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River Nzoia's islands of death

By Nathan Ochunge | October 16th 2020 at 02:00:00 GMT +0300

Wepa Island in river Nzoia at Sisokhe on October 7, 2020. Two family members have conflict over the Island. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Chimo and Wepe islands are half the size of a football pitch.

But the two islands, a mere 200 metres apart in River Nzoia, at the border of Kakamega and Bungoma counties, have brought more suffering to villagers nearby than blessings.

The two islands at Chimo village in Navakholo Constituency are a few metres from the scenic Mwikhupo Falls and are surrounded by deep waters teeming with catfish.

But the area is also a haven for crocodiles and snakes that feed on bodies of those that drown or are killed and thrown into the river.

Locals say most of these bodies are found floating by the water nearest to the two islands. Hundreds of bodies have been retrieved from the river over the last three decades.

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“Many bodies have been retrieved in the waters near these islands, including that of a police officer found late last year. Some are found wrapped in sacks and paper bags,” said Kochwa Senior Assistant Chief Josephat Makete.

According to locals, the two islands came into existence eight decades ago when flash floods from River Nzoia destroyed crops and submerged houses built on riparian land.

Two chunks of land, approximately a quarter acre each, emerged in the middle of the river.

The islands had no real use for the locals until early 2000s when they realised that the two were a source of catfish, had fertile soils and could provide pasture for their lives tock during dry seasons.

Sibling rivalry

When a resident whose parents owned the land from which the islands emerged planted crops on them and had a bumper harvest, his brother was not pleased. The latter demanded a share of the land on the two islands, sparking a bitter rivalry.

Occasionally there are flare-ups over the ownership of the two islands, threatening peace locally.

The government has since banned any form of tilling on the islands on grounds they are no man’s land.

“This matter is very emotive and we are afraid the two brothers will one day shed blood if the government does not take action to stop them from tilling the disputed islands. They should be stopped and trees planted there,” says John Namukhula, a resident.

But Pius Wafula, 70, and a neighbour to one of feuding brothers, says the government should consider bringing caterpillars to flatten the islands as a way of ending the feud.

“If the brothers are fighting for half- an acre, what will stop them from fighting in future when the trees mature? It is better to do away with the islands,” says Wafula.

Makete says the local administration has been called several times to solve disputes in the family.

“This is no man’s land, it is government property. No one should claim ownership of the two islands,” he says.

Youthful divers whose job is retrieving dead bodies from river Nzoia. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

But while brothers are fighting for land, others in the village have learnt to make a living from the waters.

A number of youth from Chimo village have become divers, making money from  retrieving bodies from the river.

“We are paid at least Sh50,000, a sheep and a cow for any body we retrieve from the water,” says Ronald Wechuli, who claims to have retrieved at least 60 corpses in the last 10 years.

Wechuli is the lead diver and has been training others in the profession.

One of those who have learned the skills under the guidance of Wechuli is Andrew Sifuna, 20, who first retrieved a body from the river when he was 16. He was swimming at Wepe Island and stumbled on a decomposing corpse.

In line with traditions locally, as soon as he was done retrieving the body, he tied it to a static object to keep it on the riverbank until its owners could be traced three days later. “In the last four years I have retrieved 14 bodies from Chimo and Wepe islands,” Sifuna says.

Killed upstream

Majority of the bodies retrieved at Chimo and Wepe are of people killed upstream.

“Some have been cut into pieces, wrapped in nylon paper bags or sacks, and then thrown into the water. I have retrieved 11 bodies in  the last three years,” says Levy Barasa, 18.

Only bodies of people known to the divers or those whose families make a request are retrieved.

“Even if we identify a body and we don’t know the person and no one has sent us information that their relative drowned, we don’t retrieve them. If they are swept away, that is not our problem,” says Mark Sifuna.

Animals are slaughtered at the place where a body is retrieved.

“A cock and sheep are slaughtered and roasted. Everyone present eats the meat and then steps on the animal’s rumen. We then paint ourselves with offal for cleansing. If the victim is a woman, we slaughter a hen,” Wechuli says.

The corpses are also whipped to prevent bad omen from befalling the divers.

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