High rankibng personalities and politicians were totally absent as Solai residents marked the first year after raging waters claimed 48 lives, swept hundreds of houses and property downstream in a hitherto sleepy area of Nakuru town.
To the 25 year old survivor Elisabeth Yakir the first anniversary which was devoid of publicity was a sharp contrast to events after Patel Dam broke its banks releasing millions of cubic litres of water, displacing thousands and leaving behind a trail of destruction that suddenly thrust Solai into the international limelight.
All that remains for Yakir are poignant memories of the now nonexistent convoys of vehicles that snaked for days into the ill-fated surrounding villages of Energy, Nyakinyua, Endao, Milmet and Arutani bringing in emergency medical and food supplies or ferrying high profile political operatives.
All the victims and survivors recollect the fateful night of May 9, 2018 very silently and privately. We had expected high ranking personalities to come and commiserate with us.
There were no local and international media crews to capture unfolding events, not even Members of County Assembly graced the occasion, with eerie silence in the skies as there were no roars of helicopters flying in bigwigs.
The absence of the big shots notwithstanding, Yakir is elated that some 37 families who were victims of the Solai dam tragedy got a new lease of life after they were handed new houses by the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS).
She however feels that a major segment of victims and survivors who had rented houses or leased farms within the five villages struck by the calamity have not been adequately involved in the reconstruction and planned restitution programmes.
Compensation talk and reconstruction programs have only centered on those victims and survivors who owned land here. Besides the deaths, a significant proportion of the over 5,000 people rendered homeless by the tragedy had either rented dwellings or leased farming land from locals.
Those of us who had rented rooms here are not angry. It can happen to anyone. We have made peace with our losses and want to focus on the positive.
“All we ask for is that we should also be considered and supported as we slowly rebuild our lives. I personally know 21 other families that had rented premises here who lost family members and property yet they have not been considered for any form of reparation,” said Yakir.
Though she still bears the scars of losing her 70 year old mother and 13 year old niece in the disaster, Yakir is hopeful that finally all those affected will be served justice through litigation and some forms of compensation.
“The Solai community reconstruction programme should ensure that besides all the victims having a place to call home, they also go back to their economic activities particularly farming which is the main life line of this area” she stated.
Chairman to Solai Restoration Programme Maina Muihia said a number of permanent and semi-permanent houses were still coming up, as part of a restoration programme spearheaded by the Africa Inland Church (AIC) and Kenya Red Cross (KRS).
He however regretted that residents can no longer farm since the once fertile soil is now covered with rocks.
Some 12 months later, huge boulders, partially ruined buildings and gullies characterize what was once a rich agricultural area, lush with crops.
“We are happy the sh37m housing project was completed in time. Our next focus will be on land reclamation, which is an important undertaking fully restoring normalcy in the lives of survivors.
Before the tragedy locals planted various crops including maize and peas, but now the soil is rocky and unproductive. They cannot farm anymore unless the fertile top soil that was swept away is restored,” Muihia said.
All the productive soil on a stretch of at least 15 kilometers was swept away.
The chairman stated that the humanitarian organization had also rehabilitated a borehole at Solai Nyakinyua Primary School, whose classrooms were swept away.
Safaricom helped rebuild the school, which was the most affected, and is also actively involved in the restoration. It has also partnered with Nakuru County to help the survivors.
Kenya Power and other corporates have also stepped in to restore water and electricity supply after the raging waters destroyed power lines and water pipes.
“My administration is determined to ensure the survivors get back to their normal lives. I will ensure this happens as soon as possible,” Nakuru Governor Lee Kinyanjui said when he launched the restoration initiative a few months ago.
Nine individuals, including the two owners of the killer dam, Mansukhulal Kansagara and Patel Kumar, have been charged at a Naivasha court in connection with the deaths of the 48 people in the tragedy.
They face charges of manslaughter and neglect of official duties which they have denied. They are out on Sh5 million bond each as hearing of the matter drags.
Kabazi ward representative Dr. Peter Mbae has sued the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), the National Water Conservation and Pipeline Corporation, Tindress Patel Coffee Estates and Salt Manufacturers Company.
He sought orders to compel NEMA to conduct an environmental impact assessment of the seven dams in the farm that were not affected by the tragedy. The Member of County Assembly also wants the dam owner compelled to restore the ecosystem within his farm after the assessment.
The Law Society of Kenya and the National Environment Complaints Committee were enjoined as interested parties in the case before the Environment and Land Court. Early this year, the court allowed Dr. Mbae to amend his petition to include findings and recommendations of a report by the Senate team.
Also at least 300 survivors plan to sue for compensation through the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC).
Revelations indicated that the tragedy was a result of excess water from three rivers that were blocked and directed to the ill-fated dam. Further inquiries revealed that the Patel Farm owners had eight private dams without requisite permits.
Kenya National Human Rights Commission Executive Director George Kegoro says compensation is the only way of giving justice to the families, and that they should be accorded an opportunity to live a dignified life.
In the meantime, there is a glimmer of hope as things are beginning to return to normal. The shopping center through which the floodwaters swept is slowly coming back to life, with a number of businesses that had closed gradually reopening.
By Anne Mwale