The destitute widows, children of Baringo banditry

Monica Chepkok, Margaret Adoket and Jane Kiptios. The three from Baringo North Sub-county are among many others widowed by banditry in the area. 

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Women widowed by banditry in this insecurity-prone region of Baringo live in a deplorable state as attacks escalate.
  • While whole villages have been deserted, crowded grass-thatched huts have mushroomed close to Kagir, Yatya and Chemoe shopping centres, where locals have fled for their safety because they are close to security camps.
  • Many of their children have dropped out of school due to lack of school fees.

Esther Chebor from Chemoe in Baringo North, remembers the day when her world came tumbling down in 2017 as if it was yesterday. It is the day she was left a widow to fend for her six children.

Her husband, Thomas Chebor, the Ng’orora Location chief, was gunned down by armed bandits suspected to be from a neighbouring community as he led an operation to Chepkokel to recover stolen animals.

The administrator was only one year to retirement.

“Things have not been the same for me and my children because we fully depended on him,” Ms Chebor says. “When the incident happened, we fled to a safer place with other villagers.”

Relief food

“We pitched camp at Chapin Primary School. The place was crowded but we had no alternative. We got wind that the government was distributing relief food at Barbarchun and we embarked on the journey of more than five kilometres,” she says.

Ms Chebor was in Barbarchun when she heard rumours that a chief had been gunned down.

“I didn’t suspect that it was my husband [until] some government officials came and relayed the news to me the following day at the school where we were camping,” she says amid sobs.

When her husband died, one of their children was in university and two others in secondary school.

Keen to pick up the pieces of their lives Ms Chebor and other locals went back to their villages, three months later, and built temporary houses at Chemoe shopping centre, a few metres from the Anti-Stock Theft Unit camp, where they felt safer. When they left earlier, their houses were looted and vandalised, while some were torched.

School fees

“I live with my children in a small house at the shopping centre. I have a small kiosk that cannot sustain school fees and other necessities. All our livestock was driven away by armed criminals,” she says.

“The government had promised to cater for me and my two co-wives but we are wallowing in poverty, yet our husband was felled by bandits while on duty.”

“We have resigned to our fate. We have been left at the mercy of the gun-toting bandits. Most children here have dropped out of school after their parents were killed,” she adds.

Esther Rotok, whose husband Thomas Chebor,  a senior chief Ngorora Location in Baringo County, was killed by bandits, goes about her chores at Chemoe Trading Centre on July 30, 2021.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

Her story mirrors the cries of women widowed by banditry in this insecurity-prone region of Baringo as attacks escalate. They are tales of pain, anguish, resilience and the will to live in circumstances where one is but a bullet away from death.

In these volatile border areas, men have the responsibility of herding livestock and guard them from being stolen by the neighbouring community. They are also tasked with protecting the community from invaders, putting their lives in harm’s way.

Margaret Adoket from the bandit-prone Kagir, lost her husband Adoket Dike to bandits in 2018 when he was herding livestock in Barsuswo village.

He was with other men when cattle rustlers suspected to be from the neighbouring Tiaty Sub-county, ambushed them. His more than 50 goats were driven away, rendering his household poor.

Eight children

“Not only did I lose my husband, but also our entire livelihood, leaving me to fend for my eight children with no income.

“I had done some farming, but owing to the dry spell in the area, the crops died. The farms are not safe either, because the bandits may strike anytime,” says the 56-year-old.

“I was taking care of my nine children alone and they went to bed hungry for days. We slept under trees for some time despite the presence of criminals,” the widow, who makes charcoal for sale to earn money to buy food and other necessities for her children says.

She believes the government owes her and the other widows some form of compensation.

“The government should compensate us because not only have we lost our people but also the livestock, our main livelihood, to bandits.

She says her children dropped out of school for lack of fees.

“What is the future of such children who live knowing that they were impoverished by criminals? They may resort to engaging in the same activity if no urgent interventions are made,” she poses.

The situation in the villages is grim. While whole villages have been deserted, crowded grass-thatched huts have mushroomed close to Kagir, Yatya and Chemoe shopping centres, where locals have fled for their safety because they are close to security camps.

The deserted villages are overgrown with bushes. Some schools, including Chepkew, Kamwetio and Chepkesin, have been closed for several years because of violent flare-ups.

Expand territories

Mr Richard Chepchomei, an elder from Chemoe, says criminals vandalised some schools. They also destroyed boreholes and torched learning materials. He says the motive was to force people out permanently, leaving raiders to expand their territories.

He accuses the government of being lenient on criminals, who he claims roam the deserted villages and killing anyone on sight.

Kobilo Chemjor, whose husband Wilson Chemjor, former Assistant Chief for Loruk-Sub-Location in Baringo County was killed by bandits, shows her husband’s photo during an interview on July 30, 2021.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

A hill in Kagir village has earned the nickname Kismayu (for the port city in war-torn Somalia), with locals claiming hundreds of people from the two neighbouring communities, Pokot and Tugen, fought in the area in 2006 for an entire day while trying to recover stolen livestock.

The daylong exchange of fire claimed the lives of several people, and hundreds of livestock were also driven away by the neighbouring community towards Tiaty Sub-county.

The hill is said to be a watchtower for criminals, who usually survey the area to see where locals graze and plan strikes to steal their livestock.

In 2017, more than 11 women and children from the minority Ilchamus community were butchered by armed criminals in one evening in Mukutani, on the boundary of Tiaty and Baringo South sub-counties, in what was suspected to be a retaliatory attack.

The attack hit the headlines and prompted the government to launch a KDF-led massive disarmament campaign in the locality, which was also gazetted as a dangerous area.

The genesis of the attack was March 14, 2017, when two women from the neighbouring Pokot community were shot dead in the morning by armed criminals near Mosuro, Baringo South.

The 6am incident happened when the armed criminals sprayed bullets on a police vehicle. The duo from Mukutani, who had hitched a ride, were killed on the spot. The women were heading to Kabarnet, the county’s capital, for personal business.

In what was thought to be a revenge mission, armed bandits suspected to be from the neighbouring community invaded Mukutani Primary School and attacked locals from the Ilchamus community who had taken refuge there, after receiving a tip about a looming fight.

Temporary camp

In the evening attack, seven women and four children were killed and three others were seriously injured, prompting the government to evacuate villagers to Eldume, more than 70km away, where they lived in temporary camps for more than a year.

Margaret Seuru, 40, says she saw it all at the temporary camp where they had relocated following the skirmishes.

“The situation at the camp had been bad, especially for young children and expectant women. We relied on the government and well-wishers for relief food because we fled our homes without taking anything. We could get food from the government and churches and sometimes we could go without any,” laments the mother of eight.

“I have a five-month-old baby that I delivered in this camp. Though I was lactating, sometimes I went without food, meaning my new-born could not get enough breast milk. Young children also suffered from malnutrition because there was no milk or a special meal.”

Her tent, she says, could not accommodate all her eight children and the older ones opted to spend their nights outside so that she could sleep with the younger ones.

“Our community (Ilchamus) has very strict cultural beliefs and teens are not supposed to sleep in one house with their parents, but this could not apply at the camp because one household was given one tent that served as the kitchen, bedroom and everything else. It was hard living here,” she explains.

Jackline Olekidogo, is cuddling a week-old baby. The mother of four says conditions were not suitable for young children.

“We were given the tents by World Vision when we arrived at our new ‘home’. The area is very hot and dusty, especially during the day and was not good for small children, who suffered from frequent chest coughs,” she says.

Deplorable conditions

“The place is also prone to floods during the rainy season, which was challenging because we lived in deplorable conditions with lack of basic necessities like water and mosquito nets.”

She says the tents also got torn, leaving children, the elderly and expectant women sleeping on the floor with no bedding. They ended up contracting the common flu as a result of the cold and overcrowding. Mosquitoes were also a big problem at night.

“Our children had to attend classes in neighbouring Losampurmpur Primary School, more than 20km away. Even the younger ones had to become boarders, leaving us unable to monitor how they were performing in school till the end of term,” she says.

Many others dropped out of school for lack of school fees.

“After we were displaced from our homes, we were reduced to paupers as we could not farm or raise livestock, which we had depended on for our livelihood,” she says.

“We relied on well-wishers for assistance in the camp; some of us opted to be casual labourers on farms around the camp but this did not bring in enough money to pay school fees and so most of the children dropped out of school.”

Bandits later torched the deserted houses, vandalised shops and looted whatever they found, says Mukutani Ward representative Renson Parkei.

“The bandits found five women taking refuge in a shop and sprayed them with bullets, killing them on the spot. They also shot young children fleeing to the neighbouring Mukutani Primary School. It was a sad incident that we do not want to remember,” he says.

While in previous decades the stolen livestock was redistributed or used to pay bride price in pastoralist communities, rustling has recently become a form of organised crime. It has also been commercialised, with stolen animals being sold, often across regional borders.

Pastoralist communities now consider acquiring automatic weapons following incidents of armed cattle rustling that have steadily risen, especially during droughts.

Armed attacks can unleash a vicious cycle of revenge attacks and in an ethnically charged environment, lead to escalating arms races between rival communities.