The water pan sits calm and concealed behind shrubs in Ganze’s Tangalaweni village, Kilifi County.
School going children hurry along the silent path without a glance towards the abandoned water body. Save for a herd of cows lapping on the waters, the bank is devoid of humans.
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“Everybody is scared of those waters. There is a demon inside that sucks you when you get close,” says Judith Uchi. She sighs and sobs silently into her handkerchief when she starts talking about what residents call “beseni ya Mtinda”, the water pan that World Vision dug 10 years ago.
Uchi calls it a “killer dam” that swallowed her son Ibrahim Kenga. He was 13. He died a few weeks before sitting his KCPE examinations last year. On that day, he ate lunch, had a shower and took a selfie using his mother’s phone before stepping out of the house, promising to return by evening.
A few hours later, a neighbour’s child arrived at Uchi’s doorstep. He was panting and there was urgency in his voice.
“He said Ibrahim had slipped and fallen in the water and they could not pull him out,” she says. She ran barefoot to the banks. She could see ripples forming on the surface of the water, but there was no sign of life apart from the small crowd that was slowly forming by the banks.
When the first team of local divers arrived about an hour later, the slurping slaps from the pan had been replaced by silence and occasional splashes when people threw stones to see if Ibrahim would respond.
It took four hours for the divers to retrieve his body.
“His whole body was covered in mud. I could not look. I fell on my knees and wept,” says Musa Karisa, Ibrahim’s father.
They describe what followed as torture. They tried reaching out to community leaders and World Vision to fence the pan. They even went to the owner of the land where the pan was dug, but all of them traded blame.
“Nobody listened. They did not care that we had lost a child. We did not even get a message of condolence from World Vision who brought this water here and made us prisoners,” says Karisa.
The NGO says the pan was excavated through a food relief project to provide water for households and livestock use.
“Upon its completion, the water pan was handed to the community through a local relief committee that was to manage it,” says Barzil Mwakulomba, World Vision country food assistance manager.
Mr Mwakulomba says the committee was to maintain the water pan through fencing, managing traffic and guarding against siltation.
Community members, however, say the NGO dug the pan and left. “It is their property. You cannot touch it because you will be arrested. The pan is in an open place and if you are new here and it is dark, you will drown and die,” says Karisa.
Ganze OCPD Patrick Ngeiywa says questions about safety at the pan always come up. He told Sunday Standard that it stems from a family feud over the land where the pan was dug, and that has always impeded any effort to put a fence around the dam.
He however says that when Kilifi is dry, as it often is, he sees people walking to the pan with their animals, but they keep a safe distance.
“This water is the devil. We wish the people who dug it would come and drain it so that we exorcise what is beneath the water,” says Abdalla.
The Ministry of Water and Irrigation, through their Practice Manual for Small Dams, Pans and Other Water Conservation Structures in Kenya, indicate that organisations setting up water points must provide drawing facilities such as water kiosks so that domestic users can obtain the commodity without having to enter the reservoir area.
Timothy Toya, one of the divers who retrieved Ibrahim’s body, says the problem with the pan is siltation. “It is so muddy that if you go down, you will not bounce up. You will get stuck even if you are a professional swimmer,” he says. When they are retrieving bodies, they only step in with one foot, keeping the other suspended.
“When we get calls about the pan, we are always sure it is death. Nobody has ever come out of it alive,” he says.
Residents say since it was dug, it has claimed more than 10 lives, two of them this year.
Tatu Abdalla’s 16 year old son Mustapha Kadenge died two days before schools reopened for first term. He was a Form Two student at Ganze Boys High School. It was drought season, and Mustapha went to the pan to wash his school uniform.
He left with a promise not to take long at the water point, as he needed to prepare for school. After several hours, the family got suspicious and went to search for him. They found his washed uniforms drying on the rocks. His slippers were a few metres from the water, but he was gone.
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“I did not need anyone to tell me that the devil in beseni had claimed him,” says Abdalla, referring to the pan. Nobody had seen him fall in because the pan is rarely used, but the divers suspect he might have slid in, as the edges are very steep. They found his body buried beneath the silt in the pan.