David Kipkosgei, 39, suppresses a shiver as he points to a brown desolation on a hilltop that was once his home.
He was only 15 years old when his family and other members of the Sengwer community were evicted from their homes in Embobut Forest, Elgeyo Marakwet County, in 1994. They were left homeless and desolate.
He vividly recalls the ear-splitting gunshots that evening, followed by a heavy thump of approaching boots. Minutes later, three menacing people stormed into their compound and ordered his family out.
As Kipkosgei scampered after his six siblings and elderly parents down the thorny steep hill to safety, he turned to look at their home. He watched in horror as a monstrous ball of fire licked their four grass-thatched huts. Fifteen goats and 10 sheep that were in the pen perished in the fire.
There have been more state-sponsored evictions since then, many times raising tension in the area. In the March 2018 evictions, many houses were reduced to ashes leaving more families of the indigenous Sengwer community homeless.
According to Amnesty International, since 2009, the community has been subjected to violent evictions from the Embobut Forest. In 2014, about 1,500 of their homes were destroyed, while another 300 homes have been destroyed since December 2017.
As we stand at a clearing in the Embobut Forest, Kipkosgei pensively looks at the crawling stinging nettle (kimmeele in Sengwer) that will soon cover the brown patches. Sadness is written all over his face – the frequent evictions of his community traumatise him.
The uncertainty of not knowing when they will be evicted again kept Kipkosgei and his siblings from going to school.
Being homeless means that Kipkosgei has to pay a monthly rent of Sh1,000 for shelter for his two wives and seven children. He does menial jobs, such as harvesting sand from the banks of the Embobut River, to make ends meet.
“I struggle to feed my family, clothe them and educate my children,” he says. He turns to face me and adds, “My life will never be the same again”.
A long silence ensues as we carefully scale down the crest of the Embobut hills through the steep Embobut valley. We come across two women scooping through the dark sand on the riverbank hoping to get the elusive specks of gold that flow downstream. We wade through the numbing cold river and I silently pray that we make it across safely.
Just like Kipkosgei, some of the Sengwer women are destitute. We meet Cherotich who is slaving away on the river banks. She wipes glistening beads of sweat from her forehead before speaking to me.
“We bend here all day. There is no telling if we will get a speck (of gold). If we fail, our children will sleep hungry,” she says. “I am a mother of five. On a good day I make Sh150. On other days I go home empty-handed. As night falls, the youngest child cries from hunger”.
“A raw deal,” Kipkosgei remarks.
AN INDIGENOUS TRIBE
A report by survivalinternational.org, a global movement that champions rights of indigenous people, indicates that the Sengwer are an indigenous people who inhabited the dense Embobut Forest ages before the recording of Kenya’s history.
They lived on berries and herbs. They also kept bees and domestic animals. In addition to providing honey, the bees helped in the propagation of indigenous trees and plants through pollination. Their bee-keeping activity has over time helped to edify the Embobut Forest.
The Sengwer have reverence for and spiritual attachment to the forest and have safeguarded it for hundreds of years. However, in the early 1980s, the Kenyan government started evicting them in an effort to conserve the forest. The authorities argued that the indigenous people were degrading it through deforestation.
As the evictions escalated in 2014, the community began protesting. They argued that the forest has always been their home. With numerous homes set ablaze and property destroyed, the people of this indigenous tribe were left with nowhere to seek refuge. They feel that their claims on land rights ought to be heard as ordered by High Court in Eldoret.
Jeremiah Kimaiyo, 43, says many people lost their homes and property in the evictions in the 1980s and 1990s. His father lost dozens of animals, he adds. The community is now “scattered like sheep without a shepherd” as they have been moved from their homes, and forced to settle on alternative land and change their way of living.
A study published in 2014 by Rotich, B, Makindi S.M and Esilaba M.O in the Environment and Natural Resources Management Journal indicates that despite 59.8 per cent of the indigenous Sengwer people shifting from traditional hunting and gathering to animal and crop farming, some of them continue to depend on the forest for survival.
When I approach 74-year-old Kirop Kiptanoi, he is herding animals on a verdant hill. He becomes apprehensive but sighs with relief after realising that I’m not a government official.
He shares his fears about the Sengwer becoming extinct. Intermarriages, such as with the neighbouring Marakwet community, also threaten the survival of the community, their language and culture, Kiptanoi adds.
He laments that Sengwer elders are prevented from offering sacrifices to their ancestors as they have done for ages in the forest.
Long ago, the Sengwer elders would brew traditional wine made from honey, fill up a gourd, and place it on the stone alters in the forest. They would utter a string of muffled words to the ancestors, which Kiptanoi did not reveal – only elders know what is said in the ritual. It was believed that the ritual summoned the ancestral spirits to partake in the yield from the land.
In return, the ancestors would make their animals fertile and their beehives would overflow with honey. Their women would also give birth to many children. According to the Sengwer culture, it was an abomination for women to approach the altars or offer sacrifices. If they did, a curse would befall the land.