History professor urges inquiry to take humanist approach in resolving land issues

A humanist approach should be taken in addressing land issues, Dr Kimani Nehusi told the tribunal investigating ancestral land matters on Monday, even as he urged that Africans be given lands approximate in size to what they would have “humanised” on the coast.

Nehusi, a University lecturer with an extensive background in African and Caribbean history, was treated as an expert witness when he appeared before the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) at the Lands and Surveys Commission.

Though he now resides in Pennsylvania, USA, Nehusi related that he has roots in Queenstown, on the Essequibo Coast.

The professor related that Africans would have acquired lands in Guyana in several ways, and went on to name lands that were “liberated” by runaway slaves who set up maroon settlements; lands that were given during the Napoleonic wars so that Africans could plant and feed themselves; and lands acquired during the village movement.

Professor Kimani Nehusi testifying before the Commission on Monday. (Commission of Inquiry photo)

He said that after slavery was abolished, the Europeans tried to take back some of these lands.

“It is important for us to recognise that people who are attached to land—any people, not only African people—would not easily leave that land. There is something that happened that made them leave that land and that something was unnatural, because people who subbed and put money in wheelbarrows to buy land and started farming that land, are not going to desert that land like that. And in the history of our country, we have never asked that kind of question, much less set out to answer it,” Nehusi stated.

Part of what made these lands ancestral, he explained, were the rituals that were transferred from Africa by those enslaved, such as burying the dead in the land, and burying placentas. He made reference to the saying, “meh nabel string bury deh” and related that the term denotes permanent attachment to land.

Part of the challenge when it comes to land ownership, Nehusi pointed out, was the differences in culture between how Europeans and Africans viewed land.

“According to European law, the person who has a transport was the owner of that land. African people… who were civilised for thousands of years before the Europeans had a different view of the land. In African culture, if you were occupying the land for that length of time, and you did all those things—bury your navel string, bury your fore parents—humanised that land; that land belonged to you,” he related.

“So we had two different cultures with two different approaches to land: In Europe, land was commodified and commercialised. In Africa, you did not individualise ownership of the land. Nobody could put up a fence and say “this is me piece.” Everybody formed the land on a communal basis… so what you had here is a clash of cultures,” Nehusi said.

Acknowledging that it will be impossible to satisfy everyone, Nehusi stated that the situation must be approached with “awareness and wisdom” and it is for this reason, he said, that he suggested portions of land be given to descendants of Africans.

“…Part of the solution should be giving African people land that is approximate in area to the land that they humanised on the coast. In my estimation, commissioners, this will minimise or remove completely any occasion for people saying, ‘Oh, that land there belongs to us and these people been there for 50 years and we can’t get them off…’ And if we are sensitive and intelligent in our intervention, we could then point to people like that and say, ‘Yes, we know this happened. It’s not those people fault, they genuinely believe that that land belong to them; they’ve been there for 50 years.’”

But in his advice that a humanist approach be taken, Nehusi also acknowledged that if Africans are afforded land based on the fact that they have “humanised it,” other groups must also be able to benefit. He said that in dealing with the land, “important, sensitive and decent questions” must be asked.

“…Let’s say a family has been living on a piece of land for the last 25 years. Through our work in this commission, we find out that another group of people really owns this land, how are you going to deal with that? To me, these are the kinds of questions that we need to face squarely and answer in a way that is humanistic,” he said.

“I am saying that if people been on this land for a long time and they’ve come to believe that that land is theirs, they have a right to that land. The commission, in my estimation, or we as judges, should make certain that we recognise that these people were humanising that land for the last ‘x’ number of years. That’s part of our argument for ancestral land. And if you’re going to say that African people have a right to ancestral land because they humanised it for ‘x’ number of years, you have to extend the same right and privilege to other people irrespective of who they are because they are also human beings,” Nehusi added.

The CoI’s mandate is to examine and make recommendations to resolve all the issues and uncertainties surrounding the individual joint or communal ownership of land acquired by freed Africans and other matters relative to land titling.

It is being chaired by Reverend George Chuck-a-Sang, with David James, Professor Rudolph James, Lennox Caleb, Berlinda Persaud, Carol Khan-James and Paulette Henry serving as commissioners.

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