What you need to know:
- Kiu Construction Limited was granted the tender to construct the bridge for Sh700 million in 24 months but the construction has stalled.
- The tragedy that the bridge aimed to solve is still lurking. And, with the pounding rains, another may strike sooner than imagined, Kitui County residents worry.
Before the raging waters at River Enziu claimed 32 lives of people heading to a wedding, the spot was always a ticking time bomb. Yet never before, had efforts been made to salvage the situation.
The residents had always feared for the worst. But they hoped that someday, before the disaster, a proper bridge would be constructed.
Then, the dreaded tragedy struck.
But when the worst finally happened, witnesses accounts, who watched aghast, paint a picture of an uncharacteristic almost-deceiving calm before the chaos of the stoically flowing waters.
Nobody knows the exact time — some say it was moments before 1pm, others think it was 2pm — but what they all agree on is that on that day, the unthinkable, and an age-old fear of the residents happened. The Kitui County accident, which happened on December 4, 2021, gripped the country.
Immediately after the accident, the government machinery swung in, and promises — most of which are yet to be fulfilled — were made. But of urgency was the construction of the bridge.
Kiu Construction Limited was granted the tender to construct the bridge for Sh700 million by the Kenya Rural Roads Authority (Kerra) which was to be completed in under 24 months. The contract was signed in April 2022, with the actual work starting in June 2022.
Two years later, however, the tragedy that the bridge aimed to solve is still very much lurking at the spot. Still, when it rains, the ferociously flowing waters of River Enziu pause life in both Nuu and Nguni locations that are conjoined by the river.
The bridge that would have immensely turned around this situation bears all the hallmarks of a stalled project: stoically gasping for breath, drained of vitality, and vying to remain buoyed physically. Even as streaks of hope linger.
Overlooking each other, approximately 120 metres apart, the pillars over which the deck would be suspended, stare at each with utmost abandonment. The rusting iron projecting from the foundation and pointing towards the sky is meant to reinforce the piers-to be. It is sometimes marooned by water when it rains. But when — or if — the project will ever be completed is a game of chance more than it is a certainty.
The government engineers supervising the construction told the Nation that the "site engineer is too slow" and that ministry has been informed accordingly.
"But there are other factors such as weather which are now working against the contractor and further slowing the progress," intimated the source who sought anonymity.
According to the residents, “not much is happening at the site,” as Benson Kasyoki observed. For the casuals who work at the site, their employer, the contractor, constantly delays salaries.
"Our salaries are in arrears of five months. We have to be on a go-slow for us to be paid our wages. Just before the rains, we downed our tools, that's when he acted," a casual who did not want to be named for fear of victimisation narrated. “He delays payments and many of the locals here now shun working with him."
The construction of the bridge is a ping-pong blame game as no one is ready to take responsibility. The contractor last year estimated the bridge to be 40 per cent complete, while promising to complete the project by May 2023.
A year ago, Mr Steven Nundu, a foreman at the project site, said the work “is still within the contract period”. Twelve months later, he evaded the media and all our attempts to get him to comment on the project were futile.
The echoes of the past still haunt the families of the survivors and the victims, alike. Life comes at you fast, sometimes. And, it can change in an instant, as Ms Juliet Mutua, one of the survivors of the accident knows. For Juliet, everything you built, everyone you hold dear, can be taken from you, for absolutely no reason. Just as easily, you can be taken away from them, as was her case at the time of the incident.
Ms Juliet, Mutua's daughter, survived the accident by a whisker. She drove to the bridge in her car but for fear of crossing solo, opted to ride across the bridge with the delegation of guests that were using the bus. Then she remembered that she'd forgotten to pick up her mask from her car (During the Covid-19 pandemic, masking was mandatory).
By the time she came back, the bus had embarked on the journey to cross. The brief seconds that she rushed back to get the mask stood between her and death. That was her saviour. But the trauma of helplessly watching the waters wash away the bus she was to board just a few seconds earlier, still haunts her. The Mutuas lost 10 family members.
The pain in her words, "We would like to distance ourselves from that story as much as possible", tells of the horror of reliving the moment she survived by sheer grace.
A year ago, Juliet's parents told the Nation that the accident had affected them in many ways: The rains reminded them of the December 4, 2021 accident. Accepting that it was God's will that their loved ones would die on a day they were to affirm their vows had taken a toll on them. But even sadder, the memories of their big day will forever be remembered synonymously with the accident.
Boniface Musili's wife, Norah Nyiva, unfortunately, did not survive the accident. When he bade his wife bye, he did not know that it would be the last time he would see her alive. He lost a confidant, a keeper, a support system, and the mother of their three children — two boys and one girl.
"Mamaa (wife) is everything in a home," Musili says, "I really loved her."
Her absence is palpable. Her favourite seat is always empty. Her memories, some of which are preserved in photos, are what remains of the lifetime they shared.
"I miss her, and so do our lovely babies," Mr Musili says.
He sometimes contemplates marrying again. But "I may never find someone with her exact features to fill the shoes and the gap she left behind," he explained. "But remarrying will also mean deliberately beginning a new walk that may entail erasing bits of her memories, which I don't want to."
His face involuntarily lights up when talks about the generous qualities her wife bore. But that's short-lived. The glee fades from his face when he opens the photo album bearing their memories, leaving it pale as tears linger from a distance. Then as a man who appears to be engulfed with flushes of good memories clouded with bouts of pain, he briefly stares into the sky. Then turns his face to the left when he catches his son lost in thoughts but staring at him narrating what his mum's absence means to him.
"He is thinking about his mum now," he tells the Nation crew before he utters "It's okay, son". "We seem to be bruising the wound again."
The waters that claimed Norah's life spared Lenox Chibindo's. He was the official photographer of the event. He survived but lost all his equipment worth approximately Sh150,000. They had waited for the water to subside for hours until it was safe enough to cross.
They were wrong.
Driving across to the other side would last about two minutes at maximum. But, less than a minute later, Mr Chibindo recalls, the bus seemed to have gone off briefly. That is the moment when everything that could go wrong started going wrong. Life gave way to death. The wedding became a funeral. Laughter became tears, as everything torpedoed right before his watch.
"It was a huge miracle that I survived," Mr Chibindo said.
By the time the delegation was convinced it could drive across the river, other vehicles had crossed at the very spot. St Joseph Seminary-Mwingi bus ferrying mostly the choir was the fifth vehicle to attempt to wade through when the unthinkable happened, Mr Simon Kea, a choir member who survived the ordeal narrated. He was among the only surviving seven members of the choir.
"I was last at the spot during the incident. Lives were lost and until today, it pains me that the bridge is incomplete," Kea said, adding that the entire choir leadership perished except for the treasurer.
"They left a vacuum," said Boniface Kanyali, the current director of the St Cecilia choir. Mr Kanyali was poached from another choir to help St Cecilia Choir get back on its feet again.
"The first few Sundays were really bad," Mr Kanyali narrated. "Sometimes we would come for training and just start crying."
Cognisant that healing is a unique process to every soul, the team, he said, has gone through counseling to help them overcome.
"But the government can't wait for more lives to be lost to send the right machinery...With the rains, more deaths are beckoning if the government is not serious with the project," Mr Kanyali said.
At the church, the names and the faces of all who died during the accident have been inscribed on a grotto to immortalise them. And, every December 4, the parish priest said, they will always hold memorials in honour of the souls.
The socio-economic ecosystem is such that Nguni and Nuu locations are dependent. The residents share schools, hospitals, and markets among other public amenities. It is such that what the other location lacks, the neighbouring makes up for in the plenty of whatever it offers. Nonetheless, better facilities like the Mwingi Level 4 Hospital are found on the side of Nguni location or closer to Mwingi town. When it rains, the Nuu residents are always cut off from these critical amenities. And life momentarily pauses in the two locations.
Eight months pregnant Alice Mary spoke to the Nation moments after he was assisted to cross the killer spot. With her due date first approaching, she said, she had opted to cross the bridge "when there's still time", to stay with a relative in Nguni location where she can easily access the hospital.
Because she knows neither the hour nor the minute when her baby will arrive, she has chosen to leave her family behind. Mary knows too well that when it rains, it is a waiting game. But with the labour pains, she may never have the luxury of waiting.
So dire is the situation that during the recently concluded national examinations, exam papers were always ferried to schools in Nuu via helicopters.
A revered landmark as old as time, the seasonal river that snakes through the vast Mwingi area and whose fury is mostly borne by those downstream in Nuu and Nguni is now known by Mwingi residents as a killer river.
Even so, the mystery of River Enziu is unfathomable, except that it is known by locals to have many tributaries and gets dangerously wild downstream. There are days when the waters flow stoically. Then there are days that it rages with unfathomable fury, especially with the current El nino rains. Unimaginable. Unthinkable. Unfathomable.
The rains of this magnitude have never pounded this region in a lifetime. Except, in 1997 El Nino rains caused havoc of immense magnitude to this region. But very few of the current generation can remember this part of his history with clarity.
The devastating effects of the rain that year bears the same feature as this rainy season in that part of Mwingi, where the green of Nguni and Nuu is deceiving. The brown of the land has been replaced by mushrooming soft green grass. The elephantine fury of the sun has been replaced by a cloud cover. The cirrocumulus clouds quickly become pitch-black. The sky could open anytime. This, sometimes, happens very fast.
But the tragedy that the bridge aimed to solve is still lurking. And, with the pounding rains, another may strike sooner than imagined, the residents worry.