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Why Kerio Valley is cattle thieves' playground

SPECIAL REPORTS
By Michael Ollinga | February 28th 2017
Residents disperse during Deputy President William Ruto's security meeting after gunshots from suspected bandits were heard at Bartabwa in Baringo North sub-county on February 24, 2017.PHOTO: KIPSANG JOSEPH

The eye-catching scenery along the Iten-Kapsowar-Tot road is proof that Kerio Valley is one of the most beautiful landmarks of the Great Rift Valley.

Sadly, this is merely a facade, masking the pain that communities in Elgeyo Marakwet county suffer at the hands of ruthless cattle rustlers.

It is midday and residents of Biyaa village in Chemwonyo location, less than five kilometres from Chesongoch centre, are listening to the speech of a political aspirant along the road. The meeting is suddenly interrupted and everyone scampers for safety. Women and children hide behind rocks as a few daring men peep down the valley where the gunshots are coming from.

Jacob Zuma Kipsang, a resident, explains that the dust we see rising in the dry fields in Kombases village is stirred up by livestock being whisked away by the trigger-happy thieves.

"They must have taken away our cattle and goats and we just hope nobody has been killed or hurt. These are raiders from Baringo East who come to take away our animals any time they want," he says.

According to Kipsang, Thursdays and Sundays are the raiders' preferred days.

Last Friday they struck with the knowledge that security personnel were focused on securing the nearby Chesongoch Primary School, where Deputy President William Ruto later that day commissioned 240 Kenya Police Reservists.

Elizabeth Cheboi, an elderly woman, wails, chanting curse words in the Marakwet dialect as she questions why she has to live like a fugitive in her own land.

"For 21 years we have been living like outcasts, if we are not running from raiders we are burying one of our sons killed by cattle rustlers. We are not sure if the Kenyan Government recognises our existence. What did we take from our neighbours that we must pay with all this blood and lives?" she asks.

Ms Cheboi's sight is failing and she depends on younger women to take her and children to safety whenever an attack is launched. Caves, she said, have become their homes in the recent past.

As the gunshots ring out, across the road young children at Kilang'ata and Kombases primary schools dash out of their classrooms, their eyes filled with fear. Their teachers try to calm them and urge them to stay in one place to avoid getting in danger's path.

Schools are not spared in the attacks. Edwin Sang, a former principal of Marakwet Boys and St Marys Mon Girls, recounts an incident where the bandits raided Chesetan and Kibaimwa schools and made away with livestock in early February.

"Most of the schools had allowed parents to use their livestock to pay school fees. We could sell the livestock or slaughter it every Friday for food and sale but the bandits have ruined everything," he said.

Kilang'ata and Kombases primary schools were merged after the latter was closed last year due to persistent attacks. The pupils still wear different uniforms, the Kombases group are in green shirts and brown shorts while their hosts, Kilang'ata, have yellow shirts and blue shorts.

"We are two schools in one; two head teachers, pupils and teachers from two schools all in one facility. There is so much confusion in managing the schools but we are doing our best since we have a shortage of six classrooms, limited water, and only three pit latrines for both the staff and over 500 pupils," explains Abraham Koitile, the headteacher of Kilang'ata.

According to Koitile, Kombases Primary School was closed in October last year when banditry escalated, prompting non-local teachers to leave. The schools merged when they reopened for the first term in January.

"We had over 300 pupils and Kombases had over 200 pupils and now the over 500 are all hosted in a facility meant for half the number of pupils we now have. We only have 17 teachers with no staffroom.

"We erected makeshift classrooms from twigs just to offer a little shelter for the learners because the sun is hot. When rains set in learning will be impossible," he says.

In one of the makeshift classrooms that is scantily covered with twigs are 16 Class Eight candidates who, despite the difficult and unfavourable environment, are determined to do well in this year's Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examination.

change life

"Education is the only key out of the troubles facing us and our parents. I believe when I excel, go to a good school, and university, I will be in a position to change the life of my family," said one of the candidates at Kombases.

David Chebet, a teacher, said learning is hectic for they have to mix the pupils of the same level in the few classrooms available. They also face food shortages due to the inability of parents to gain access their farms along Kerio River as the area has become a battlefield.

"There is the little government food for the feeding programme but parents used to supplement that. They can no longer do so for they did not cultivate their farms last year when the attacks escalated, bringing the death toll in this county to 44 people," adds Chebet.

A distressed but determined Koitile appealed to the government to urgently offer long-term interventions, saying the environment was not conducive for bringing up a young generation.

"Learning is at God's mercy. Sometimes gunshots rent the air, filling us and the pupils with fear because we are not sure if it is a parent we have lost again. It is a pity we are raising a worried and unstable generation," said Koitile, who appealed for assistance to help sustain the learning.

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