Hellen Mukami, 30, a resident of Witu village in Lamu County, is married and raising three children from her husband’s previous marriage.
The Nation caught up with her on Wednesday last week in Mokowe village on the outskirts of the expansive Boni Forest as she queued to see a doctor at a free mobile field clinic organised by the Administration Police Border Patrol Unit (BPU) and supported by the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and the US Africa Command (Africom).
“Did they come with scanning machines? I am here for a scan. The village mid-wife massaged my stomach and informed me that my fallopian tubes are blocked. I want to get a scan to confirm what the problem could be. I have no children of my own and I yearn for them,” she told the Nation before she was called in for registration.
Ms Mukami and 16-year-old Jackeline Wangeci, who brought in her six-month-old child for check-up over a persistent flu, is among the more than 1,000 residents of Lamu who turned up at the mobile clinic — a soft approach being used by security agencies to gather intelligence on al-Shabaab and its sympathisers around Kenya’s border with Somalia.
Since 2014, al-Shabaab militiamen have been taking advantage of land issues pitting native Kenyan Somalis and indigenous communities at the coast against newcomers in the region to spread fear and radicalise young men into terrorism.
Attacks targeting security convoys and the community led to the launch of Operation Linda Boni in 2015 to flush al-Shabaab sleeper cells out of Boni Forest, but the attacks persisted even after security agencies managed to quell trouble in other parts of the country.
As the country approached the third anniversary of the Dusit hotel attack last year, 13 people — including four police officers — were killed in Kibaoni, Widho, Hindi and Milihoi on the Garsen-Witu-Lamu road.
In January, the National Security Council declared a month-long curfew in Mkunumbi, Witu, Mpeketoni and Hindi, following the killing of seven people over land disputes disguised as terror attacks. A multi-agency security team was deployed to mop-up illegal firearms in the areas.
The problem, however, persists, because just a week ago, a man was decapitated in a retaliatory attack a week after a similar macabre killing of another over land issues. Additionally, a man reported to have been assembling an improvised explosive device was arrested by security agencies just before the start of the week-long clinic. Lamu’s insecurity has persisted for a long time. Before the al-Shabaab attacks began, the region suffered shifta (bandit) attacks that ended in the 1990s.
“At the time, they would pick young men from the village and take them to the forest for training before using them to carry out attacks. Today, however, that has been overtaken by sporadic attacks by the al-Shabaab,” said a resident who asked not to be named.
These sporadic attacks are what the BPU is seeking to put a stop to.
“Our intention is to win locals’ trust, identify gaps in our counter terrorism approaches and prepare them to volunteer information regarding terror activities and movements in this area. The clinic has given us a chance to better connect with the community,” a BPU officer told the Nation. While getting normal check-ups and treatment, the community gets to interact with the BPU officers, some of the Kenya Defence Forces soldiers conducting operations within the forest, as well as the specialists seconded by the US Embassy in Nairobi.
“For years, the locals have only seen us heavily armed and in uniform, which may have made them fear us. The relationship between us and them was rather strained due to a general lack of interaction. With this, we want to show them that we are just like them, build rapport and help them understand that our presence is for their own benefit. Some have even asked how they can join the service,” another officer explained.
BPU intends to continue deploying clinics throughout the regions where it has a presence and on a needs basis. Before Lamu, the clinic was at Kanyonyo in Kitui County.
The clinics have negative pressure capabilities allowing them to handle an infectious disease unit, including Covid-19 patients. They are also capable of admitting patients, thus making them ideal for deployment in remote areas along the borders where hospitals are not established to serve the community as well as security agencies conducting operations.
“The US contribution of medical supplies varies on length of deployment, the amount of patients and the needed medicines. Generally, each deployment requires between Sh3 million and Sh3.5 million of medical supplies alone. Other donated items such as the mobile field clinic itself and supporting logistical equipment require substantially more funding,” the US Embassy in Nairobi said.
The clinic identified hypertension, stomach problems such as constipation, ulcers and worm infestations, ear infections in children and flu as the leading health problems affecting the residents. Officials said the approach is also meant to help the locals know that the government is attentive to their needs.
Mokowe Chief Khalifa Sharif Ali said the camp had brought the community and the security agencies closer and called for more collaboration as a way of building intelligence to fight al-Shabaab, especially with the rising population.
Residents in the mainland areas of Mokowe said hospitals in the area are not adequately stocked and have inadequate doctors.
Nana Mote, an aspirant for the woman representative position wants the government to boost surveillance across the county and especially during this campaign season when night movements will be common.
“Every polling station should have adequate security and patrol cars because attacks in this area are sporadic. It’s good for us to take precautions,” Mote told the Nation after attending a security meeting organised by the County Security Committee to warn candidates against incitement.