As the month of August approached and the political noise from the rest of the country rose to a crescendo, an ongoing conflict in the Southern Coast of Kenya, East Africa’s largest economy continued unabated.
Here, party manifestos, campaign posters, placards, T-shirts have no place in the collective psyches of the residents. Their days are punctuated by more urgent thoughts. The men think about more concrete things.
“I worry about where my family will sleep tonight. Where I will get food and when I will go back home,” Johnson Mketta said. He is among the hundreds of Nyongoro residents that have run away from their homes to a camp at Katsakakairu primary school grounds.
“We don’t know what to do anymore. We feel lost,” he said.
For close to five years now, an insurgency in this Kenya’s coastal region has gone on almost silently. More than twice, strangers have walked into homes. Called out the names of the men inside. Pulled them out. Tied their hands behind their backs. Lay them down on the brown soil.
Soil that they have cultivated over years to feed their families and fatten their animals. Soil that they have turned to mud and put up the walls that make their houses. Soil that, eventually seeped up blood as it came from their slit throats as they bled to death.
“Sijui sisi tulimkosea nani, kila siku ni hatari tu,” Mketa says. “hatuwezi panga chochote. Maisha yetu yote yamepanguliwa.”
An on-off curfew since 2014 has not helped. The deployment of contingents of the military, the police and the General Service Unit has done little to deter terrorists who strike, then melt away into the surrounding areas. It seems, at least for now, that the security forces are losing the war against the insurgents.
And it is people like Mketa who are bearing the brunt of it all.
A month ago, Katsakakiaru primary school used to have a playing ground. The thinning grass at the centre of field perhaps an indicator of the amount of joy time off class and a kickabout of football brought to the students of that school.
Now white tarpaulin tents occupy that space, their roofs competing for space with the cross bar of the goal posts on either end of the football field. Under the tarpaulin stand frail stick frames bending to the maximum from the weight of the tarpaulin.
The shelters are closely packed together, arranged in neat rows with narrow corridors between them. Children have other children on their backs. Privacy is a distant memory. There are no bathrooms. There are no toilets. The pygmy bushes nearby offer the only cover for a call of nature.
“When it rains, all our dirty secrets are washed back to where the shelters are,” Mketta says.
The fathers are away to the nearby town of Nyongoro and Witu looking for menial jobs to do. The mothers are lighting fires out of the hope that the husbands will come back home with the day’s supper.
The children are lost in their own little world oblivious of the worries and fears their parents fight each night, eagerly waiting for the day to break but silently fearing that the sun might bring with it some more bad news of gruesome murders which always seems to be just around the corner.
Days to the election, masked men raided Mketta’s village in the still of the night. When they left, six of his friends lay dead. Throats slit open.
“That is why we left our homes to this place,” he says. “We do not know whether we will ever go back home.”
On August 2nd, as both Jubillee and Nasa were preparing for their final election campaigns, three people were killed after the militants attacked a passenger bus and a car at Nyongoro area in Witu, Lamu County.
The incident happened on Lamu- Garsen highway, police said. Four other people were left with serious bullet wounds. The deceased were in a Toyota Rav4 vehicle which was attacked and burnt by the militants. The bus was on its way from Mombasa to Kipini at about 3.30pm when the incident happened.
Driving on the main Garsen- Mokowe road from either direction is a ride disrupted by not only the roughness of the road on some stretches, but the numerous police check-points.
The rumbling police lorries, speeding landcruisers and occasional military armoured vehicles provide a blanket feeling of security for a traveller. But for many residents, it is a representation of the state attempt to pacify an area that seems keen to become the country’s problem child.
“We keep asking ourselves why these attacks continued almost unabated while we have all these security men here? Why is it so difficult to keep our people safe,” Kitsao Ndokolani says.
On election eve, a main power transmission line was hit by the insurgents plunging almost the entire county into darkness and panic.
Kistao is a son of Nyongoro. He was there in 2014 when Al Shabab ran havoc in neighbouring areas and went on a blood thirsty spree on a dark night that left almost 60 people dead. Before that, they had visited their terror on Mpeketoni town. Successive attacks led to more deaths.
The more deaths led to the deployment of more security personnel to the county who have never left and to some, continue to chase after their own shadows.
“We have had curfews. We have had bans on road transportation. Our lives have ground to a halt. Our lives are becoming worse, not better.”
Schools have been closed, with the education of hundreds of children in an area whose education standards are lagging behind the national average put on hold.
“We are at a bad place,” Mketta says.
Katsakakairu means ‘black forest’ in the local Giriama dialect. And as the sun dips behind the white tarpaulin roofs at the IDP camp of the school, the women still tend to their fires. This time though, a few of them have places sufurias with water on the three stoned fire places. Sparks escape the embers before entirely being swallowed whole by the dark sky.
The men start walking into the camp one by one. Some with some meat, others with some bread, other with nothing. All of them however, carrying with them the hope for a return to a normalcy that seems distant. A past that Nyongoro residents continue to long for.