Undeterred by the scorching midday sun, a group of villagers gather near an embankment next to the Amalo River Bridge that marks the Narok-Bomet County border in the South Rift region.
Some residents hang precariously onto the rails of the bridge, their eyes glued on the activities in the rumbling, swollen river.
The crowds on the bridge and along the Narok-Bomet highway have slowed traffic on this stretch of the usually busy road.
Down in the river are seven divers working to retrieve the bodies of drowning victims.
The divers jump into the water and stay submerged for several minutes before popping up several metres away and taking another dive, disappearing again downstream.
For motorists and the crowds gathered at the bridge, the whole episode looks like a normal swimming expedition.
But what is going on in the river is a matter of life and death as the divers fight the strong currents to try to find the bodies of people who were swept downstream by the raging waters and drowned.
Several hours later, after a painstaking search, the divers manage to fish out a body, triggering emotional scenes in the crowd as people break into tears, wailing.
The body is transferred to a waiting vehicle and transported to the Longisa County Referral Hospital mortuary.
The heroic divers, who have earned a reputation in the South Rift for their daring dives in swollen rivers, are Gideon Ngotwa, 25, Leonard Langat, 33, Gideon Siele, 34, Keneth Rotich, 26, Julius Langat 34 and Nicholas Sigei, 36.
They have honed their skills under Stanley Mutai, a disaster management officer with the Bomet County government.
From lakes to swollen rivers and dams, the divers are relied upon by families, the community, public and private institutions, county and national governments to search for and retrieve the bodies of people who are swept away by flooded rivers and drown or who disappear in dams.
Apart from the specialised military team from the Kenya Navy, the divers from Bomet County are the most sought after in counties in the Rift Valley and Nyanza whenever drowning incidents are reported.
They have taken part in successful searches and helped retrieve bodies in Nyamira, Kericho, Kisii, Siaya, Narok, Nakuru and Uasin Gishu
The team was called upon to take part in the search-and-rescue mission after a helicopter crashed in Lake Nakuru in 2017, alongside the Navy team that was in charge of the recovery efforts.
What started as a swimming hobby for the divers in shallow rivers back in their villages has blossomed into a full-time career.
Their campaign got a boost after they were trained and were recruited by the county government in 2014 as part of the emergency and rescue team.
The divers underwent training in Barakuta in Kwale County. They also received training from the Kenya Red Cross Society.
They say they are ready to undergo further training to improve their skills and response to emergencies.
Three of the divers, Ngotwa, Siele and Langat, are also boda riders, while Rotich and Langat are small-scale farmers and Mutai is a paramedic.
It is not all about diving under the water, swimming and popping up to get fresh air before repeating the moves. The divers are also well coordinated and have their own coded language.
“We have a series of codes that we use to communicate among ourselves for smooth execution of a mission. The signs enable us to know if we are on course or if there is danger, when to take a break or when a body has been sighted,” Sigei said.
At times, the search for and locating of drowned victims takes the team up to five minutes or several hours, while in difficult circumstances, it could last several days or weeks.
It took them a month to locate and retrieve the body of a girl from River Nyangores in Chepalungu Constituency, Bomet County, and that of an elderly woman who drowned in River Kipsonoi, Sotik sub-county.
For the group, this was the most trying assignment that they had undertaken in their career as divers.
“The rate of success depends on many factors, including the depth of the water and its speed, the kind of obstacles underneath and also coordination among the divers participating in the mission,” says Ngotwa, the lead diver.
The divers have not been deterred by the hippo and crocodile-infested rivers, including the Mara River, which snakes its way through Bomet and Narok counties.
“Dangerous animals living in water and on land have not hindered our search for drowned bodies as we are able to skilfully evade them, go about our key mission and come out alive,” Ngotwa says.
Based on his experience, he says, wild animals do not attack people while under water and that once a diver comes in contact with them in the water, the rule is to dive below them, thus scaring them away.
“It was scary at first, but when we got used to it and developed survival instincts and tactics, we have come to treat such encounters as normal, thus we have always survived the scary moments,” Rotich says.
A diver has been deployed to each of the five sub-counties of Bomet East, Bomet Central, Konoin, Sotik and Chepalungu to make it easy for the team to respond to emergency situations when they occur.
When a drowning incident is reported, the diver assigned to a particular sub-county proceeds to assess the situation before calling his colleagues to support the operation. But if it is a less complicated mission, the diver handles the emergency with the help of villagers.
Police officers from the region have been working closely with the divers to retrieve bodies from rivers.
For the past seven years, the divers have been undertaking the duty without adequate gear, thus risking their lives as they search for victims.
In many cases, they dive under the water bare-chested, save for their swimming shorts, exposing them to many work-related risks. They have sustained minor and major injuries in the course of duty.
To handle bodies, they use ordinary surgical gloves, which are inadequate during search operations.
In one incident, Ngotwa lost three teeth during a search in River Amalo in 2019, after he dived and landed on a rock on the riverbed.
He has had implants in the upper jaw but the lower one is yet to be fixed.
“We have requested the county government to work on modalities for the disaster management officers to get medical insurance cover so that we are not only dependent on the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) cover,” Mutai says.
Their prayers were answered when the Bomet County government procured diving gear for the team to use during emergencies.
The equipment for the divers are oxygen tanks, buoyancy compensator devices, lace weights, diving shoes, diving suits that are three millimetres thick, life jackets, life rings, underwater masks and diving gloves.
“Bomet County is now the most equipped county in the country in terms of disaster management and especially when it comes to the divers who are much sought after in the region,” says Augustine Korir, the director in charge of disaster management.
Apart from their Sh15,000 salary, they do not get allowances when they respond to disasters and have been footing their own transport costs. It is a matter they said they asked Governor Hillary Barchok to look into.
Governor Barchok, while appreciating the unique role the divers play in the region, regretted that they were serving under contract in the county government.
“We are looking at regularising their employment so that they can be permanent and pensionable. We are seeking to improve their training so that they can qualify to be taken on board under the Public Service Board as required in law,” he says.
In some instances, they have dived into the waters and come up with more than they bargained for. In a recent case in Ndarugu River, Nakuru County, where they were called to retrieve the bodies of two boys who had drowned, they stumbled upon the decomposing body of an elderly person.
Initially, they would lose appetite for days after handling decomposing bodies, but they have become used to it, they say.
The county government has attached a counsellor to the department to support the divers and families of victims.