Uhuru Kenyatta

President Uhuru Kenyatta, ODM leader Raila Odinga and Water and Sanitation Cabinet Secretary Sicily Kariuki after unveiling commemorative plaque to commission the Siaya Bondo Water Supply and Sanitation Project in Yala, Siaya County on May 30, 2021.

| Ondari Ogega | Nation Media Group

How Uhuru visit exposed River Yala bodies dump 

What you need to know:

  • Officers from Yala police station were quickly called to take the bodies away before word spread about the discovery.
  • The area around the plant was spruced up and President Kenyatta arrived as promised in the company of opposition leader Raila Odinga.

As President Uhuru Kenyatta prepared for his maiden post-handshake tour of Nyanza last May, where he commissioned several projects, workers preparing for the launch of the Siaya-Bondo Water Supply Project made a shocking discovery that almost slammed the brakes on everything.

The Yala Treatment Plant, which is the first phase of the Sh2.4 billion Siaya-Bondo water project that the President launched on May 30, is a true engineering marvel set in one of the best locations in nature.

Located next to the scenic Ndanu Waterfall, rushing water in the 219-kilometre long River Yala is slowed down by a concrete barrier that helps it to generate volume. Excess water is then diverted to a spillway that runs along the right side of the river past a giant metallic sieve before emptying into a coagulation tank where the treatment process begins.

One can see the whole water project if they stand at the mouth of the spillway. Since construction began in 2013, the first stage of the Yala water treatment plant has turned the area into a tourism site popular with students of Maseno University due to the scenic Ndanu falls.

So popular is the area that an investor tried to build a restaurant and a bridge over the waterfall, but he was kicked out to give way for the project when construction was midway. Today, a partly constructed bridge that is strong enough to carry a handful of photo hungry adults seeking a thrill stands as a reminder of the tourism potential the area holds.

It was, therefore, automatic that President Kenyatta would be taken to the falls to witness the first stage of water treatment and appreciate the beauty of Siaya County, before commissioning the project.

However, as workers, with the help of local residents spruced up the falls -- cutting down overgrown tree branches that would have obscured the President’s view, and removing plastic litter carried from upstream -- they stumbled on gunny bags that were partly hidden by reeds.

They were four in number. From their state, it seemed they had stayed in the water for a long time without being noticed. They were emitting a stench – the smell of death. They contained four bodies.

“They were all badly decomposed, almost only skeletons,” a worker at the plant told us.

“There is no way you could have told who those people were, but we had a crisis on our hands,” said the worker.

Decomposing bodies

The President was just days away from commissioning the plant, yet the point where the water that was supposed to be treated for the residents of Siaya to drink had four decomposing bodies.

According to the Africa Development Bank (AFDB), the chief financier of the project, some Sh265 million had already been sunk into the water treatment plant and 201,258 people were already benefiting from it. 

“The aim of the programme is to improve the quality of life and reduce poverty levels of the population of Kenya through provision of water and sanitation services on a sustainable basis,” said AFDB.

“It involves construction of the return line from Nyamninia to Yala, renovation works for the old Sidindi Malanga raising main, repair of the Nyamninia tank and treatment work master meter, provision of 3,000 consumer connection kits, among others,” said the bank.

Drinking water from a river that has human corpses can make you sick, although the chances are low, according to medical experts. This is because pathogens that are present in the human body will probably die before they can harm you, since bacteria can only thrive within a certain temperature range.

Coliform bacteria, however, which naturally lives in a healthy person’s intestinal tract and faeces, can diffuse and survive long enough in the water to get to your tap. When ingested, the bacteria can cause vomiting, diarrhoea and other gastro-intestinal diseases.

In addition, if the people whose corpses are found in water had infectious diseases such as hepatitis, tuberculosis or pneumonia, their pathogens can be spread through the water since they are resistant to chlorine, which is used to treat the water. 

Yet, despite the discovery of the four bodies, and the risks they presented to the general population that was going to drink the water from the treatment plant, government officials decided to go on with the launch.

Officers from Yala police station were quickly called to take the bodies away before word spread about the discovery. The area around the plant was spruced up and President Kenyatta arrived as promised in the company of opposition leader Raila Odinga on May 30, and the project was launched.

“Clean water is the basis of good health. This project will ensure all residents get access to tap water in their homes. When we have water, then families will be healthy. Clean water is the foundation of a healthy society,” said the President.

It is unclear if the President’s protocol office or his security team was informed of the gruesome discovery. Residents, however, say from then on, they witnessed a surge in the number of bodies found in the river.

“It is not unusual for a hospital located near a riparian area to get bodies. We have been receiving bodies from the time the morgue was constructed,” says Dr Bruno Okal, the medical superintendent at the Yala Sub County Hospital.

“What was unusual was the surge in numbers, but I can’t really say when it began,” says the boss of the hospital whose morgue cannot take any more bodies at the moment because it is filled past capacity with corpses collected from the river.

Police records from the Yala station show that by October 12 last year, 14 unidentified corpses had been collected from the river.

What raised alarm bells, however, was not the fact that the police were constantly picking bodies from the river, but a complaint by the Siaya County Government that the Yala mortuary was overwhelmed.

Between October 3 and October 11, five bodies were collected from the Ndawa bridge area. The first body was collected on October 3; two others on October 10; two more on October 11.

Photos taken after their recovery, which the Nation Investigations desk has seen, show that all the bodies belonged to men, they were all naked apart from their underwear, and they were all stashed in 90-kilogramme gunny bags.

“Having the bodies put in a sack points to murder. It is possible the victims were killed elsewhere and their bodies dumped at the bridge,” Gem Sub County Police Commander Charles Chacha said at the time, while asking area residents who have missing persons to report to authorities.

“Doing so will help us to identify the bodies and establish whether they are residents of this sub county,” explained the police boss.

Discovery of bodies

Police suspected that either local criminal gangs were killing people and throwing them in the river, or the corpses were flowing downstream from elsewhere and getting stuck at the Ndanu waterfalls. This last theory was bolstered by the fact that October is a wet month, and the water level in the river is usually high, raising the possibility of a body being washed downstream and then getting stuck on the rocks at the waterfall.

A police officer who has been involved in the collection of all the bodies from the river, however, says the bodies collected in October when the surge was noticed were so fresh that officers could tell the victims had been tortured.

Yet despite the alarming clues, the Gem Sub County police headquarters, which is less than a kilometre from the scene, did nothing apart from collect more bodies when alerted by the residents.

There was no attempt to identify the dead, and worse, the locations where the corpses were found were never secured. 

Meanwhile, bodies showed up in the river every few days.

“Every four days we were getting bodies in the river, and they were all men,” says Mr Dennis Odhiambo, an elder at Ulumbi village.

So frequent was the discovery of bodies in the river that Fr Clement Goro, the Yala Catholic Parish priest, says that by the time the crisis hit the headlines in January after 36 corpses were found within a short span of time, the community was almost immune to the discoveries.

“During my rounds in the villages, boda boda riders would stop me and say ‘Father they have recovered another aliya from the water’,” says the priest.

Aliya refers to sun dried beef in the local Dholuo language.

“When people started becoming immune to discovery of the bodies, it got me concerned. The Luo culture respects the dead, and the bodies were not just a health hazard, but the lives of our people were at stake,” says Fr Goro.

“I asked the OCPD and he said ‘yes we are getting bodies, but we don’t know who is dumping them’. I told him if the police don’t know who is dumping the bodies they should at least secure the area and stop those doing it,” says the priest.

That did not happen. When the Nation visited the area in the course of this investigation, Ndawa bridge, Yala old market bridge and Ndanu falls were still unsecured.

According to residents, the three locations, which lie along a two-kilometre stretch of the River Yala, are where bodies have been found – and for good reason: Yala town is built around two rivers and their bridges; Ndawa and Yala, the Kisumu-Butere railway line and the Kisumu-Busia highway. Before 1962, motorists travelling from Kisumu to Busia had to pass though old Yala market, a diversion from the current highway because the Yala bridge had not been built.

Today, the old Yala market is a ghost town that only comes alive on Tuesdays for the livestock market. One can, however, branch off the main highway, pass the old Yala market and cross River Yala on the old bridge, before rejoining the highway. The bridge passes over a deep and wide section of the river made so by sand harvesting.

On the opposite side of the highway, before reaching Yala town from Kisumu, a motorist can branch towards the road to Ulumbi village, via the Ndawa bridge and head to Kakamega through Khumusalaba.

Human traffic on those two routes is minimal, which makes it easy for someone to dump something into the water without being noticed. 

A market woman tells the Nation that she encountered some armed men standing next to a double-cabin pick-up truck parked on the Ndawa bridge, who chased her away. It was about 4am in December last year, and she was on her way to buy stock.

“Two men were outside the vehicle with huge guns. I tried to ignore and look away while walking fast but one of them shouted that I mind my own business unless I wanted to die,” says the woman.

Later that day, two bodies were discovered in the water near the bridge.

Tomorrow: We reveal the identities of the bodies found in River Yala, plus how it points to who may have killed them and why the state is not in a hurry to find the killers.

Friends in life and in death:How two men were lured from their homes for a trip to Kisumu that ended in their murders and their bodies dumped in River Yala.