Bitter lessons we must learn from dam tragedy

Mourners gather around a mass grave where Patel Dam Tragedy victims were interred at Energy Estate in Solai, Subukia Nakuru county on May 16, 2018. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Patel’s dam waters swept 48 people – including toddlers – to their deaths just as bedtime beckoned. One of the goriest images was that of the corpse of a naked baby left atop debris that included uprooted trees.

The body spoke volumes about the innocent victims of Patel’s criminal and crude way of harvesting water as it was mixed with soil that resulted in a thick sludge that literally suffocated its victims.

Last Wednesday, we buried the victims after the usual funeral rites during which the faceless architects and merchants of death are admonished and the living warned that death is inevitable, and comes with God’s appointed time for each of us.

The Government was there literally, led by the President, his deputy and the mandarins of the Nakuru county government stewarded by Governor Lee Kinyanjui; their feet planted on the red carpet. The sorrow and raw anguish were palpable.

It began with the journey from the mortuary, where the wooden coffins the villagers and leaders had raised funds for were stacked in the back of police lorries - the same ones that ferry officers to operations and, on return, bloodied victims of their bullets or even just corpses from the scenes of other tragedies.

Seek forgiveness

But as you must have learnt elsewhere, the owner of the dam, Mansukh Patel - the man who, either in person or through the heirs of his vast financial and property empire, now stands accused, was nowhere to be seen.

Not that he was welcome anyway, because the stunned and hurt villagers may have used him to vent the anger churning in the pits of their stomachs.

Apart from the authority ‘delegated’ to his staff to seek forgiveness and to blame God for “too heavy rains", there is little to show he is remorseful. We don’t know what he is thinking, the amount of sleep he is getting or whether despite the cries all around, his appetite and buoyancy of human spirit are still intact.

I would be the last person to condemn him unheard, but then a little voice tells me that this was a case of impunity and negligence left to season for too long.

The dam is located on raised ground. It is but a pan with heaps of soil around it and a perimeter concrete slab on the side of the spillway. It had been leaking. It is one among six of this nature on the vast land owned by the salt-making family.

Whenever villagers parted at the end of a long day, we are told, they would joke about meeting the next morning - that is, if one of the Patel dams didn’t burst at night. In their midst, the dam represented death. It had in any case been made from a river that supplied residents downstream with water.

A lot of this same kind of selfishness is witnessed on the banks of the rivers along the Mau Forest; the rich just blockade the water with concrete and pump it to their crops, which are tended by poor employees. Only a fool would bite the finger that feeds him, and so the web of silence continues.

Snowy Nebraska

Now let us consider the case of a car. If you lend yours to a friend and he crashes it, he will face the law likely for negligence, but the compensation suit will be against you even if you were at the time walking barefoot in snowy Nebraska!

So why would Patel's managers, and not he himself, record statements? Why has he not been sought to explain why such a man-made tragedy was allowed to build up slowly?

In case you forgot, the guy who owned the collapsed Dandora building was dragged around by the police - maybe the only thing they did not do was pull his ears - to the extent that he committed suicide.

We want Patel alive so he will not only grapple with his conscience amid the wave of death and misery, but also so he can help us fathom what actually happened between him and Government officials to whom the cries of the Solai community went before the disaster.

The pain of ordinary Kenyans is that even though Patel deserves a slice of the innocent-till-proved-guilty pie, surely the wheels of justice need to be seen at least moving, if not grinding at full throttle.

We also need examples set for others who think they are, by proxy of good connections, above the law. The tragedy also should serve as a launching pad for audits of similar structures that represent disasters waiting to happen in our midst.

As we mourn the Solai 48 and comfort the survivors who have no one to turn to except their God, may the deafening cries of the innocent who were yanked away by death serve as a perpetual reminder that we let them down. That their pain and final throes of life have been forgotten.

And that we are merely waiting to re-enact our reactions when the next tragedy strikes through the hands of another rich Patel who will then stage a disappearing act until the storm moves to another person’s kraal.

Mr Tanui is Deputy Editorial Director and Managing Editor, The Standard