Sandra Kipchumba stands on the edge of a rock in Cheploch gorge, Baringo County. A group of tourists are watching her from a distance, too scared to edge towards the slippery gorge, lest they fall in.
Beneath her is the deep Kerio River. She bites her lower lip, bends to look into the river, as if inspecting it. She is getting ready for the main action. She squints, rubs her feet on the slippery stones, and steadies herself.
She then moves backward. People in the crowd position their cameras; ready to shoot. Lunging forward, Kipchumba comes in speed, and without stopping, jumps in. She does a somersault on air. The crowd gasps. She falls in a huge plop, and does not spring up immediately. The crowd waits. In a few minutes, she is up. There is applause, and more clicks from phone cameras. She has just dived into a crocodile infested river, more than 30 metres from the top.
The depth of the river remains unknown, but Kipchumba says it is so deep that her feet have never touched the base even when she attempts to stand. She does her diving act almost daily, to the fascination of tourists who come to the gorge to witness armature divers take the risk of jumping into the river for a small fee – averagely Sh.500 per day. Kipchumba gets less. It is a business of men, and being the sole woman in the region, she feels she gets short-changed when payment is discussed.
“I am the only woman who dives in this gorge. I cannot negotiate upwards, because the men outnumber me,” she says, letting out a loud laugh. Her entry into diving happened as an unfortunate happenstance slightly one year ago.
A boy, around eight years old, was playing with his classmates along the banks when his food tin fell in.
He plunged into the deep waters in an attempt to save it, but was swallowed by the raging waters. Kipchumba who was selling in her mother’s stall nearby remembers seeing the boy’s head bobbing above the water, struggling to swim.
She screamed in horror, calling out for help as the boy was rapidly swept off her vicinity. In a few minutes, she had lost sight of him, but says the images of the boy drowning got engraved in her mind. “If I knew how to dive then, I would have saved that boy. People got to him too late,” she says. It was not the first child who had lost his life in one of the most dangerous rivers in Kerio, but Kipchumba says it was the first time she felt the nudge to do something about it.
From that moment, she resolved to learn how to dive. She had heard stories of men whose prowess in diving had grown, attracting attention beyond their small town in Kerio. She decided to approach them for lessons. “They said I am a joker, and diving is not something a woman should be doing,” she says, recalling the apprehension she got from everyone she talked to about joining a field no woman in her village had dared before.
She was persistent; mastering her swimming skills and begging the men to teach her how to dive. They bowed and started showing her what it takes to become a perfect diver. From the angling of the descent, knowing where to land, watching out for any ripples in water that could indicate crocodiles, and learning how to control every breath she takes under water – Kipchumba says mastering them has been a task.
Always, the knowledge that any wrong move could kill her instantly lingers. “You either live or die. Your whole body has to be in sync for you to survive,” she says.
She is eyeing the navy. Her dream job is working with the army, and is often enthusiastic when called upon in her region to rescue drowning victims or retrieve bodies from the depth of water bodies. “Saving people is why I started diving in the first place,” she says. Her challenge: the men she works with do not allow her.
Titus Kipsang’, Assistant Chairman Kerio Divers Association, says it is an insult for men to allow a woman to risk her life when they can step in. “We feel sorry for her, especially because she is the only woman diver around here. It is bad manners to let her lead an operation,” says Kipsang’.
Kipchumba sighs, flips her hands and says: “When will they ever give me a chance? When tourists and journalists come to tell the story of Kerio divers, I am never featured.”
She is referring to the growing media presence the group has been enjoying since the first video of their male team members went viral on social media. Ambrose Yator, the chairman of the group says cultural beliefs and lack of interest from women make it difficult to incorporate women into diving. He notes that he has been trying to convince other women to join Kipchumba but none is interested.
“It would be safer to send two or more women for a diving assignment, but not one,” he says. Miriam Jeikomen, Kipchumba’s mother says her daughter is a force that cannot be stopped. She recalls the many nights she sat with her and told her diving is not a decent thing for a woman who plans to get married. The 22-year-old continues to defy odds, saying she will not stop until she earns respect among other divers.Would you get plastic surgery?