The sad story of Mt Elgon cave people with nowhere to call home

Mt Elgon IDPS

Children, who are part of IDPs from the forest in Mt Elgon inside a cave in this photo taken on December 11,2022. They have known the cave as home for many years now.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya I Nation Media Group

As the festive season ushers in excitement with most Kenyans planning how to spend their holidays, in one corner of the country, hundreds of squatters rendered by homeless by evictions in Mt Elgon will likely spend their Christmas in hollowed caves after they were abandoned by the government and politicians who promised them manna before the recent General Election.

375 families are currently living in a cave on the foot of Mt Elgon, the only home they have known for the last three years, after they were forcibly evicted from forest land on grounds that they posed a serious environmental threat to one of the country’s largest water towers.

Most of them have resigned to their fate and feel there is little to celebrate this festive season. 

Mt Elgon IDPs

IDPs from the forest in Mount Elgon of Bungoma County where they live for failing to get land allocation at Chebyuk Settlement Scheme, pray inside Chebui cave in Mount Elgon area on December 11, 2022.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya I Nation Media Group

When the Nation visited the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) at Chebui cave, an area you can only get to after a four-hour long gruelling ascent up Mt Elgon, they burst into prayer and tears, only too eager to narrate their ordeals.

“There is nothing for us to celebrate when we are faced with an uncertain future in what should be our ancestral home. It seems nobody will come to our rescue,” said Jacob Kimutai Chesutek, chairman of the IDP families living in the cave.

Missed out on settlement schemes

They were rendered homeless and pushed to live in caves after they missed out on the Chepyuk resettlement process by successive governments.

Kenya established Chepyuk Settlement Scheme in 1971 to settle the Sabaot who had been pushed out of their ancestral land by the British colonial government.

A second cave for men at Chebui, for Internally Displaced People from the forest in Mount Elgon of Bungoma County.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya I Nation Media group

Apart from the Sabaot who form the majority of people occupying Mt Elgon, other inhabitants of the mountainous area include the Ndorobo-Mosopisyeek, Bok, Someek and Koony, all members of the larger Kalenjin community.

The government established Chepyuk Phase 1 (1971-94) and later Chepyuk Phase 2 in 1989 to accommodate more families.

But despite allocation of additional parcels of land, a burgeoning population, clan factors, skewed allocation and corruption remain a major challenge, forcing the government to set up Chepyuk Phase 3 in Emia in 2011 to resettle 1,732 families.

Land matters remains emotive in Mt Elgon and the skewed allocation of Chepyuk Phase 3 has only made it worse: protests and armed conflicts pit the dominant Soy and Mosop ethnic communities over the matter. 

“This cave is our home after we were kicked out of forest land after missing out in the three settlement schemes,” added Mr Chesutek.

Emaciated children, elderly

The cave is one of many salt licks visited by elephants that roam the mountain. It is home to many wildlife species.

Women and their children outside Chebui cave in Mt Elgon where they live for failing to get land allocation at Chebyuk Settlement Scheme.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya I Nation Media Group

As you enter the cave, you are greeted by emaciated faces of children and elderly persons, some having gone days without food.

“As people of the cave, we are faced with countless challenges ranging from poor sanitation to acute malnutrition and outbreak of diseases,” said Risper Chemosong, 68, whose lost her husband in a land conflict.

A few metres from the entrance of the cave is a makeshift toilet that serves the entire population, yet less than 100 metres down is a stream where they get their water for drinking and other domestic use.

The cave that doubles as a living and cooking space has been partitioned using dry maize stocks to accommodate the families. 

Too fragile

To the east is a room that accommodates male elderly persons who are too fragile to fend for themselves. It can only accommodate 20 elderly persons.

In the middle of the cave, close to the fireplace, is a room housing 10 elderly women who are cared for by other women in the community. 

The cave also has an area designated for young children, which also doubles as their sleeping and study quarters. 

Mt Elgon IDP

An IDP woman puts her bedding outside to dry, at Chebui cave in Mt Elgon area.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya I Nation Media Group

“Food is hard to get here. These elderly and children can go for days without a meal,” said Mary Temuko, one of the women who is also the community’s midwife.

Some 50 metres away is another cave that accommodates young men. It also doubles up as the community’s church.

“This cave as served as our church since we have nowhere else to worship after we were moved from the forest,” said Pastor Alex Kimutai, who also offers counselling services to the families.

Sabaot Land Defence Forces

According to the IDPs, it is land-related issues such as these which spark conflict and led to uprisings such as the dreaded Sabaot Land Defence Forces (SLDF), a guerilla movement that operated in Mount Elgon since 2005 and resorted to violence to safeguard the rights of people displaced from the forest.

Internally Displaced People cook inside Chebui cave in Mt Elgon area on December 11, 2022.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya I Nation Media Group

The group, which drew its members from the Sabaot and was led by Wycliffe Matakwei, led to the deaths of more than 600 people and displacement of over 60,000 in less than two years. 

“The government needs to resolve this issue by allocating land to genuine squatters. There should be fairness in land allocation,” appealed Robin Kipyego, Secretary of Chebui cave families.

He disclosed that the land owner where the cave is located has issued them with a notice to vacate by December 31 to allow her utilise it for other purposes.

Mt Elgon

A group of men inside Chebui cave in Mt Elgon area.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya I Nation Media Group

“Our stay in this cave will be short-lived. The owner told us to vacate by end of the year, subjecting us to more trouble,” added Mr Kipyego. 

The local assistant chief of Korngotuny area, Mr Samuel Naibei, toured the cave on Sunday December 11 and issued notice to the families to vacate the caves immediately.

The order, however, has been met with resistance with the community’s women threatening to  strip naked in protest over frustrations by the administrator. He was forced to leave the cave after the families turned on him and accused him of covering up land issues in the area. 

Mr Naibei reported being assaulted by the IDPs at Kipsigon police station and two suspects, Kimtai Ndiema and Alvin Ndiema, have been summoned for interrogation.