Climate migration: Kenyan woman loses almost everything to more

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

The vast freshwater lake teeming with birdlife and aquatic life in the semi-arid volcanic region of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley had long been an oasis. It attracted fishermen and international tourists to the community, about a five-hour drive from Nairobi.

But in the past decade, Lake Baringo has doubled in size, mainly due to heavy rainfall linked to climate change, according to scientists, and its rapidly rising waters are becoming more of a threat. The expanding lake has engulfed homes and hotels, bringing in crocodiles and hippos that have appeared on people’s doorsteps and in classrooms.

“In the past that was not the case,” says Keben. “People would move if the water moves, but it would move back soon enough.”

Keben never thought he would leave.

Then the lake took away almost everything.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series exploring the lives of people around the world forced to relocate because of rising seas, drought, scorching temperatures, and other things caused or exacerbated by climate change.

In her last moments in Kampi ya Samaki, Keben was washing up yard waste in the refreshing waters of Lake Baringo. It had been a day when she had worked in the cornfields with her husband. Night fell. She thought about going back home to prepare dinner.

“I had barely bent over to wash my right leg when I saw a crocodile emerge from the water,” she said. “I screamed so loud, but unfortunately I fell into the lake.”

The crocodile dragged her into deeper water as she tried to fend it off. Her husband ran from the fields to her screams. But she struggled to stay above the surface.

She managed to lift her hand above the water and wiggle her fingers, hoping her husband, now on the shore, would see them.

Laban Keben saw it, jumped in and grabbed her, but the ferocious beast held out. 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 two other children.

Not knowing what else to do, he started screaming for help. Another man ran at the crocodile with a machete and struck at the crocodile, Laban said, and suddenly he swam away, leaving Winnie’s limp body behind.

Her leg was nothing but bones with hanging flesh, said Laban, who along with local residents carried Winnie along flooded roads to the nearest paved road where vehicles could take her to medical care. But at the hospital in the next town, doctors said they were not equipped 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 because I knew I wouldn’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 expenses.

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

They left their community, the final loss.

A resident of another village, Meisori, heard of their ordeal and offered to take them in, a gesture of kindness for which she is grateful.

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

“I loved my house very much because I could farm with my husband and raise money for food and school fees,” Winnie said.

With only one leg, Winnie said she can no longer burp. Her husband earns a living by digging latrines and working on nearby farms to support their growing family. Last month she gave birth to her sixth child.

“Now we are country beggars,” she said.

Baringo is one of ten 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 – all the way to Uganda – are also affected. The rain-fed waters have flooded villages and islands and brought the ferocious Nile crocodiles face to face with the inhabitants.

Rising lake water has displaced more than 75,000 households, according to a 2021 report on the expanding lakes from Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the United Nations Development Programme.

According to the report, flooding around Lake Baringo is among the worst, with more than 3,000 households destroyed.

Lake Baringo remains an important source of fresh water for villagers, livestock, fisheries and wildlife. But scientists fear it could one day merge with a large salt lake not far away, the also expanding Bogoria Lake, which would pollute the freshwater.

Keben remembers that the shoreline was a short walk from their home and the hippos and crocodiles resided 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 short visit – and for good reason. The risks of such attacks have only increased: since she left, more crocodiles and hippos have emerged in Kampi ya Samaki.

It is not rare for village children to have scars from sharp teeth marks.

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

A 10-year-old boy was recently dragged away by a hippo and has not been found.

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

“That’s the place I called home,” she said, her voice still filled with pain.

Watson reported from San Diego.

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