Durable Conversions: Property, Aspiration, and Inequality in Urban Northern Kenya

Hannah Elliott*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

57 Downloads (Pure)


In Isiolo, a northern Kenyan town earmarked for development as part of a large-scale infrastructure project, the value of land has increased dramatically. Local residents with insecure tenure at the town's edges were selling off plots at ever-rising prices. Yet the money generated was renowned for its rapid expenditure, leaving the holder with little to show for the sale. This article examines the discourse of “selling and building,” whereby residents aspired to discipline flighty money generated through land sale by converting it into durable investments. In particular, selling and building was seen as a means of strengthening individual property claims: By selling a little land, one could invest the money it yielded in the remainder, most often by building a “permanent” house. Yet “selling and building” was an individual, private property solution to the collective problem of insecure customary tenure and worked to gloss over and perpetuate inequalities among residents. The problems associated with the “money of plots” (pesa ya ploti), and struggles with building, attest to the complexity of property relations in urbanizing northern Kenya as historically collective and prospectively individual. Moreover, they illuminate residents' deep ambivalence about private property and the inequalities inherent to it.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEconomic Anthropology
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)112-124
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2022

Bibliographical note

Published online: 18. August 2021


  • Land
  • Property
  • Money
  • Aspiration
  • Inequality
  • Isiolo
  • Northern Kenya

Cite this