On a normal day, residents of the Kerio Valley on the boundary of Elgeyo-Marakwet and Baringo counties would be working on their farms in the 1,000-acre Tot-Koloa irrigation scheme hoping for bumper yields.
But unrelenting deadly bandit attacks and cattle rustling for the past six years have laid waste to the Sh300 million scheme that locals thought would bring food security and harmonious coexistence,
The scheme, launched in 2013, produced maize, sorghum, millet, green grams, watermelons, and vegetables among other food crops, alleviating hunger and generating income for residents through the sale of surplus yields.
Bushes and vandalised water pipes now dot the once vibrant scheme that was lush with an assortment of food crops as brazen bandits converted the fields into a battleground.
The farmlands were abandoned following frequent conflicts between the neighbouring Pokot and Marakwet communities. Locals say at least 300 people were killed over the past five years, with tens of thousands of livestock stolen.
And the attacks are not about to stop.
On Sunday, gunmen ambushed a motorcyclist and his pillion passenger on the Tot-Chesongoch road, seriously injuring one, who later died at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret.
The resulting shootout was captured in a video that went viral, showing St Benedict Arror Girls students lying prostrate on the floor with platefuls of githeri as the sound of gunfire is heard piercing the atmosphere.
“It has never been like this. Students are scared and so am I while taking this video. Something has to happen to stop this situation. I appeal to whoever is watching this video to kindly do something and help the students of Arror recover from the trauma. We are scared,” a female voice is heard saying in the video.
But Marakwet West Deputy County Commissioner Mathias Chishiambo said the video misrepresented reality and that investigations were underway to bring disciplinary action against the individual who recorded it.
“The video was stage-managed to portray the government as having been defeated by bandits. The attack was not anywhere near the school compound but more than a kilometre away,” he told the Nation.
“If the attack was indeed in the school, none would even dare stand. No spent cartridge was recovered in the school. What was heard was just gunshots.”
But he said unconfirmed reports indicated 10 cows had been stolen by bandits in the Karabat area and no casualties were reported.
Elgeyo Marakwet County Police Commander Patrick Lumumba said the video was recorded with the intention of whipping up emotions and inciting the public.
“There have been numerous calls to have schools in the region closed down and we are not surprised by the video. The individual will face the law because that is not the way to agitate for restoration of calm in the area,” he said.
“Police reservists are being recruited and security officers are always patrolling all the learning institutions in the region to ensure normal learning goes on.”
But for locals, the steep cost of this violence has little to do with whether the bullets actually got to the school in the Sunday attack.
It is about shattered livelihoods, stalled projects worth Sh600 million, the creation of at least 200 documented widows and dozens of orphans and disrupted learning.
Mr Richard Ruto, a resident of Tot in Marakwet East, recalls how the Kenya Red Cross-funded irrigation scheme had changed lives in the Kerio Valley.
“At the onset there was peaceful coexistence between the Marakwet and Pokot communities boosted by the scheme, as the communities interacted frequently on the farms,” he said.
“Now everything has been abandoned.”
Food was bountiful, he said, and surpluses were sold in markets in Koloa, Tot, Chesegon and Lomut.
The project was the result of an assessment by the Kenya Red Cross in May 2011 that showed the number of people who needed help because of drought had risen from 2.4 million in March to 3.2 million up.
The project is the first of its kind, funded with money from the Kenyans for Kenyans initiative undertaken by the Kenya Red Cross Society.
It involved setting up water pipeline extensions from the Embobut River in Marakwet East to the Kolowa plains in Pokot East, a distance of 8.25km covering over 1,000 acres of border land along the Kerio River.
It targeted 1,000 households, who received seeds and seedlings and other farm inputs besides benefiting from irrigation systems.
It was intended to allow pastoralist communities to embark on crop farming, with the aim of ultimately ending the age-old practice of cattle rustling that had hampered development in the region.
The Pokot and Marakwet have lived with mutual suspicion, especially after the 2001 Murkutwa massacre in which over 60 Marakwet died when Pokot raiders attacked.
The project had significantly improved security in the area and the retrogressive practice of cattle rustling declined as residents engaged in farming with the scheme creating a buffer zone between the warring the communities.
With the economy of the region declining, it is not certain when the dust of conflict will finally settle for the abandoned projects to be revived.
Hopelessness is rife. Interventions from religious leaders, the political elite, professionals and elders have all failed to bring calm.
Ms Sarah Yano said her husband was killed in December last year and she is raising four young children by herself.
“My husband was not a bandit but was killed while herding his cattle, which were also stolen,” she said.
“We have over 200 widows whose husbands were killed by bandits and they live in poverty because the men were the breadwinners. Almost every household in the Kerio Valley has orphaned children,” she said.
Ms Caroline Cheboi had hoped to make a killing from the sale of her one-acre watermelon field.
“It was a huge loss that I cry over every time I think about the breakthrough I was about to make,” she said.
“My life would have changed for the better but insecurity has taken us back to the life of despondency. The scheme is a no-go zone and even security officers are shot at by bandits.”
Mr Nelson Bailenge, the secretary of the irrigation scheme, said they had big plans because they hoped it would turn around their livelihoods.
“We even wanted to form a cooperative society and expand the scheme into a fully-fledged micro-enterprise to improve our socio-economic status. This now remains a mirage as the armed conflict escalates,” he said.
“The two communities interacted through trade and farming, leading to peaceful coexistence.”
Apart from the Sh300 million scheme, there are other projects, funded by the Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA) and Elgeyo Marakwet County government that have been hampered by the frequent attacks.
Cattle rustlers recently raided the Chesongoch animal breeding centre and stole 31 Galla goats, though 17 were recovered days later.
“Operation at the Sh60 million Tot mango factory have occasionally been suspended as staff scamper for safety and others have relocated in fear of being attacked,” said KVDA Managing Director Sammy Naporos.
“The situation has slowed our operations. The Chepkum irrigation scheme is now a battlefield and remains inaccessible."
The main cause of insecurity in the Kerio Valley is that communities share resources, he said, and diversifying livelihoods is one way out of the crisis.
“With the Centre for Counterterrorism, we have launched livelihood programmes in honey production, pasture development and micro-enterprises in Tiaty as one way of diversifying the economic investment that could possibly reduce cases of cattle rustling,” he said.
Elgeyo Marakwet Governor Alex Tolgos said his administration had launched several multimillion-shilling irrigation projects that had now stalled because of insecurity.
“The contractors have abandoned the sites because of the deteriorating insecurity in the Kerio Valley. We lost an agricultural officer, who was shot by bandits, and this has scared away most of the staff from operating in the region,” he said.
He said the county would terminate the contracts and readvertise them with the aim of completing the stalled projects that would have allowed locals to grow crops and not depend on animal rearing.
Livestock Chief Administrative Secretary Linah Jebii Kilimo said the collapse of development projects in the Kerio Valley due to banditry was increasing insecurity in the region.
“It is only through the economic empowerment of communities living in the Kerio Valley that they will be able to change their lifestyles and abandon cattle rustling,” she said.
“The national and county governments should prioritise the revival of the collapsed projects, as well as focus on education in marginalised areas.”
Ms Kilimo said acts of lawlessness had reduced when the Kenya Red Cross launched the irrigation scheme because most youths were kept busy on farms and the crops generated an income for them.
She noted that the Kerio Valley is endowed with rich agricultural soils suitable for farming, which would transform the lives of locals if properly utilised.
Outgoing Elgeyo Marakwet County Commissioner Ahmed Omar said the government was committed to fighting lawlessness and had written to the relevant ministry with a view to reviving the abandoned farms.
He urged residents to work closely with the police, noting that the campaign against cattle rustling can be won if residents cooperate with government agencies.