective action other than in seasons of necessity?


In Kibwezi, social capital is mainly built (a) through family connections with farm ownership, (b) through business and working environments, and (c) through participation in community organizations. Most peasants work on more than one farm: typically, one near Kibwezi and at least one other, necessitating frequent travel to help family members at other locations (in some instances, outside the District). Investigations near Kibwezi, of what Tiffen, Mortimore and Gichuki (1994: 52) call ‘circulatory migration’, revealed at least one absentee family member in 40% of all households (Howes 1997: 827). Often the other plots are larger, producing a wider variety of crops; so, as is the case elsewhere (Massey and Bassem 1992; Smart 1993), Kibwezi serves as an engine for the development of several other communities.


This obviously modifies the type and degree of social capital available to the INGO for implementation of their visions of social change in Kibwezi (Isika and Mbindyo 1991; Li 1999). While it is tempting to equate social capital with basic neighborliness, networks of reciprocal care can be far more nuanced, even involving temporary economic valuation of otherwise informal mutual assistance. The degree to which people can depend upon others without having to pay for assistance is closely connected to the strength of the bonds involved. This is impacted by the local importance of class, ethnicity, religion, and by local definitions of who ‘belongs’ to the community in terms of the settlement being relatively recent.


Also, while much everyday interaction between people is couched in economic terms, social capital can ‘not only promote but also constrain or derail economic goal-seeking’ (Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993: 1322; Granovetter 1985). In Kibwezi, this is an especially important dimension of future possibilities for developing a sense of community since so many people have arrived only comparatively recently. FARD’s efforts to focus local attention on issues of organic farming, nutritional health, HIV/AIDS awareness, and vocational training in traditional crafts presume sufficient awareness of a common cause. However, disparate backgrounds, that are continually revitalized by persistent family, ethnic, religious, commercial, and other ties to places sometimes far away, can strongly influence an individual’s sense of how much and what kinds of social capital should be invested in new enterprises. As Durkheim noted, in the development of community it matters ‘less to create new rules than to diversify pre-established rules in particular cases’ (1984 [1893]: 162). As accumulation of social interactions that can build networks of trust and cooperation, social capital is a resource that can be put to use simultaneously in a number of different situations and at a number of different scales (between families, within organizations, across regions, etc.) (Wall et al. 1998: 312–315).


Thus, past activeness and persistent symbolization of local solidarity are not as necessary as might be imagined for efforts to develop the local economy as an ‘action arena’ (Zekeri, Wilkinson and Humphrey 1994: 229; Wilkinson 1984; 1991). This is because social capital is manifested not only by the presence of networks of trust and shared visions of the future, but also by the product of those networks directing people to take action on particular issues. From being narrowly defined as localized resource, social capital can be reconceived as part of a broader contest over enforcement of and challenge to systems of social control. Implicit here is the possibility that social capital need not be productive only of stable conditions in a community (Coleman 1990: 320; Putnam 1993: 177), but ‘thickens’ or ‘thins’ as a result of its co-production in exchanges between civil societal actors and political societal actors (Fox 1995). Degree and type of social capital in a community cannot be simply read off from lists of interpersonal connections or individual possession of titles, awards, and the like. Instead, significant investments in and of social capital are more indicative of a group notable for shared attitudes, even if potentially very flexible with respect to membership in terms of economic, political, or cultural position (Bourdieu 1986).


To better understand interactions of Kibwezi’s sub-populations includes identifying self-proclaimed community spokespeople. Those with intersectoral relationships – for example, focused on both agricultural sustainability and developing educational infrastructure – are especially enabling for interaction between people with differing backgrounds (Brown and Ashman 1996). Kibwezi ‘bridge’ members include INGO directors, school headmasters and religious leaders, with whom preliminary workshops were conducted in July 2002, and again in June 2003 to facilitate conversations with more marginalized and minority populations. The results were intriguing; for instance, those present did not believe that Kibwezi has a stationary ‘center of town’. Instead, the central location of the community changes as the community changes through time, currently located at the matatu (bus) station, an interesting association considering most interactions in this area are focused on getting out of Kibwezi. An ethnically Gikuyu teacher went so far to suggest that there is no center in Kibwezi Town. Division of the town into quarters (i.e. the Muslim Quarter located downtown or the old Nairobi-Mombasa road to Mbuinzau where many teachers live) means that a person goes to different areas for different things and migrating families of particular ethnicities or religions tend to gravitate to areas already occupied by similar populations.


What in ecology would be termed a patchwork effect is created where these micro-communities intersect, these patches creating rough exterior boundaries to the community-in-formation we have been investigating. Kibwezi has not fitted with traditional definitions of community because it is actually many communities in one place tied to many different non-local spaces. When asked to draw a map of the area around and including Kibwezi Town, the only workshop participants who included physical features were those who were not from Kibwezi, indicating that people from town do not consciously associate with the environment around them. Much of Kibwezi’s population works in town but lives on the outskirts, making Kibwezi a more of a working place than a meeting place.


Thus, although an outsider can see social capital accumulating and organizational and communal structures forming, for local people there is not a singular community to which to contribute. Indeed, it is interesting to note the degree to which Kibwezi’s minority populations in particular have begun the process of social capital formation. Residents of the Muslim Quarter built the public school for everyone’s children to use, and they organized a harambee (a traditional Kenyan fundraiser, wherein the government provides matching funds to those raised by voluntary donation) for the community during our 2002 research stay. These people are the fewest in number but arguably are making the most tangible differences in Kibwezi.


The sorts of observations offered in even this initial examination of Kibwezi’s community-in-formation help explain, and might therefore foster greater support for, the ability of groups like FARD, MACOSUD, and others to appeal to multiple constituencies. Led by Westernized, educated, politically aware members of a younger generation, such INGOs have nonetheless been able to build connections with such very different populations as tradition-bound, less-educated women’s groups and recent immigrants to the Kibwezi area. That is, investments in relationships of trust between INGOs and the community depend on acknowledgement of participants in local development to insure the benefits of participation accrue directly to them. Typically, this involves getting participants to associate themselves with a particular community, rather than only as members of a society organized at a larger scale (regional or national). The appeal of community-based identity is supposedly based on the ‘smallness’ of the place guaranteeing easy identification of interdependent actors (McCay and Acheson 1987; Ostrom 1990).


Some hope that recognizing and accepting this interdependence will assist more sustainable management of environmental resources (Ostrom and Schlager 1996; Murphree 1999). However, the recent arrival of much of Kibwezi’s population complicates this ‘enchanting’ picture of a tightly knit community of environmental stewards (Agrawal and Gibson 1999). In January 2003, a new government came to power in Kenya, leading millions of impoverished peasants to hope for an end to the previous regime’s 25 years of corruption and oppression. An illiterate peasant was elected as parliamentary representative from Kibwezi, but even this dual investment of political and social capital – the elevation of one of the area’s own to a position of at least some institutional power – was not enough. The new parliamentarian promptly used his access to the media to incite impromptu resettlement of the Chyulu Hills, leading to the arrests of several hundred peasants who risked trespassing in the Tsavo National Park. Needless to say, the dynamic and multifaceted nature of the community demands careful tailoring of development plans to the particular needs of different people at different times (Berry 1989; 1993; Scoones 1996; Li 1999).


In this regard, INGOs play vital roles as negotiators with the State for improved access to resources (Lawrence and Mwanzia 2001). Thus, there is still much to be gained by emphasizing and working to enable grass-roots organizations in development of sustainable communities. The pressing need to do so highlights the notion that questions of whether or not levels of trust and cooperation are higher in culturally homogenous places misses the point. In an ever-more mobile reality of globalized economy, politics, environmental transformation, and cultural change, ties that bind may be considerably less important now than ties that bridge. In such countries as the United States, civil societal actors can count on closer connection to those of political society, though arguably it is increasingly difficult to determine precisely who generates the stimuli for change and who demonstrates the response to such prompting for action. By contrast, as Kibwezi struggles to emerge as a community, civil society operates with relative autonomy from control by political institutions borrowed from colonial oppressors and therefore poorly fit to contemporary circumstances. Rather than emulate this dysfunctional structure (Chabal and Daloz 1999), we should recognize that in such places as Kibwezi opportunity exists to encourage more careful investments in and of social capital for effective social change.


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1. Masongaleni Community Organisation for Sustainable Development (MACOSUD), interviews with the authors 2002–2003.



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