From far, it looks like an impenetrable forest full of warm, thick, heavy, sluggish wind that flows from the north, making trees rustle like living things. With the great silence, one can hardly think there could possibly be people living inside the thick forest. But there are about 300 squatters living in caves within the vast Ortut Forest, Gilgil, 30km from Nakuru town.
Deeper into the forest are gaping caves, some as deep as 70 feet, protruding from the tiny hills, most with four chambers or more to signify partitioning of their 'houses'.
When the Star visited the families in the forest, the misery, lost hope, desperation, and painful memories were written on their faces.
The families have been living there with their children and grandchildren for lack of better shelter due to poverty.
They can hardly afford even one meal a day. Even their schoolchildren hardly get to eat, depending instead on the lunch served in school.
History and livelihoods
Fifty-three years after Kenya attained her independence, a group of squatters is still living in caves.
The forgotten group, which started living in the indigenous forest from 1984, wallows in poverty but is hopeful that someday, the government will recognise and rescue them.
They say most of them came to the forest from Lari, Kiambu county, more than 30 years ago, and settled there as squatters. Their efforts to get support or resettlement from the government over the years have failed.
They survive by harvesting wild fruits and honey, as they try to cope with the scorching sun.
Some of the squatters go to fetch firewood. /RITA DAMARY
“Life here is full of misery, there is nothing to celebrate about. We have suffered to the maximum. We cannot afford anything to give our children,” says David Kimani, who came from Lare.
They also burn charcoal using the roots of shrubs to try and make ends meet, earn between Sh300 to Sh500. Snakes, buffaloes and all manner of insects have turned out to be their neighbours.
They say their main source of food is 'G'itore' (hyrax), a small, short-legged mammal with hoof-like nails on the toes normally found in forests.
“If one manages to hunt a hryax, it is like Christmas for us. We call our closest neighbour to have a piece so we can use it to feed our families instead of going hungry. Because we face the same problems of lack of shelter and food, we have learnt to share, however little we get,” says Mary Wanjiru, who came from Kaptagat area.
She says they are used to taking ugali with water for a meal.
“If you have a child going to school and you find you do not have any food left, you boil water, mix it with salt and give them with ugali. That is on a better day, because most of the time, we go without food. They are used to that because sometimes when they ask for food, the only thing you can give them is pity and a desperate look,” Wanjiru says.
Dreams of a better life
The families from several tribes in the country are living in crude structures in the caves. The area is so remote it has no schools, health centres or running water. Although they have documents identifying them as Kenyans, they are not helpful to them.
“I have never lived in a house," says eight-year-old Mary Muthoni. "We don't know how it feels like to stay in one. I hope one day, God will hear my prayers and help me find a way of staying in a house, like I hear other children say in school.”
They say for the last 33 years, they have endured high temperatures, human activities around the forest and poverty, and life has become unbearable. Their children are also in danger in the forest, a home to many wild animals.
“Lack of access to schools, health centres and clean water has made our lives more difficult. Our children have to walk more than 20km a day to go to school,” James Mutua says.
As snakes slither under the boulders and bees buzz high up the trees, the barefooted men and women within go about their chores unperturbed.
The howling of hyenas and jackals can be heard echoing in the vast forest. Rocks, short shrubs, wild fruits, snakes and wild hogs typify the forest, which is under threat from human exploitation.
David Kimani takes his lunch in one of the caves. /RITA DAMARY
The women and children bear the brunt of unbearable circumstances in the caves.
"In case of an emergency, we are at times forced to contribute so we can save the life of one of us. If one is sick, we go around asking for whoever can afford to raise a few coins to take the sick person to the nearest health facility, which is 30km away. Sometimes we are forced to carry them on our backs because of the bad terrain,” Mutua says.
Prayers and fasting
Many of their children have either dropped out of school or never attended one.
Their lives have been worsened by the ongoing drought, which has made them resort to using stagnant water, as the national and county governments have forgotten them.
“As Kenyans move into a digital world, the ‘forgotten community' as it is referred to is busy burning charcoal from what remains of the once popular forest,” says Mugo Gatimu, a local leader.
David Kimani, a 55-year-old father of two, has wrinkles of hunger written all over his face. “Many of these families sleep hungry," he says. "Skin diseases are the order of the day, as there are no hospitals. The only source of livelihood we have here is selling charcoal because it is a very dry place.”
The families have set aside two caves, one for meetings and the other as a church.
Mugo Gatimu, a local leader, talks to the squatters. /RITA DAMARY
“Our main cave can hold more than 250 people. We normally conduct meetings once a month when we have major issues to discuss, like the ongoing drought problems, education and now the August polls. We are a family, hence we have those meetings to look for a way forward," Kimani says.
He says the second biggest cave is where the families hold their Sunday church services.
“This is the main cave, where a larger group can hold prayers and fasting. We allow as many people as they can to come and hold prayers. Some living at the neighbourhood like Kongasis join us for the Sunday service. We need God to save us from the agony we are experiencing. We also use the caves for fasting,” he says.
Plea for resettlement
Gatimu, also an area MCA aspirant, said it is shameful that in the 21st century, there are Kenyans still living like animals.
“It pains me that all these families do not have good shelter, water or a dispensary. This is a wake-up call to the county government to act,” he says.
Gatimu said the families have been ignored by successive governments.
An elderly squatter in Ortut Forest, Gilgil constituency, enjoys the sunset outside his cave. /RITA DAMARY
“For more than 30 years, the families have lived in the caves, with the past and present regimes ignoring their plight," he said.
"We plead with the government to take up their case and give them an alternative land."
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