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Friends by day foes by night: The story of volatile sugar belt

By Abenea Ndago | June 26th 2016
Abenea Ndago


Kibigori Railway Station is a lonely place. No train passes through it as it used to. Those who remember say that then, Luo and Nandi traders shared the same trains. But for those who live in Muhoroni’s eastern borders, including Songhor, the best memory is how Uhuru rains of 1963 and 1964 brought them to the station.

“There was a small house near the station,” recalled Mzee Remjius Anditi of Songhor, now 76. “The government used it to resettle flood victims.”

That was in 1965. But at the turn of the 20th century, another upheaval had happened along Nyanza’s northern borders, one which defines Luo and Nandi politics every divisive election year. It was the building of the railway line.

Talking to this writer early last year, former Muhoroni MP Onyango Midika said, “My father was born in Magazine. The construction of the railway brought us this side.”

Magazine is several kilometres north of the former MP’s village in Kano. But it is these days in Nandi County’s Aldai Constituency. Conversely, Songhor – where the Nandi ‘Songhoriek’ fortune-tellers had been – finds itself in Kisumu’s Muhoroni Constituency.

Mzee Anditi said, “We were good friends with our neighbours. Cattle theft was minimal. In many cases the cattle was found and returned.”

He observed that the two communities overcame their painful histories for 27 full years, till 1992. Songhor was attacked that year, cattle were confiscated, cane fields and homes were torched, and victims fled to Chemelil Sugar Factory for months. Mzee Carrilus Odoro died in that war.

At the foot of Songhor Hills is Laibon’s Place. A small Nandi family lives amongst the Luo. The story runs to the 1970s, when the Laibon, after having overcome the painful story of colonial Talai banishment to Lambwe Valley in Homa Bay in the 1940s, sought the help of a prominent Luo politician, who then settled him near the hill after the Laibon helped him defeat his opponent. At the foot of that hill, the late Carrilus Odoro’s orphaned children lost their houses to arson on the night of June 22.

“They butchered him like an animal,” says a villager who sought anonymity, on the murder of Mr Philip Oduor Jonam that same night. “We were attacked at 8:40pm. The police arrived at 2:00am.”

The first cattle-related death in Songhor was a Mr Samuel Ochieng Andega. “They killed him on the night of September 3, 1992,” said his widow Salome.

Villagers blame politics. Diana Opondo recalls hundreds of attackers crossing the border on the night of January 9, 2015, burning down her cane, and wounding her farm manager. Mr Steven Anyanga was admitted to Kisumu’s Avenue Hospital.

Mzee Lucas Okoth Neto’s five houses went up in smoke. Over 100 acres of cane were burnt.

Abisaye Oselu says that the January 9 attack was triggered by a chang’aa den incident. A group of tractor drivers branched to drink. A vigilante entered and manhandled them. The drunkards drove across the border, shouting that one of them had been killed.

Mr Oselu affirms, “No one was killed.”

He is a past leader of the controversial vigilante formed after 2007 to deal with cattle theft. He accepts that the government has tried, but it needs to do more to curb the menace. Oselu recalls how inadequate government support led to excesses beginning 2010. Suspects were beaten up and forced to torch their own houses. They were banished from the village.

Retaliation came. On the morning of November 11, 2011 Mr Fredrick Ochieng Owino’s body was found butchered under a heap of sugarcane leaves. He is said to have headed the vigilante. Wine sachets and lit candles were found near his corpse.

On the midnight of Friday August 15, 2014, John Omondi Ombok (another vigilante member) heard his cattle boma being noisily disturbed.

“He opened the door and we saw many spotlights,” recalled his widow Benter Omondi. “I held and begged him not to go, but he overpowered me and went. They cut him to pieces.”

The most potent economic memory in Songhor was the period after the 1992 general election. A young Songhor teenager then, this writer saw cane-hauling tractors cross the border and deliver cane to surrounding factories. However, Songhor cane fields dried up in broad daylight. It was rumoured that Songhor was being punished for voting the wrong way in 1992. Parents had no school fees. Those years’ school drop-outs are some of today’s suspects.

Mzee Remjius Anditi says the government holds the key to coexistence in Songhor by ensuring that there is no administrative vacuum.

“When Fred Owino was killed,” he says, “his body lay here from 8:00am to 2:00pm. Rift Valley police said it was Nyanza’s case, Nyanza said it was Rift Valley’s.”

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