Origins of the sub-clan land holding
Acquisition of land in the earliest Kikuyu settlements was based on the rights of first use, defined originally by the exercise of hunting and trapping rights. As described by a Kikuyu elder in the late 1920s:In those days we did not cultivate so much as we do now. A man trapped animals and his hunting area became his Ngundu [land claim]. His descendants became his clan. Each father had his own hunting area where he set his traps and he would show the boundaries of it to his sons… In the course of time by a natural process the Estate breaks up and each branch of the family gets control of its own Estate… [WE] still recognize the eldest son of the eldest branch as the head of the family.
Hunting rights were strengthened by forest clearance and cultivation. The basic land unit was known as the sub-clan holding (gìthaka) or estate. (Technically, as it refers to uncleared bushland, its basis is in hunting rather than in cultivating traditions.) It was reported in the late 1920)s that most sub-clan holdings ranged in size from about 20 ha to nearly 2,500 ha although they generally were between 80 and 120 ha in size.
Tenancy and the sub-clan holding
Cultivation rights of the sub-clan holding belonged to families with lineage rights, and were held in perpetuity. People without lineage rights could obtain temporary rights of cultivation to sub-clan lands through redeemable sales, from land lending and tenancy .
Land lending to people outside the sub-clan took several forms. A muhoi or tenant, for instance, could be lent land for cultivation, usually on the basis of friendship. Subject to the approval of the sub-clan leader (muramati), these rights could be granted. In certain circumstances, the rights of a tenant could be passed from generation to generation. Although no rent per se featured in this type of tenancy agreement, occasional gifts were expected.
The cultivation of the sub-clan holding was the clearest means of retaining land tenure rights. In the event that lineage right holders were not able to fully cultivate the sub-clan holding, temporary tenants would be sought to clear and cultivate underutilized land. As land became scarcer and labor more abundant, these tenancy arrangements became less common and were often cancelled. Although in principle a temporary tenant still held lineage rights to his own sub-clan land, in practice it was very difficult to return and regain cultivation rights. Occasionally, a temporary tenant might become a resident tenant (muthami) who was allowed the right to cultivate and to build a homestead.
So within the system of traditional Kikuyu land tenure, there were precedents for tenancy and land lending arrangements. Resident tenancy allowed the building of a homestead, while land lending expressly prohibited it. Land lending thus encouraged the formation of a class of non-resident farm labourers, but it was dependent in part on there being holdings which could not be successfully cultivated by the right holder. Resident tenancy and land lending arrangements could be inherited. Rights of use were distributed to male descendants of the first owner(today female descendants also), while a non-distributed right of control was held by the sons (or daughters) of the senior branch of the sub-clan or family who was its trustee (or muramati).