For over a century, Lake Challa has occupied a special place in the hearts of the Taveta community.
Straddling the border of Kenya and Tanzania in Taita-Taveta County, this 4-km2 crater-lake is a magnificent marine jewel that captures the imaginations of those who see her for the first time.
The ice-cold turquoise waters of a cross-border lake are refreshing for swimmers and fishermen; the towering cliffs are imposing and make for great picturesque; the cascading forest of green vegetation hugging the rocky walls is a breath-taking marvel and the general ambience of the lake soothes the soul, calms troubled hearts and pacifies restless spirit.
That legendary beauty aside, it is the deeper cultural and religious significance of Lake Challa that makes it the singular most important feature for the border community.
The lake is a hallowed shrine; a revered altar where special elders made many sacrifice to appease angry spirits.
Whenever calamities such as disease epidemics, drought and deaths visited the community, special elders from the Umba Sub-clan of the Mnene clan would sacrifice live black heifers by lowering the animal into the choppy waters. The offering would propitiate unhappy gods leading to communal pardon.
While such rites are no longer conducted, the lake continues to play a central role in sustaining the thousands of livelihoods. It boasts of a thriving artisanal fishing industry, supports local tourism and is home to several tree nurseries. All these activities complement the preservation of the lake as a shared communal property.
However, recent development threatens the very survival of the lake. Reports say that an unidentified private developer has laid claim on over 1,000 acres of land adjacent to Lake Challa. The community donated this land for conservation activities.
Mzee Nashon Mkunde, the Chairperson for Njama, says the unprecedented and brazen attempt to convert the lake land into a personal property has triggered consternation and left hundreds of residents stunned. Njama is the official title for the respected Taveta Council of Elders.
“This is not just a lake. It is a community’s shrine. This is where our people have always worshipped and offered sacrifices. That someone can claim this land and erect beacons to make it personal, is a sacrilege beyond words,” stressed the elder.
The land under privatization threat is reserved under Challa Conservation Area. It was set aside for members of the public around 2013 to allow the locals easy access to the scenic lake.
The erection of beacons by the investor was largely seen as the first step to block the local community from gaining access from the lake on the Kenyan side.
With Lake Challa’s unexploited great tourism potential, unconfirmed reports opine that the investor might be after the land to engage in private tourism activities.
Speaking to KNA on Sunday, Mr Julius Meshuri, the Chair of Challa Beach Management Unit, says appropriating the lake for personal use was unheard of. The water body has been a source of livelihoods for hundreds of families in the region.
The Fisherman added that the community had set aside the land adjacent to Lake Challa to make sure it was accessible to everyone regardless of age, economic status or gender.
He disclosed that women and men engaged in fishing, tree planting and canoeing in the waters; activities that are friendly to conservation.
“We have relied on this Lake for years. The land under threat is where we come through and do activities like tree planting and beekeeping,” he explained.
Their efforts to demand to know the identity of the mysterious buyer who is eyeing their traditional shrine has not yielded fruits. However, County officials have vowed to fight all attempts to privatize the land.
The County Executive Committee (CEC) Member for Lands, Mr Mwandawiro Mghanga, stated that the public land would never be converted into private land to the detriment of the welfare of the residents.
He explained that the community had agreed to have the land held in trust for the locals by the County Government.
Mwandawiro disclosed that the individuals behind this attempt were well-connected and had deep pockets to dare engage in such an act.
“This land belongs to the public. It will not be appropriated by greedy individuals who want to deny local residents their rights to access the lake,” he assured.
In its Budget, the County had allocated Sh 2 million to fishermen in Lake Chala to promote crab rearing and cage fishing.
On Saturday, the Taveta Council of Elders held an emergency sitting to discuss the matter. Already, their complaints have been forwarded to the National Government and a Sub-committee of a few selected elders would follow up on their deliberations.
Mzee Mkunde said despite such development, it was disheartening that investors with money and influence could dare attempt to take away their shrine.
“We are told the land will not be taken away after we expressed our outrage. Still, the fact that anyone could try to privatize a shrine speaks of the level of impunity that comes with having money and influence,” he noted.
By Wagema Mwangi