Winnie Keben felt blessed to raise her children in her husband’s family home just 500 meters from the shores of Lake Baringo in Kenya‘s Great Rift Valley.
The huge freshwater lake, about a five-hour drive from the capital Nairobi, had attracted international fishermen and tourists.
But it has doubled in the last decade, swollen by heavy rains that scientists have linked to climate change.
Its rising waters have swallowed homes and hotels, bringing crocodiles and hippos to their doorsteps and into classrooms.
“It wasn’t like that before,” Winnie said.
“People would move if the water moved, but it would recede soon enough.”
She never thought they would leave their home in the seaside village of Kampi ya Samaki.
Then the lake took away almost everything.
On her last night at Kampi ya Samaki, Winnie washed herself in the lake.
She had spent the day working in the corn fields with her husband.
It was evening.
Then something moved.
“I had just bent down to wash my right leg when I saw a crocodile emerge from the water. I screamed so loud, but unfortunately I fell in the lake,” Winnie said.
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 animal held her.
He tried again. And again. After his third attempt, his wife and the mother of their children lost consciousness.
“I saw them die and leave me behind,” Laban said.
He thought of their daughter, barely six months old, and their other two children.
He started 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.
Her leg was reduced to bones with flesh hanging down, said Laban, who along with other residents carried Winnie past flooded streets 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 not prepared for 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 had to amputate 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 rained incessantly.
The lake took even more.
It flooded their home and farmland.
Then it took away their fellowship.
They were taken in by someone in another village.
Leaving Kampi ya Samaki, where her husband and children were born, still hurts, Winnie said.
“I loved my place very much as I was able to farm with my husband and raise money for food and tuition.”
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.
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 inundated villages and islands, confronting residents with wild Nile crocodiles.
The lake’s rising waters have displaced more than 75,000 households, according to a joint 2021 report by the Kenyan government and the United Nations.
The flooding around Lake Baringo was among the worst, with more than 3,000 homes destroyed, according to the report.
Lake Baringo still provides fresh water 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.
Winnie 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. Today they attack everything,” said Winnie.
Winnie is still haunted by her attack a decade ago.
She has not returned to her family’s village – not even for a short visit.
The risk of attacks like hers has only increased: since she left, more crocodiles and hippos have appeared in Kampi ya Samaki, and village children are left with sharp tooth marks.
Others, like Winnie, 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.
Winnie said she has no intention of ever returning to Kampi ya Samaki.
But she still misses it.
“This is the place I’ve called home,” she said.