Nine years ago, Salome Matwakei, the widow of slain Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF) leader Wycliffe Matwakei, was regarded as an outcast in her village.Many on the sleepy slopes of Mt Elgon viewed her as a bad omen, one that was responsible for dozens of deaths caused by her husband during the period militia reigned terror in the region.
Even after the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) launched ‘Operation Okoa Maisha’ to hunt down her husband and his band of fighters, Ms Matwakei retained her outcast tag, this time blamed for what residents viewed as a brutal response by the Government.
She recalls the height of SLDF activities in the region, how a peaceful region turned into a war zone and a cemetery for hundreds.
Matwakei, a Form Two dropout, was just 30 years old when he launched his unsuccessful rebellion, encouraged by traditional spiritual leaders in the region.
“It started with Chepyuk Phase Three. After living there for 25 years, he was told to leave. That did not go down well with him and he started to fight back,” says his wife.
Matwakei did not take a militant stand against the Government until the 2005 Constitution referendum pitting supporters of a new set of laws and their banana symbol against those opposed to it under the orange banner.
Matwakei was a staunch supporter of the Orange camp, so much so that he took the fight with the banana side to a militant level, drawing the attention of the police.
“He started throwing oranges at a banana camp rally and that is how police officers started looking for him,” says Salome.
The mother of five was drawn into the fight. Married to Matwakei in 2000 at the age of 24, nobody would believe she had nothing to do with her husband's open revolt.
The two were marked.
“For years, I was on the run to escape arrest by security officers. I stayed with relatives and friends but that was not secure for me. The police were after me,” she recalls.
Salome found herself playing a mother's role in her husband's revolt. Her job was to cook for the militia, which she did, sometimes more than 10 times every night.
According to Salome, the ragtag army only started making an impact after receiving training from a former General Service Unit (GSU) officer who resigned from his job to join the group.
The training was done in the forest and the militia used caves as armouries for guns bought from Uganda using illegal 'taxes' imposed on villagers, and others stolen from armed security personnel in deadly ambushes.
“They forced locals to pay tax according to their income. Teachers were taxed Sh1,000 monthly,” she says.
It was at this time that the Government decided to deploy the military to fight the militia.
Sensing the end of the game was near, Salome tried to convince her husband to give up the fight.
“I tried to persuade him to surrender but he refused. He beat me up and injured my hand,” she says.
In 2008, the military was deployed to Mt Elgon and after a brutal three-month operation littered with tales of torture and extra-judicial killings, the game was over for Matwakei. It was almost over for Salome too, but for an intuitive decision to surrender a few months before her husband was killed.
She still remembers how her husband died: Four bullets - one in the abdomen, one in the chest and two in the head. The hunt for Matwakei was finally over, and so was the life of the man she had called husband for eight years.
But although she turned herself in, Salome had new challenges waiting.
After Matwakei's death, she took the bold step of talking to families affected by the SLDF atrocities and seeking forgiveness on behalf of her husband, pleading with them to accept her as one of their own.
In 2015, Maalim Mohammed, the Bungoma County Commissioner at the time, made her a peace ambassador.
She now runs the Cheptais Network, which brings together more than 300 widows of the unsuccessful rebellion to fight a new kind of battle in the volatile region: a battle for peace.
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