Widows of banditry: The women bound by their husbands’ graves

Enid Jesir, a resident of Kakibigen village in Elgeyo Marakwet County. Her husband Paul Kiplagat, was shot dead by bandits, shows his grave on June 6, 2023.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Bandits have turned parts of West Pokot, Elgeyo Marakwet, Laikipia, Samburu, Turkana and Baringo into killing fields, running roughshod over residents in perpetuation of age-old tradition of cattle rustling.
  • When bandits attack, the women stay in the forest and only go home when it is safe to do house chores, cook and take the food back to the forest.

It's 12pm in Naiben village, Baringo County. The searing sun is peeking through our vehicle, making our ride uncomfortable.

From far, giggles and screams of young children rend the air as they run around playing with their friends. A dusty road leads us to a homestead with one mud-walled house, serving as the main house.

Here, we find Ms Nelly Kobilo Talam outside preparing lunch (boiled mixture of maize and beans) for her children who are home for the April holiday. With a shallow smile Nelly welcomes us, but behind the smile is a heartbroken woman, lost in thoughts, trying to pick up after her husband’s life was cut short by bandits in February this year.

Her husband Raymond Cheptalam Kwonyike, who was the family’s sole breadwinner, was killed on March 19 while in the fields grazing livestock, leaving her a widow with seven children to take care of. She now doubles up as her children’s ‘father’.

“I live with my children in a mud-walled house. I have been struggling to get school fees and other necessities. All our livestock was driven away by armed criminals,” she says.

On the day her husband was killed, Nelly says she was in the river washing clothes when her two children came running and told her that villagers and area chief had flocked to their home and they were needed at home.

She did not suspect something was amiss. She thought maybe her two goats had entered someone’s farm, and that had been reported to the authorities. However, upon arrival, the chief broke the sad news that her husband had been gunned down in the Maratuko area.

Her husband had also been taking care of his nephews and nieces after his brother was killed during a night raid. Many animals were stolen. Mr Cheptaalam had further been entrusted with his neighbours’ livestock for pay and used the money he earned to sustain his family. It took the intervention of police officers and other security officials to retrieve his body from the forest, where it was dumped.

“Banditry has been a menace in Baringo for the longest time. We have lost many lives at the hands of the ruthless bandits. Sadly, my husband and brother-in-law are among the statistics. I just pray to God to give me strength to take care of the children I am left with. Every week they must gun someone down. As a community, we are tired of burying our people," she tells Nation.Africa, amid tears.

Manyani Widows' Group members in Sokotei village, Baringo South, on May 2, 2023.

Photo credit: Boniface Mwangi I Nation Media Group

Since then, her life has not been easy, forcing Nelly to turn to burning and selling charcoal to sustain her family. The little she earns caters for her children's needs, including education and food.

“Life is hard, I have a Grade Seven pupil, and the new curriculum is expensive. We are required to purchase books and other learning materials, which I cannot afford. They must eat,” she says.

“Every day I have to answer unending questions from my children about the whereabouts of their father; that is emotionally draining. They miss their father. Sometimes they go to the graveside asking if he will ever come back.”

Nelly’s story mirrors the cries of many other widows. The number has surpassed 300. The burden of taking care of their children alone has forced them to turn to odd jobs to provide for their families as most of them lack formal education. The deaths of their husbands have condemned them to life in poverty.

“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,” Leah Cherop, another widow, tells Nation.Africa.

Pain and resilience

Theirs are tales of pain, resilience and the will to live in circumstances where one is but a bullet away from death. In these volatile areas, men have the responsibility of herding and guarding livestock. They are also tasked with protecting the community from invaders, putting their lives in harm’s way.

A few kilometres from Ms Taalam’s home, we find Risper Toitoi at her home in Kosile village. She lost her husband on February 4, 2023. He was looking after their livestock. She says the ruthless bandits attacked also made away with at least 40 goats and 10 cows – their treasure.

As if that was not enough, nearly two months later, the bandits raided the village again, stealing goats that had survived the first attack, and leaving Risper with no source of livelihood.

The mother of nine says life has never been the same again since the death of her husband. Catering for her children, who are still schooling, has not been a walk in the park for her.

“When the bandits attack, we are forced to stay in the forest and only go home when it is safe to do house chores and cook and take it to the forest. Everyone is struggling. I have been left with nothing for my children; my son dropped out of school to help look for food,” she explains.

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

She believes the government owes widows of banditry 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 the little she earns she pays school fees for her Form One daughter. Two of her children are in Standard Eight, while the others in grades Seven, Five, Four and PP2.
In neighbouring Baringo South Sub-county, we meet Sheila Losenge at her home in Sokotei village, doing house chores before heading out to graze goats. The brutal murder of her husband, six years ago, is still fresh in her mind. The bandits raided the village and fled with goats, killing those they found on the way.

She says she was married for only three years when the bandits' guns robbed her family of its sole breadwinner, leaving her as the father figure for her two children.

Sheila, who has no formal education, says their cultural code does not allow her to remarry but she can have children, revealing that she is seven months pregnant with another man.
While some widows have stepped up to the plate, others have left their children in their in-laws’ custody to pursue life elsewhere.

To boost their financial independence, some came up with a table-banking group called Manyani Widows' Women Group, saving Sh1,500 a month. They rear chickens and weed farms at a fee, sharing out the money they earn.

Manyani widows weed a farm on May 2, 2023. They face difficulties raising their children alone after their husbands, who were their families’ only breadwinners, were killed by bandits.

Photo credit: Boniface Mwangi I Nation Media Group

Faith Lomeri, a resident of Sokotei village and a member, says they found solace in the group. They also share their challenges and that gives them hope for a better tomorrow, she says.

She says the village usually holds funerals for the departed souls, promising to help widows and their children but that remains just a promise. No one cares once the ceremony is done and some of them are reduced to beggars, she laments.

The group has expanded and they now have three subgroups of at least 20 widows, she says, adding that with their savings, they educate their children and put food on the table.

“When we meet, we volunteer to bring sugar, tomatoes and flour, which we give the neediest among us. We have no formal jobs. We weed people's farms. We have a chicken project, but the money we earn is not enough," Faith says.


According to Joan Chemutai, founder of the New Dawn of Hope organisation, more than 400 women from Baringo North and South have been left widows. She says her organisation is currently teaching 45 widows new farming methods, including livestock production.

“Behind this bigger picture of banditry is a broken and depressed society, a community full of women, a community full of widows, women who have been left to take care of themselves and their immediate and extended families.

“These women do not know of a life beyond livestock. Once they have lost their main source of livelihood, they give up on life, and these are people who need to be engaged in other forms of livelihoods for them to take care of themselves and educate their children,” she says.

Manyani Widows’ Group members attend a chama meeting in Sokotei village, Baringo South, on May 2, 2023.

Photo credit: Boniface Mwangi I Nation Media Group

A memorandum compiled by Baringo South MP Charles Kamuren on resettlement and compensation of banditry victims from Mukutani ward says over 105 people had been killed in the ward from 2005 to 2021, 39 of whom were from Arabal location, 33 from Kiserian, 21 from Mukutani, and 13 from Rugus.

Banditry has also left more than 400 widows in Elgeyo Marakwet County. In Marakwet East, they still struggle to explain to their children what happened to their fathers. In Kabishoi village, Gloria Kiptoo, 26, says the question evokes emotional pain. “When is daddy coming back home…,” her three children frequently ask.

Her husband, Onesmus Ruto, 28, was snapped by a bandit’s bullets in an August 2, 2021 attack. He was herding 13 head of cattle. “The children were too young then to comprehend what happened, but now I have had sleepless nights trying to explain that their father is no more,” Gloria says.

“I am distressed each day telling my five-year-old son that his father went on a journey. He is very inquisitive and I do not know how to tell him the father will not come back. The older ones have since come to terms with the demise of their father.”

She not only lost her husband but also the family’s sole breadwinner. Gloria is among hundreds of women whose husbands were killed by bandits.

In the three wards of Endo, Sambirir and Arror in Marakwet East and West constituencies that have borne the brunt of insecurity, 610 widows have been documented in the past two decades, with the numbers of orphans hitting over 3,000.

Cleric calls for action

Endo Mission Catholic parish priest Dominic Kibet says most of the burial ceremonies they have been attending are for banditry victims. She urged the government to deal with insecurity decisively.

“Kerio Valley has been turned into a cemetery not because of a pandemic but because of banditry. Families have undergone heart-wrenching experiences and as the church, we feel for the families who have lost their loved ones,” he says.

“Life has been hard here, the rainfall is erratic and food is scarce. Had my husband been alive, he would have sold some animals to buy us food and other basic needs. The half-an-acre land we own is our sole property at the moment,” Gloria says, adding they live hand to mouth and at times rely on well-wishers to get food.

“This society is patriarchal and when a home is just left under a woman, decision-making is at the disposal of the clan. One cannot even think of remarrying, lest you are disowned and ostracised by your in-laws.

“Each day I see his grave getting covered with plants. I hope a miracle can bring him back to life and lessen my burden, which is taking a heavy toll on me.”

In Chemasia village, Ms Lydia Kirop is at first lost for words on how her husband, Emmanuel Kirotich, 50, was shot dead on January 20, 2018, and his livestock stolen. Mr Kirotich owned over 600 animals and left behind three widows and 21 children. His brother, William Lotuma, was also killed in 2016 aged 52.

The widow then says: “He was waylaid by the bandits while herding livestock near the Kerio River and killed. The bandits stole the animals after the incident. We now depend on the sale of firewood to earn a living.”

The situation is no different in Kapkobil village, which was referred to as Kosovo because of the severity of attacks. Ms Mercy Ngetich, a 25-year-old mother of two, has yet to come to terms with the demise of her husband Japhet Kimutai, who was killed in November 2022 as he herded 30 head of cattle in the Kapkoros grazing fields. The bandits then fled with the animals.

“The children are still young and they are asking where their father is. Some of the other children in the neighbourhood have been teasing them that the police took him away. It always hurts me seeing them in anguish seeking answers about the whereabouts of their father,” she says.

“These are the kind of questions we have been grappling with as widows with young children. At my village, over 10 widows are going through the same struggles and it is hurting trying to explain to the children where their fathers are.”

In neighbouring Kakibigen village, we meet Ms Enid Kiptoo, removing dirt from her husband Paul Kiplagat’s grave. He was also felled by the bandits in 2017 as he grazed his 250 animals.

Enid Jesir, a resident of Kakibigen village in Elgeyo Marakwet County. Her husband Paul Kiplagat, was shot dead by bandits, shows his grave on June 6, 2023.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya I Nation Media Group

“I have three children whom I have since raised with a lot of struggle. The eldest is a third-year student at one of the universities. Since his (Kiplagat’s) demise, life has been hard as livestock was our economic mainstay and my husband the breadwinner,” she narrates.

In 2019, they started a group through which to raise money and set up small businesses. However, the initiatives collapsed following further attacks. “Insecurity disrupted our regular meetings as people moved to the escarpment fleeing from the bandits. The county has since donated to us dairy goats, which are giving us milk,” she says.

Most of them also depend on mangoes, but the harvests are seasonal. “The government should come to our aid and give us start-up loans for business to allow us to sustain our families. Getting a bursary is not easy as some people say we are not special enough to be given priority.”

Elgeyo Marakwet County Gender Adviser Winnie Kanda says more than 1,500 people have been killed in the three wards since 1992 and that has slowed down the region's development.

“Stigma is now creeping in. We had an economic empowerment meeting for all women last month. We were surprised to learn the meeting had been branded a widows' meeting,” she says.

“Those widowed and orphaned by banditry have been undergoing a lot of challenges and society should embrace them. They have never been through any form of psychosocial support. This has made them unable to cope with the grief.”

Ms Kanda said another challenge the widows are facing is moving on with their social lives because they are culturally tied to their departed husbands. “They will be disowned if they are found with other men. The widows cannot move on and have to struggle. And in the worst scenarios, some unruly clan members disinherit them.”

She said many children are now in charge of their homes, something that leads to a high number of school dropouts and early marriages.

Many of the widows have been registered under the Pokot, Turkana and Marakwet Women Peace Network (Potuma), which is engaging them in peace and reconciliation efforts.

Former Cabinet Minister Linah Kilimo, an official of the network, says the cost and effect of banditry is heavy on families and they fully support government efforts to restore security.

“How I wish we could stop these killings in Kerio Valley because we are increasing the number of widows and orphans. The killings are costly to many families in the region,” she said in a recent interview.

In neighbouring Samburu and Laikipia counties, the script is the same. Many women have been left widows.


In spite of the government's disarmament efforts, many pastoralists in Elgeyo Marakwet, West Pokot, Baringo, Laikipia, Turkana and Samburu now consider acquiring automatic weapons following the rise of cattle rustling, especially during droughts, to protect themselves.

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

Loss of limbs and life, violent displacement of populations and a sense of utter hopelessness is the order of life in a landscape of incessant cattle theft, murder and mayhem.

Successive governments have issued edicts against the crimes, but none has shown the capacity to tackle the crisis conclusively. The attackers leave a trail of destruction in their wake, sparing not even security personnel.