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Meet ‘Sanjo’, the master lumberjack of Kericho

RIFT VALLEY
By Nikko Tanui | April 10th 2021
Johanna Too AKA Sanjo, the Kericho's master lumberjack.

Cutting down a huge tree can horribly go wrong if a lumberjack makes a miscalculation or wind sways the tree to the wrong direction.

And this is the risk Philemon Koech faced when he decided to cut down a 70-metre tall Sogoo tree in his compound.

On the left side of the tree was Koech’s house and on the right, a tea plantation and a power line.

Any slight mistake could have led to a disaster.

To further complicate the situation, the tree known locally as Sagawaita has thorns on the trunk and branches, which ruled out the option of one climbing to prune it.

But still, Koech, wanted the tree cut down because its branches were hanging precariously over a power line above his house, besides shading the bordering tea plantation.

“Any slight mistake and the tree could have fallen on the power line, smashed into my house or destroyed the bordering tea plantation belonging to my neighbour,” he said.

But Koech remembered that a few years ago, he had come across Johanna Too, popularly known by his nickname ‘Sanjo’, a man who knows how to cut down trees in such locations without causing any damage.

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As is his norm, after Sanjo strikes an agreement with a client, he sets out to work with his two younger assistants.

The first task of the assistants is to tie manila strings around rocks and throw them over any of the huge branches, which would mark the pruning of the tree from its top.

After the rock with the string goes over a branch and hits the ground, Sanjo twines it to sisal ropes he uses to pull up and weave two steel cables over the particular branch.

After pulling up the steel cables over the branch, Sanjo fastens the cable’s other end around the foot of a tree and uses a monkey wrench to tighten them.

The cable’s purpose is hold a branch in place after it is chopped off.

Sanjo hoists a power saw up a tree located next to a powerline.

Sanjo then picks up his power saw and ties a manila string to a triangular gadget which serves as accelerator and fastens the gadget around the power saw’s handle.

Sanjo then kick-starts the power saw and using another rope looped over the branch, he ties one end of the rope around the machine’s handle and assisted by his assistants who hold the other end of the rope, they hoist the power saw up the tree.

Once the power saw’s blade rests on the perfect spot, Sanjo pulls the manila string attached to the machine’s accelerator and the machine begins hiving off the branch literally on its own.

Once the branch is chopped off, the steel cables looped over it suspend the branch as Sanjo begins the work of gliding it down around the trunk of the tree by slowly adjusting the cables using monkey wrench.

Piece by piece, Sanjo and his assistants use the method until they finish the job of pruning and cutting the trunk piece by piece.

Sanjo says his main focus is to bring down trees located in precarious locations, including those too close to houses, power lines, hospitals, schools, roads among other places.

The proud husband to two wives and father of three children says he started cutting down trees way back in 1972 but it wasn’t until 2007 that he came with up with his unique way of felling trees in precarious locations without causing accidents or damaging property.

He says he also felt that sending someone to climb up a tree to chop off branches is a dangerous move.

“As one climbs up a tree and goes higher and higher, it even becomes a challenge to communicate with the person and the situation often leads to accidents,” Sanjo says.

Sanjo says the first thing he does when he gets to a tree that needs to be felled is to survey its surrounding and determine how to avoid accidents.

“I have to be careful and efficient because if we cause any damage to a property or cause an accident, it defeats the purpose why I was commissioned to cut down the tree," says Sanjo.

He adds that at times, he has to sit down with a tree owner to decide on the most suitable day and time to cut down a tree.

“If the tree is for instance near a school or a public office, we have to settle on a weekend or a public holiday. We also have to consult and reach an agreement with all the people concerned,” he says.

He says some of the tallest trees he has cut down piece by piece are over 100 metres and were in Ministry of Public Works plot and at Chesumot farm.

Sanjo says it takes hours to days depending on the size of a tree and the number of trees to be cut down.

“Blue gum trees which are up to 100 metres tall are the ones that seem to take a long time” he says.

His prices range from Sh5,000 to Sh50,000, depending on the size of the tree and the complications in its surrounding.

“I can come to an agreement with a client who does not have money to pay for my services so I get some firewood and timber from the felled tree,” he says.

When he is not cutting down trees, Sanjo repairs power saws, lawn mowers and other machines at his workshop in Kericho town.  

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