Tales of 'sand boys' who save lives, retrieve bodies

Residents harvest sand at Nabunulu village in Matungu. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

From their shelter, Jacob Omuchende and his colleagues have a panoramic view of the bridge over River Nzoia at Kaburengu in Webuye.

The thicket is barely three metres away from the riverbank, which also enables them to have a clear view of the wide river as it snakes its way to Budalang'i and finally, Lake Victoria.

The men, aged between 20 and 40, are sand harvesters who double up as divers and rescuers.

They have witnessed countless accidents happen, seen corpses flow down the river, and people attempt suicide by jumping into the fast-flowing river.

The men have often swung into action and saved many lives.

So common are the cases that they have formed an informal group known as 'I-care'.

"I have saved more than 50 accident victims at this bridge. The most memorable was in 2017 when a matatu lost control, rolled several times and ended up in the river. I swung into action immediately and got seven people out of the wreckage that was slowly being swept down the river," Omuchende said.

Early this year, he was in the river harvesting sand when two trailers collided and hit a private saloon car.

"The resultant fire was too fierce; we couldn't save anybody in the small car. However, I managed to pull one of the truck drivers out of the mangled cabin before it caught fire. The other one could not be saved".

When accidents happen or people accidentally drown in the river, retrieving the bodies that get trapped under the water comes at a cost.

Ideally, Omuchende says, Luhya tradition demands that the kin of the victim must provide a cow by the river bank once the body has been brought out. "Where this is not possible, the kin pays Sh10,000 before I retrieve the body. Sometimes the underwater search takes days to conclude", he said.

Jacob Omuchande swimming in river Nzoia at Lukhoba area along Malaba- Eldoret highway on July 27, 2022. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Alex Khisa has also saved lives at the notorious Kaburengu killer bridge. He is also a sand harvester, but says it requires not just courage, but intelligence.

Khisa has also witnessed many accidents happen. "When this river is swollen, it stretches for about 10 metres from the banks. With so much water with the force it comes with, a rescuer must be able to judge the chances of saving a drowning person. If the person to be rescued is heavier than you, there is little you can do. It is also possible for you to die in the raging waters as you attempt to rescue someone."'

Rodgers Soita has rescued many from drowning. "One day, a man who saw some small boys swimming effortlessly thought he could also do it. Unfortunately, he did not know how to swim and the moment he jumped into the water, he went under. Luckily, I was able to save him".

The sand harvesters doubling up as divers work hand in hand with police officers who often seek their help in retrieving bodies from the river.

"Sometimes they reward us, but other times they do not. That, however, does not stop us from saving lives," says Soita.

Members of the I-care group sell sand to construction companies and individuals for Sh1,500 per trailer. "The sand harvesting business is lucrative during the rainy season. That is when water levels are high. At the moment, there is little sand, hence very little activity".

Lukhova village elder, Veronica Wasike, lauds the divers and sand harvester for the good job.

"These young men have been of great help. This bridge should be expanded to reduce the spate of accidents. The government should also consider employing these youth as divers and life savers, they deserve it," she said.

The Standard
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