The agony of Lamu widows: Abandoned by State and their families

Lucy Wathumu. Her husband was among scores of villagers butchered by assailants in Mpeketoni, Lamu County. [Maarufu Mohamed, Standard]

Tears flow freely down the face of Jane Wambui as she narrates how her husband was killed in 2014.

Wambui’s husband, Jeremiah Kimondo, was among scores of villagers butchered by assailants in Mpeketoni, Lamu County, on June 16, 2014.

The rampage by Al Shabaab or its offshoot Jaysh al-Ayman left more than 48 people dead.

“Those animals killed my husband when our boy was four-months-old. I never imagined I would raise my son through begging,” said Wambui who was widowed at the age of 20.

She felt desolate after militants slew her husband, the sole breadwinner. But this was nothing compared to what followed later.

“After we buried him, I was abandoned by my in-laws,” said Wambui now 27. She tried her hand at small businesses, including hawking porridge in the streets of Mpeketoni.

“I tried selling clothes but after the outbreak of Covid-19 it collapsed because I had to spend the capital during the lockdowns,” said Wambui. The seed money for the business was part of the Sh170,000 the state gave her after the death of their husband.

All the widows whose husbands were killed in 2014 received the same amount.

Wambui’s story mirror’s that of many women in Mpeketoni, Witu, Pandanguo, Salama, Juhudi and Hindi where several young widows are struggling to eke a living.

The Sunday Standard visited these villages and listened to stories of the struggle of the widows left desolate to face an uncertain future. They are young widows, abandoned by the state and their families, and quietly suffering as they struggle to raise their children.

Most blame the state for not fulfilling its cardinal duty - protecting its citizens and property. Others blame their neighbours whom they believe turned against them because of land. 

At Salama and Juhudi villages, where 11 men were killed a fortnight ago we met Ann Njoki. Ms Njoki’s husband, Samuel Gacurai, 60, was among the 11 men killed on June 24.

Njoki’s eyes are puffy and swollen from two weeks of mourning, but she agreed to share her story. Her recollection of the events of June 24 reveal happenings strikingly similar to what happened in Mpeketoni in 2014 and 2015.

“A man known to us knocked at our door and called my husband by name. He opened the door only to be met by over 30 gunmen,” said Njoki.

Lucy Wathumu with Genesis for Human Rights Commission Programme Director Caleb Ng’wena at the site where her husband was killed and house torched. [Maarufu Mohamed, Standard]

Her husband met a painful death, and sadly his young son who witnessed the killing, will forever live with the trauma.

“They tied his hands to the back and slit his throat as our young boy watched,” said Njoki wiping her face with her lesso that was soaked with tears.

Njoki and her sister, Lucy Wathimu, say that the attacks in Juhudi and Salama bear similarities to the carnage that took place in Mpeketoni in 2014 and 2015.

One, the victims were bound with ropes before their throats were slit. This was the case with the 68 people killed in Mpeketoni and the 11 killed in Juhudi and Salama.

The victims were also males lured from their houses by someone known to them.

In Mpeketoni, those widowed by the 2014 and 2015 terror attacks formed a merry-go-round dubbed “Good New Start”.

Nights of terror

Lucy Ndung’u, who was widowed at 23, and is the treasurer of the chama, vividly recalls the events of June 16, 2014, when assailants descended on the sleepy homesteads of Mpeketoni.

She said the victims were either beheaded with swords or sprayed with bullets at close range. Her husband, Francis Kamande, was beheaded.

The couple was barely six years into their marriage and had two children. But at the age of 23, Ms. Ndung’u became a widow.

“Life has been hell. After burying my husband, the in-laws refused to recognise me as their daughter-in-law,” said Ms Ndu’ngu.

She now sells groceries in Juakali, Mpeketoni, to fend for her children, a son aged 14, and daughter 12

“Some young widows decided to venture into prostitution. Others became beggars depending on well-wishers. Very few re-married,” said Ndung’u.

Those not lucky to re-marry came together to form Good New Start. They accepted the reality of their lives and hoped to pull together out of their miseries.

“With such structures, we hoped to contribute some capital or secure a loan to start a joint business or even get tenders,” said Ndung’u.

Widows Ann Mwangi, Esther Wamboi, Jane Wamboi, and Lucy Ndungu with Genesis for Human Rights Commission Programme Director Caleb Ng’wena at the Mpeketoni attack memorial site. [Maarufu Mohamed, Standard]

She added: “Most of the people we went to seek help from saw us as objects of sex. Some of us did not want to go that way, and the group died.”

Ndung’u said that the elderly widows were lucky because they inherited their husbands’ farms.

Ann Mwangi, an elderly widow whose husband was killed in 2014, says they organised a demonstration to push the state to compensate them.

“It was the state’s responsibility to protect us and our property. It failed, and it should have compensated us,” said Ms Mwangi

Mwangi’s husband, John Mwangi was beheaded. She sells farm produce at Mpeketoni Market.

“I inherited land, but without capital, it is still useless because no one wants to buy and live in that place,” said Mwangi who said she was left with three kids to fend for. 

The Mpeketoni widows received a total of Sh170,000 each from the County and National governments.

The widows whose husbands were killed in the recent attacks in Salama and Juhudi received Sh75,000 from the county government.

Juhudi and Salama widows sorrow runs deep not just because they lost their husbands but also because of fear of losing their land.

At Juhudi Primary School, we found 207 families, mostly, women and children running from their homes fearing fresh attacks.

According to the school’s head teacher, Amos Kingangi, most of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are widows and their children whose houses were burnt down.

He said the swelling number of IDPs posed a great challenge to the learners and teachers who have now been forced to adjust the school timetable to accommodate them.

“All the IDPs sleep here with their children, some are pupils. We have adjusted the school timetable to accommodate the IDPs,” said Kangangi.

Waterborne diseases

He said some of the IDPs chew khat and smoke cigarettes, while others urinate in the play grounds sparking fears of waterborne diseases.

“I took five pupils to Kibaoni Dispensary for a checkup after complaining of stomach ache,” he said.

Ann Mwangi. She sells farm produce at Mpeketoni Market. [Maarufu Mohamed, Standard]

Human rights activists led by Genesis for Human Rights Commission Programme Director Caleb Ng’wena asked the state to resettle the IDPS and accord them protection.

“We saw reports of millions of shilling contributed to help the Mpeketoni widows. Where did that money go,” said Ng’wena who toured Juhudi Primary to assess the situation.

At Juhudi since the attacks took place two weeks ago, no senior official from the Ministry of Internal Security has visited the families to assure them of security.

“Interior CS Kithure Kindiki should assure the people of Lamu West of their security. The claims that these killings are a result of land rows should be investigated conclusively,” said Ng’wena.

Predictably, police report blames the Somali-based Al Shabaab or its offshoot Jaysh al-Ayman for the attacks in Lamu West.

But locals and a section of politicians have dismissed the Al Shabaab angle and linked the attacks to the land disputes between ranchers and settlers.

On July 2014, assailants descended on Hindi and tied 24 victims’ hands to their back before slitting their throats.

Meanwhile, security analysts believe the attacks are acts of an unholy alliance between Al Shabaab returnees and locals out to settle scores.

“After my husband was killed and we were evicted two weeks ago, herders invaded our maize plantation and grazed their cattle,” said Njoki.

A short distance from Mpeketoni market we meet Esther Wambui, a young woman selling porridge, who tells us she has only sold five cups since daybreak.

Wambui is yet another widow whose life has been extremely tested and who uses proceeds from her porridge business to take care of her nine children.

“What can I say? It is difficult to lose a husband in such a manner especially when all the children are still young,” she tells us reluctantly.

On this day, they gathered at Muungano grounds Mpeketoni whether the memorial stone was etched with the names of all the 48 men killed in 2014.

In a past interview, former Lamu West MP Julius Ndegwa said a planned funds drive to establish a kitty for the widows was called off following the April 2, 2015 Garissa University terror attack.

“The government was willing to compensate businessmen but the debate now is if we compensate Mpeketoni then the same must be done for all those affected by terror attacks,” Mr Ndegwa said.

We could not reach Ndegwa for comment, but in the past interview he said the plan was to set up funds to raise Sh20 million so that the widows can each get Sh200,000 to start a business.