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Once a beauty of nature, Yala river is now a flowing graveyard

Police view a woman’s corpse at the bank of River Yala. [Duncan Ocholla, Standard]

A group of four women dip their buckets into the water and collect the precious liquid from River Yala as two others patiently wait their turn to rinse their clothes.

Despite the rhythmic sounds of the river as it snakes its way towards Lake Victoria, signaling the beauty of nature at its best, there is a sense of discomfort that is palpable among the women.

Another woman joins the group and wades into the river to collect what she presumes to be clean water because that section is in constant flow.

A few metres from where she dips her jerrican to collect water, a log shifts lightly, sending out ripples in the water.

“Dead body!” screams a woman standing on the banks of the river.

All dash from the water in apparent fear and regroup a few metres away to take a second look. Fortunately, it was a false alarm. What they had spotted was a log being carried away by the water.

For a person visiting the place for the first time, one can be puzzled by the degree of paranoia exhibited by the women but for one familiar with the dark stories associated with the river, the nervousness of the women is understandable.

Nicholas Okero Okite at River Yala in Gem Siaya county where dead bodies are normally dumped in Sucks. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

Once a treasure to behold due to its scenic beauty adorned by the breathtaking Ndanu Falls along its course, River Yala’s status has diminished in the recent past.

For many, it is no longer just a source of the fresh water that has served thousands of people since time immemorial.

Revelations of how rogues have turned the river into a dumping site for bodies now sends shivers down the spines of residents even as the mystery behind the rotting bodies continues to raise more questions than answers.

In the last three months, some 23 bodies have been retrieved from the river. Four were retrieved in the last one week even as fears that more bodies could still be rotting in some of its inaccessible areas continue to cause anxiety among residents.

But behind the darkness lies a rich history of River Yala that locals hope will not die.

In the past, save only for a few instances of accidental drowning and a few cases of suicide, River Yala was as a source of life. Residents say the water was not brown as it is today. Neither was it polluted.

Just what happened ?

That question is as puzzling as seeking to know what happened to the 23 people before they met their gruesome deaths. Who are they? How did they end up in River Yala?

Those are some of the questions that residents would be more than happy to get answers for.

Unfortunately for them — and for Kenyans — the police have not revealed much from their preliminary findings. On Thursday, police spokesman Bruno Shiosho said investigations were still underway.

“We do not want to preempt the investigations,” he told journalists at a press briefing in Yala.

However, with each passing day, residents’ apprehension of finding another body floating in the river is all too real. Their source of life, the river, has turned into a source of sorrow and agony. The state in which the bodies are found — most of them decomposed — only adds to their worry, given that a number of them have been using the contaminated water directly.

Yesterday, chief government pathologist Johansen Oduor confirmed that most of the bodies had been badly decomposed, with many of them already turning into skeletons.

But it has not always been like this.

Multiple interviews with residents established the rich history that the river has always had.

Joseph Ogada, 74, says River Yala got its name from a luo word ‘Yala’ which means ‘a hearing’ of a matter or issue involving two or more people.

In the past, a famous paramount chief, Odera Akang’o, would hold  meetings near the river where he would hear different matters and issues affecting his people before issuing a verdict.

A team of DNA experts at Yalla sub-county hospital mortuary in Siaya county after collecting samples from the bodies retrieved at River Yala. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

“This is how the river got its name,” said Ogada. “When any villager had an issue, it would be heard and solved at that location near the river. So, when European explorers visited Yala and its environs and heard stories about the river, they said the river should be Yala”.

Ogada is among the locals now puzzled by the distressing turn of events.

In the past, cases of bodies being found in the river were rare... until around 2013 when some surfaced. Authorities promptly declared these as suicide cases.

In one of the cases from 2013, on Christmas Eve, the body of a university lecturer was found floating in the river nine days after she went missing.

The death of Pamela Atieno, the wife of a top radiologist in western Kenya, was ruled a suicide.

In 2014, a man took his own life in Kakamega moments after he allegedly drowned his two daughters in the river.

Another case, reported in 2020 and involving a teacher was also ruled a suicide.

These would appear to be isolated cases. However, the recent turn of events — which has seen bodies with torture marks dumped in sacks surface in the water — has left locals shocked.

80-year-old Wilson Osore of Umiru village said finding bodies has become more common since August last year, when they started getting cases of bodies retrieved from the river. Some were found near the river, reduced to skeletons due to decomposition, as others remained trapped between rocks, thus prevent ing them from being carried further downstream.

“I have lived next to the river my entire life but I have never seen this kind of thing. We grew up swimming in this river, fetched water there for our domestic use. But since August, there is no week that we did get a information that a body has been discovered in the river,” said Osore.

According to him, none of the victims were area residents.

Osore told The Sunday Standard that initially, they were so afraid and thought someone was killing locals, but as bodies began to be claimed last week, they realised that they were not from the general area of Gem Sub-County.

“Village elders had given directives when this issue became rampant last year towards December that we check if any member of the community was missing. We are now living in fear because this is something that has never been witnessed before in our community. Not even my parents, who have lived in this village their entire life, witnessed something like this,” he said.

Numerous visitors

Now, police focus has shifted to the bodies being dumped in the river and at a bridge on the Kisumu Busia highway in the town. According to Osoro, River Yala and its banks have now become very busy, with numerous visitors trooping there every day. Many come out of curiosity to see the river of death.

“Since this year began, at least three bodies have been retrieved from the river,” said Osore.

Not too long ago, while he was in Yala town, a police vehicle was passing by headed towards the river.

“The officers asked us to follow them to the river, only to witness two bodies being retrieved from the water,” he said.

River Yala, one of the largest rivers feeding Lake Victoria, flows west for 219 kilometres to its mouth on the lake in Kisumu County.

John Ouda, 73, has memories of a childhood filled with trips to the pristine river where he and other children played and swam. He too said that at some point, several cases of suicide and drowning happened in the river but stopped. But recent cases baffle him, and many others, and not just in Yala and its environs.