Climate migration: The Kenyan woman loses almost everything to the lake

KAMPI ya SAMAKI, Kenya—Winnie Keben felt blessed to raise her children in her husband’s home in the community of Kampi ya Samaki—just over 500 meters from the shore of Lake Baringo.

The vast freshwater lake in Kenya‘s semi-arid volcanic region of the Great Rift Valley has long been an oasis. It drew fishermen and international tourists to the community, about a five-hour drive from Nairobi.

But over the past decade, scientists say Lake Baringo has doubled in size largely due to heavy rains linked to climate change, and its rapidly rising waters are becoming a growing threat. The expanding lake has swallowed homes and hotels, bringing in crocodiles and hippos that have appeared on people’s doorsteps and in classrooms.

“It wasn’t like that before,” said Keben. “People would move if the water moved, but it would recede soon enough.”

Keben never thought he would leave.

Then the lake took away almost everything.

In her final moments in Kampi ya Samaki, Keben was rinsing off garden dirt in the refreshing waters of Lake Baringo. It had been a day when she and her husband worked their corn fields. It was evening. She thought of going back to the house to make dinner.

Then something moved.

“As soon as I bent down to wash my right leg, I saw a crocodile emerge from the water,” she said. “I screamed so loud, but unfortunately I fell into the lake.”

The crocodile pulled her into deeper water as she tried to fight back. Her husband ran towards her screams from the fields. But she struggled to stay above the surface.

She managed to stretch her hand out over the water and wiggle her fingers, hoping her husband, who was now on shore, would see her.

Laban Keben saw, jumped in and grabbed her, but the wild beast caught her. Laban tried again. And again. After his third attempt, his wife and the mother of their children lost consciousness, he said.

“I saw her die and leave me behind,” he said.

He thought of their daughter, barely six months old, and their other two children.

Not knowing what else to do, he began screaming for help. Another man ran over with a machete and struck the crocodile, Laban said, and suddenly it swam away, leaving Winnie’s limp body in his wake.

Doctors cut her leg

Her leg was nothing but bone with hanging flesh, said Laban, who along with local residents carried Winnie past flooded roads to the nearest paved road where vehicles could take her to medical supplies. But at the hospital in the next town, doctors said they were unable to treat such a serious injury.

Two hospitals later, she feared she would not survive.

“I told my husband to pick up my kids and take them to my mom’s because I knew I couldn’t make it,” she said.

Doctors eventually amputated the leg to save her life. Her mother stayed by her bedside until she was discharged from the hospital.

The family was forced to sell their chickens and goats to cover their medical costs.

But while she was healing, it kept raining incessantly. The lake took even more from the Kebens. It flooded their home and farmland.

The ultimate loss

They left their community, the final defeat.

A resident from another village, Meisori, found out about her ordeal and offered to take her in, a gesture of kindness for which she is grateful.

But leaving Kampi ya Samaki, where her husband and children were born, still hurts her.

“I really loved my place because I could farm with my husband and raise money for groceries and school fees,” Winnie said.

With only one leg, Winnie said she couldn’t farm anymore. Her husband earns a meager living digging pit latrines and working on local farms to support the growing family. She gave birth to her sixth child last month.

“Now we are country beggars,” she said.

75,000 households displaced

Baringo is one of 10 lakes in Kenya’s Rift Valley that have expanded over the past decade. The entire East African Rift System, which extends south to Mozambique, and the western Rift Valley to Uganda are also affected. The rain-fed waters have submerged villages and islands, bringing wild Nile crocodiles face-to-face with the residents.

The rising waters of the lakes have displaced more than 75,000 households, according to a 2021 report by Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the United Nations Development Program on the expanding lakes.

The flooding around Lake Baringo was among the worst, with more than 3,000 homes destroyed, according to the report.

Lake Baringo remains an important freshwater source for villagers, livestock, fisheries, and wildlife. However, scientists fear that it may one day merge with a large salt lake nearby, Lake Bogoria, which is also growing, and contaminate the freshwater.

Keben remembers when the shore was a short walk from her home and the hippos and crocodiles stayed deep in the lake.

“They never attacked people or animals,” Keben said. “Today they attack everything.”

Keben, 28, is still haunted by her attack a decade ago. She has not returned to her family’s village – not even for a brief visit – and with good reason. The risks of such attacks have only increased: since she left, more crocodiles and hippos have appeared in Kampi ya Samaki.

It is now not uncommon to see village children with sharp tooth marks.

Others, like Keben, have lost limbs and an unknown number have died.

A 10-year-old boy was recently abducted by a hippopotamus and has not been found.

Keben said she has no intention of ever returning to Kampi ya Samaki. Although she longs for the community.

“This is the place I called home,” she said, her voice still filled with pain. Watson reported from San Diego.

Credit: AP/Brian Inganga

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