Nyando floods destroyed our lives, made us poor, homeless
| Jan 18th 2022 | 7 min read
After about 30 minutes’ drive on a murram road South of Ahero Town in Kisumu County, I park at Riat market, a small trading centre, and jump onto a boda boda.
One, two, three then many white Red Cross Society tents welcome me to Ogenya, Nyando Constituency. Here several families live in camps after floods struck in the dead of night and pushed them out of their homes more than two years ago.
As I move further inside, another feature, almost in every homestead, is of mud houses supported by frames whose bottoms have been washed by floods. Nobody occupies the houses.
It is well past 1pm, three days after Christmas Day in 2021. It is fairly hot.
Three women sit under a mango tree, preparing vegetables. One of them is Lucia Atieno Ajwang’, born in 1945, and who has been displaced since 2019. She is the oldest of the women I find here.
All are eager to tell their experience with flooding to anyone who cares to listen, in the hope that word gets to “serikali”. Ajwang’ tells me the worst that happened to her while there.
She had been in the camp for barely nine months when her son visited. “He came with his wife and child to see me in the camp. The son was a bit unwell. The child’s condition deteriorated, and before they could return to Nairobi, he died,” Ajwang’ says, face downcast.
She takes a long, silent pause, deep sigh, then continues: “Death struck at the wrong time and place. After snatching my grandchild, we did not give him a decent send-off. And now his body lies in someone’s compound.”
She could not bury at the camp, neither could she return to her water-logged home. Burying him at a cemetery or cremation were not options she could even think of.
“People keep the departed close by burying them where the graves can be seen,” she says.
At the time, the government had also banned prolonged burial ceremonies because of Covid-19.
“I asked someone to give me space in their compound to bury my grandson. We buried him there, then my son returned to Nairobi empty handed,” Ajwang’ says, face cast down, as she points to a home not so far from the camp, where the remains of her grandson rest.
“But what if they had been denied the space they needed to bury the child,” I ask the other camp dwellers. The community here speaks of identifying “no-man’s lands” and burying on such. It can be on the roadside, or near a stream… any unclaimed raised ground. That is what many say has been happening.
Seated with Ajwang’ under the mango tree is Linet Atieno, whose father-in-law was buried in someone else’s compound, because their home was inaccessible. The grave is in someone’s compound that has only one house and a make-shift bathroom. There was no ceremony for this burial either. Just the basics.
Of the tents I sample in the camp that has about 30 families, Ajwang’s is the least furnished. The widow lives with two children in the 10 by 15-metre tent. She has a three-seater and two-seater “skeletons” (wooden frames without cushions), a small table, some soot-dirtied sufurias, clothes and a few other belongings.
Ajwang’ cooks outside the tent, on a three-stone fireplace, using firewood. At night, she uses a tin kerosene lamp. It is the most affordable, but also risky to have as it can easily cause fire. They sleep as early as possible to save on the fuel.
“Apart from the Sh2,000 government stipend I have no other income. Before the disaster, we grew sweet potatoes, maize, millet and cassava. The water destroyed the crops and killed our livestock. Now I wait for well-wishers and government,” she says.
Ajwang’ has suffered not once, not twice. She was in her youth when a back-flow in Lake Victoria displaced people there between 1961 and 1964. “We called it kodh ouru (freedom rain) as it came with Kenya’s founding president,” she says.
President Jomo Kenyatta then ordered that they be moved to Kibigori, not too far from the village. Area MP Jared Okello says the phenomenon was seen between 1961 and 1963. “The government moved people to the schemes, around Muhoroni, but many returned to their land after water receded,” he says.
“Even the El Nino in the ‘90s did not displace us. Only God knows why He is doing this to us now,” says Ajwang’. They continue to pray.
Since the flooding in 2019, Ajwang’ has lived in two camps, the other one, Gogni, not too far from where she is now.
She says inside the tents it is cold at night and very hot during the day. Many people who have now gathered here concur.
It was some time in 2019 when, while everyone was fast asleep, villagers were woken up by flooding in the dead of night. River Nyando had burst its banks following heavy rains in the Rift Valley. The Lake Victoria, which “receives” the Nyando waters, was also “flowing backwards” into homes.
Ajwang’ found herself wet, suddenly. Outside villagers were screaming “oyuor (disaster…let’s pool!)”. Priority was saving human life. She was too frail to carry anything.
Victims lost livestock, furniture, stored grain, documents, and all they had acquired. “Sheep, goats and hens were floating on water for the next few days,” says Atieno.
They camped at schools and churches before settling in the camps.
Even as I interview Ajwang’, there is pressure from the now small crowd gathered under the mango tree. They ask me not to leave without giving the old woman “something” to buy her two granddaughters food.
Rose Atieno, a mother of three at the camp, says Ajwang’ struggles to get food. “Kama uko na kitu usisahau huyu mama please. (If you have some money, please share with this woman (Ajwang’); She has not had any meal since morning,” says Rose.
Barack Onyango, a Free Pentecost priest and fisherman, and who finds us in the camp, says the woman needs help. “Make sure you leave her with something for dinner today,” he says after retelling Ajwang’s story, not aware that she had narrated it to me.
I later oblige, but first ask why, at her age, she would be taking care of such young children. “Their mother, my last daughter, left to look for employment in Nairobi. It is over a year now. She has never returned,” Ajwang’ says.
The children, aged five and seven, have no documents. “All that was swept by flood water,” says Ajwang’.
The older one’s right hand was affected by polio. The younger one has a runny nose. She is not on medication. The children do not go to school, despite a government primary school not being too far from the camp. Ajwang’ mentions lack of money to buy books, uniforms and several other requirements. For her, every little income goes to the very basic need; food.
Ajwang’ herself did not go to school. The most learned of her three children is a Standard Eight dropout. Her lastborn dropped out in Standard Five.
Despite experts attributing the recent unpredictable rain patterns, drought and flooding of lakes and rivers to climate change, Ajwang’ thinks it is God’s will that they suffer, but wonders why.
She motions the many abandoned uninhabitable homes and houses not too far from the camps.
Ajwang’ says her hands are now tied and that she is being forced into poverty by the flooding.
“I can’t farm. I do not have a house to call my own. This catastrophe has stripped me naked,” she says, adding: “If I had money, I would buy dry maize and resell near here, because I am ailing and cannot do very involving work.”
Mr Okello says women have borne the brunt of the flooding because their livelihoods were messed. Most fishermen did not quit the trade.
“Their best allies have been Red Cross, the government, Unicef and individuals. They have been given food and non-food aid such as blankets, sanitary towels, sufurias, and mattresses,” Okello says.
For now, construction of dykes at the point where River Nyando water spills to the villages is at 70 per cent.
“The flooding in Nyando is caused by rainfall up in the Rift Valley. The dykes are only a short-term measure. When the Koru-Soin Dam is finally constructed, such suffering will be a thing of the past,” Okello said on the telephone as he headed to the affected area to distribute some two tonnes of food aid from the government.
According to Meryne Warah, an environmentalist and GreenFaith International Network coordinator in Africa, the social impacts of such catastrophe may include mental health issues.
“It is traumatising to know you cannot grow economically because of the confinement at the camp, yet your home is within reach. These women have to beg for even the basics, because they do not have the money. It makes them vulnerable to abusers,” says Ms Warah.
The writing of this story was enabled by WAN-IFRA’s Social Impact Reporting Initiative (SIRI). The views expressed in this story are the writer’s research and observation.
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