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Even before dam burst, life was hell for Solai residents

Sunday May 27 2018
By JACQUELINE KUBANIA

The Director of Public Prosecutions last week received the preliminary investigation report on the Solai dam tragedy, fuelling hope that justice for hundreds of residents whose lives changed for the worse when the 20 million-litre capacity dam burst its banks will be achieved.

But the report had to be sent back to investigators as it lacked information integral to the case.

Mr Noordin Haji told the Daily Nation that he has conceded to a request by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations to allow seven more days for conclusive investigation of the matter in order to give his office enough information to put together a case.

INSPECTIONS

“There are many gaps in the report as some authorities have not submitted their reports yet. For instance, we would like to establish who was contracted to construct the dam and whether he was licensed, whether there were regular inspections of the dam and by who, and whether approvals were given for the additions and modifications made on the dam over the years,” he said.

The preliminary report so far indicates that the dam was planned and approved, and its construction licensed by officials of the Water Resources Management Authority (WARMA), contrary to a statement the authority gave earlier terming the dam “illegal”.

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MEDICAL CARE

Meanwhile in Solai, television cameras have left, dignitaries have stopped arriving in helicopters and there are no longer convoys of vehicles racing through the rough road that connects Solai to the Nairobi-Nakuru highway, ferrying emergency medical care and food. The attention of the country is now on other things, presently on the scandal-ridden National Youth Service. Life has moved on for everyone else, but for the residents of Solai, it will be a long time before anything feels “normal”.

Nearly three weeks after the Patel dam burst and swept away everything in its path, taking the lives of 47 people, the landscape and the people bear scars of the destruction the water left in its wake.

Exposed rock dominates what was once a carpet of fertile topsoil and trees and bushes are bent at an angle to show the direction of the deluge. All that remains of what were once houses is cemented floors, their walls and roofs swept away by the raging waters. The houses that were out of the direct path of the water are depositories of mud.

HARROWING

At one such house, the only one left standing in a row of six single room rentals, utensils and bedding are pushed against one wall, caked in muck. Layers of sludge and silt cover the walls and the floors, giving the house the appearance of a mud-walled house even though it is constructed out of concrete and stone. I wonder if the family that lived there survived. Later I find out that they did, a mother and six children, who made it out alive by moving to the wall farthest from the path of the water and holding their heads up to avoid drowning in the mud.

Julia Chepketer’s hands, head and feet bear wounds from the harrowing experience of being caught in the flood. The raging waters found her right at her doorstep on the upper part of the village and carried her downstream, tossing her around like  flotsam before finally depositing her on a tree to which she clung onto until help arrived.

But the bigger wounds are in her heart and her psyche. She  lost two daughters to the water; four-year-old Rehema Chepkorir and six-year-old Anastacia Chepkemoi. They were ripped from her grip as she tried to outrun the water, their little bodies unable to withstand the abuse that she herself has endured. There were buried at the mass funeral organised for the victims.

ACCOMODATION

“There is such deep sadness at my home. My other children don’t fully understand that their siblings are gone forever and I dread the day they realise that they will never see Rehema or Anastacia again,” she said.

For now, hers and other families who lost their houses have been given Sh30,000 to find alternative accommodation. Many have found rental houses at the Solai shopping centre, others have moved in with relatives and there are those who have left the area entirely. It is not clear whether aside from the donations of clothes, food and bedding that the victims have received, there will be substantial help in rebuilding their lives.

SH30,000

According to the area chief Charles Kiragu, some 223 people have been targeted for the Sh30,000 direct cash transfers from the government, although he acknowledges that not everyone has received this money. One such person is 25-year-old Brian Kamau who was forced to move his young family in with his mother after it became impossible to continue living at Solai Boys Secondary School where those who lost their houses were offered temporary refuge.

“There was too much hassle at the camp, not enough clothes or bedding, and the policemen manning it would harass us if we complained. I therefore decided to move my wife and five-year-old child to my mother’s place since I did not receive the Sh30,000 that would have enabled me to rent a house,” he said.

SOIL EROSION

But even those who have received the Sh30,000 say that it is a drop in the ocean, nowhere near what they need to get their lives back into a semblance of normalcy.

“No one has told us if those of us who owned our homes will be helped to rebuild them. There is no word regarding how those who have lost their farmland to soil erosion or deposits of mud several metres thick will resume farming, everything is in limbo,” said Chepkorir.

She is particularly incensed by the failure of Solai farm owner Mansukh Patel to personally visit the victims and offer his sympathies, saying that it is callous for one whose dam has caused so much devastation to fail to at least acknowledge in person what damage has been done.

TASKMASTER

Chepkorir worked at the Patel farm as a casual labourer for four years earning Sh270 daily for her efforts. She has no pleasant memories of the farm, painting a picture of Patel as a hard taskmaster who demanded too much from his workers and who was quick to mete out harsh punishments for perceived disobedience.

“We would work from 6.30am to 3pm with no break at all, not even to go to the toilet or drink water, forget lunch. If you are found not hunched over the crops you are tending at any time, you would be asked to leave and your wages for the day cancelled. It was a tough life,” said Chepkorir.

She has not been back to the farm since the dam tragedy due to her injuries and says that even after she is well, she would rather look for work elsewhere than go back there.

MISTAKES

She is not the only one who has complained about the inhuman work conditions at Solai Group.

In interviews, past and present, workers have said that they had to labour eight hours straight with no breaks, sometimes being forced to work for up to 12 hours, and they could be dismissed for even the slightest mistakes.

Ms Elizabeth Abenyo says in the five years she has been a casual labourer at Solai farm, she has seen a lot of people dismissed for petty offences.

“It does not take much to get fired or to be suspended. The pay is little and the managers are inconsiderate. There isn’t much choice for us who live in this area,” she said.

And Mr Willie Mutai, who has worked as a clerk at the farm before the Patels took it over, says that the Indian managers employed by the Patels to run the farm are ruthless slave drivers.

WITHHOLD WAGES

“I left the farm in 2014 because I was asked by the general manager  to withhold the wages of three people who he found drinking water. I could not in good conscience continue to work for a man like that,” he said.

He added that the Indian bosses themselves had tea breaks at 10am and lunch at 1pm, but that courtesy was never extended to the African workers.

“In addition, if you’re even five minutes late, you are sent away for the day. If you are late three times in a month your employment is terminated. If you take sick off there are no wages for the days that you are sick. It is a bad system,” he said.

MISTREATMENT

And there is very little redress for the workers. According to the Kenya Plantation Workers Union assistant general secretary Meshack Khisia the boss at Solai Group has frustrated efforts to have the employees join the union.

“We made several attempts to convince the owner of the farm to allow the workers to join the union but he refused. Those who dared join the union would be fired,” said Mr Khisa.

The employees are therefore not able to report such mistreatment as they are not members of the union.

Attempts to contact the Patels for a response were unsuccessful.

Additional Reporting by Eric Matara

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