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Kenya: helping restore normality to Mount Elgon

30-12-2008 Feature

The farming communities in the Mount Elgon region of Kenya were severely disrupted by violence in 2007. Working closely with the Kenya Red Cross Society, the ICRC has been supplying food, seed and farming implements, helping residents of the area to regain their self-sufficiency.



  ©ICRC/F. Grimm    
  Mount Elgon, Kenya. Happy faces of children from Chepkube, high up the mountain.    

 Mount Elgon - Facts and figures, 30 November 2008  


In response to the violence in Mount Elgon, the ICRC started working with the Kenya Red Cross Society in May 2007. Initially, 40,000 people required assistance, the number rising quickly as the security situation worsened. At the end of the distributions in October 2008, the Red Cross was helping over 72,000 displaced persons from the Cheptais, Kopsiro, Kaptama and Kapsakwony divisions of Mount Elgon.

 Red Cross action in  2007  :  

  • At the onset of the violence in May, 6,000 people received household items comprising kitchen sets, tarpaulins, buckets, mosquito nets, kangas (the rectangles of cloth commonly worn in Kenya), sleeping mats, jerrycans, soap, clothing and blankets.

  • In November, more than 5,000 displaced people received food : cooking oil, maize and beans. The number rose to over 20,000 in December.

 Operations doubled in  2008  :  

  • 72,000 people received food between February and October. Every month, each household received 37.5 kg maize, 12.5 kg of beans, 5 litres of oil and 0.5 kg of salt.

  • 42,000 internally displaced persons who had access to land received seed in April. The seed comprised 10 kg of maize seed, 15 kg of bean seed and 100 g of vegetable seed (carrot, cabbage, onion, tomato and green pepper).

  • Families received fertilizers (50 kg of urea and 25 kg of DAP) and two hoes to enable them to grow food.

  • 3,000 families benefited from agronomy kits in October. The kits comprised 100 g of vegetable seed (onion, carrot, cabbage and tomato) and 25 kg of DAP.

  • The number of people who received household kits increased to 30,000 at the end of November 2008.

  • The ICRC has been working with the Kenya Red Cross Society to reunite families separated by the violence.

Red Cross aid helps the residents of Mount Elgon start again


  ©ICRC/F. Grimm    
Mount Elgon, Kenya. Red Cross volunteers and Mount Elgon residents unload relief at a distribution site. 
     Mount Elgon is one of Kenya's most fertile regions, so it may come as a surprise that the Red Cross has had to distribute food there. But since 2006, violence has forced the people of this area to flee, leaving their farms behind.  

With no farms and no money, they turned to relief organizations for sustenance. The ICRC stepped in; working with the Kenya Red Cross Society, the organization began supporting affected families.

For almost a year, the Red Cross distributed monthly rations consisting of cooking oil, salt, maize and beans to 12,000 families.

Relative calm has returned to the region and many people have gone home, but the majority are living with relatives or have bought land and settled elsewhere.

Elizabeth Chemutai is a widow with several children. Elizabeth fled from her home in Chebyuk settlement scheme, one of the areas hardest hit by the violence. She has been staying at her uncle’s house ever since.

”It has been a difficult period, especially for the widows,” says Chemutai. “To make things worse, many homesteads in Mount Elgo n are now led by women because the men are missing. They were either abducted or had to flee for their lives.”

  ©ICRC/F. Grimm    
  Mount Elgon, Kenya. With the ICRC truck all closed up and ready to roll, residents start collecting the newly-delivered supplies.    

Like many others, she has been relying on the Red Cross for food and other necessities. With no land to farm, feeding her five children was an uphill task. When the Red Cross distributed food for the last time, Chemutai arrived with her basket to wait as she had done many times before.

Some of those waiting bore the marks of violence. The anxiety showed, as they had grown accustomed to the trucks and Land Cruisers arriving with food for the month.

Martin Geiywa is on the local committee that vets the beneficiaries, making sure that only those who need them get rations. Martin left his home in Chebyuk in August 2006 when he saw a man being killed outside his farm.

  ©ICRC/F. Grimm    
  Mount Elgon, Kenya. Residents show their ICRC ration cards at a distribution site.    

Martin has nine children to feed from the monthly Red Cross rations. He says the food has been regular since November 2007, when the Red Cross first brought relief to the people of Mount Elgon.

”It will be a loss for us when the Red Cross stops supporting us, but they have made a good plan to make sure that we grow our own food. Besides, our land is very productive and we will regain our pride when we sell our food again,” says Martin.

The last distributions took place in October, but the residents were prepared for the end of the programme well in advance.

“We wanted people to be able to provide for themselves. In April 2008 we distributed the first seed and tools, in addition to the food rations,” says ICRC delegate Philippe Mbonyingingo.

Each family received maize, bean and vegetable seed. Since the families had no implements, the Red Cross gave each of them two hoes, plus a supply of fertilizer.

  ©ICRC/F. Grimm    
  Mount Elgon, Kenya. A Red Cross volunteer checks ration cards.    

Chemutai remembers sharing the seed with her relatives, as it was particularly good and everyone wanted a share. And those who had agreed to give her land to grow crops wanted something in return.

“Without land to farm, your hands are tied. Sometimes we are made to wait for the landowners to finish their harvest, and then we can plant our crops,” says her friend Jane.

The distributions take time, and getting to many of areas is a painstaking task because of the rough roads. A day later, the Red Cross volunteers were at Toiyendet, one of the most remote locations, high up on Mount Elgon.

The ICRC truck driver quickly offloaded the seed and fertilizer then moved on. “We must reach solid ground before the rains begin, otherwise we will get bogged in,” he explained.

So now the people of the region will be able to take up farming again, thanks to the support of the Red Cross.

A ripe harvest on Mount Elgon


  ©ICRC/F. Grimm    
  Mount Elgon, Kenya. A proud farmer with some of the maize he has grown in Mount Elgon's rich soil.    

 The farmers of Mount Elgon are once again reaping the fruits of their labours in the lush Kenyan countryside. After being forced out by fighting, they are returning home. Their hard work, and seed from the ICRC, are getting them back on their feet, as Anne Mucheke reports.  

The hills of Mount Elgon are covered in green, interspersed with the yellow of dry maize stems bundled together. It is harvest time and the donkeys ferrying sack loads of potatoes, onions and healthy green peppers fill the roads from the farm to the market.

People like David Aramisi were farmers in Cheptais division of Mount Elgon, living off the food they sold, until violence disrupted their activities. David left his village, one of those most affected by the violence, and moved to Naivasha, almost 600 km away. There, he worked as a fisherman for several months and only returned home in March 2008 after hearing that security had returned to the area.

He could not settle in Cheptais as his home had burnt down and the situation was still unstable. So he moved to Chepkirieng , a small village at the foot of the mountain. Today David earns a living as a shopkeeper, selling food and plastic shoes. He also sells beans from a sack in the corner of his shop.

  ©ICRC/F. Grimm    
  Mount Elgon, Kenya. Issa Sirmoi with the beans he planted from ICRC seed.    

The beans are the surplus from a crop grown with seed distributed by the Red Cross in April 2008. “The harvest has been good because we planted most of the seed,” he explains. David's family ate some of the beans and saved a sack to sell at the shop.

“The crop has yielded well, supported by the urea and fertilizer the Red Cross provided,” says Issa Sirmoi, a young man who serves on the village committee.

On a nearby farm, Issa points out a plantation of young beans, explaining that this is the second crop planted from an initial harvest. All around are homesteads. Some are deserted, but most are harvesting maize grown with seed from the Red Cross.

Further up, in Chepkube, Vincas Chemogoi sits outside his homestead, his granary full of food. Beans hang out to dry on the gate, their tips tied together. His wife and children are harvesting vegetables from the garden, a stone's throw away.

Theirs is a lush area, where the mountain borders Uganda and the mobile phones switch back and forth between the Kenyan and Ugandan networks. The climate here is perfect for growing food. It rains almost every afternoon, yet the temperatures are friendly, getting warmer at the foot of the mountain.

  ©ICRC/F. Grimm    
  Mount Elgon, Kenya. Jackline Chemutai proudly displays her spring onions, ready for harvesting, as her son watches in the background.    

The barn is full of maize waiting to be ground into flour to make ugali, a staple for the local people. Vincas is soft spoken and wary of strangers. It has been a difficult time for the people here. Vincas explains that he had to flee to the foot of the mountain and only returned home at the end of June, after calm had been restored.

“I bought this plot where my family lives. The original owner left and abandoned it so I took it up and paid some money,” he says. David is happy that he has some to feed his family, from the seeds planted in March. He adds that this is the second harvest from the crop; the first was in August.

At Toiyendet, Jackline Chemutai welcomes us to her home, proud to show us a crop she is about to harvest. The maize on her farm is growing well and the spring onions have matured, ready to be picked. She has eight children and her husband is out tending the cattle on a small area of land they have rented.

  ©ICRC/F. Grimm    
  Mount Elgon, Kenya. A woman with carrots ripe for picking, grown from seed distributed by the ICRC.    

“This crop has been our salvation. I already harvested in August and used the money to buy soap and salt, and send our oldest son to school,” says the soft-spoken woman. Her son stands nearby, baseball cap on head and transistor radio in hand, showing that the youth of the area are well in touch with the modern world.

The skies open and it begins to rain. One man calls out from a nearby homestead, “Come and see our carrot crop as well, we are about to har vest!” His wife proudly shows us carrots and onions grown from the seed they were given. Nearby, sweet potatoes and pumpkins grow in abundance.

Mount Elgon has enviable conditions for farming but the residents say they still live in fear. “We have the best land in the country for growing crops but we do not sleep well. We do not know about tomorrow.”

Above and beyond the call


  ©ICRC/F. Grimm    
  Mount Elgon, Kenya. Jane Chepsoi is well on the road to recovery after Red Cross workers helped her get medical treatment.    

 Red Cross workers sometimes come across situations that test their own humanity. In Mount Elgon, they helped one woman restore her dignity by digging into their own pockets. Anne Mucheke reports.  

Jane Chepsoi had been wondering for some time why she felt so ill. “I used to get bad backaches and stomach pains about four times a month. I would also bleed heavily but then I thought it was the usual women's issues,” she explains. In the absence of medical assistance, Jane would take painkillers and get on with her life, but even doing small chores at home was a challenge.

People thought she had been bewitched and neighbours shunned her. Her husband eventually abandoned her, as he could not understand what was happening to his wife.

When the ICRC and Kenya Red Cross began distributing aid in Mount Elgon, neighbours urged her to seek help from them.

“I approached the Red Cross people with this big stomach and told them of my predicament. They immediately referred me to Webuye district hospital for a check-up,” she says. The team was touched by her plight and used their own finances to ensure she received treatment.

Doctors at the hospital did a scan. To Jane’s horror, they discovered she had been carrying a dead foetus in her womb for two years. They immediately wrote a letter recommending urgent surgery to remove the foetus.

Red Cross staff booked her for an operation at the Moi teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret, more than an hour’s drive away. The next time Jane woke up, she was in a hospital bed with a huge bandage around her middle. The first thing that occurred to her was that she had no money to pay the bill.

The doctor reassured her. “You should be grateful for the Red Cross people. Never mind about the bill, it has been settled. This foetus would have killed you if you had kept it any longer.”

Jane was later driven to Bungoma where she recuperated at the district hospital. The members of the Bungoma Red Cross team paid for her medical expenses out of their own pockets right up to the day she was discharged.

Today, Jane is healthier and her tummy is back to normal. “The Red Cross people restored my dignity and I can now face the community,” she says happily.

The after-effects of surgery mean it will be some time before she can resume the hard physical labour of working on her farm. For now, she relies on neighbours and well-wishers for food. Looking after children would be too much of a strain for the moment, so Jane is looking forward to when she will be strong enough to collect her children from Baringo, where they live with her mother.