âWhen will the raiders return?â Kaniki Meshami asks, as a line of sweat beads the upper lip.
The 32-year-old wields incontestable authority over Ilmotiok Group Ranch in Laikipia.
But today, his faltering speech betrays hidden anxiety, unseemly for his status as chairman of the more than 1,500 members.
When the illegal grazers invaded last year, they literally flooded the 3,600-acre ranch with cattle.
They destroyed all vegetation and trudged on to the next ranch.
Kaniki says there are rumours the illegal grazers could return. The villagers are terrified. They look up to him and the area sub-chief for assurance. But he cannot give any pledge when information is so scanty.
A KWS ranger drives out cattle from a ranch in Laikipia on March 10, 2016. / Jack Owuor
Villagers in group ranches and small-scale farmers around Laikipia have been the silent victims of the ongoing invasions.
Their farms have been left bare. Hundreds of their livestock have starved to death. The surviving ones have nowhere to graze.
They feel abandoned by the government and by their political leaders, some who are accused of even inciting the invaders.
Officials say since last year, the invaders have murdered at least 30 villagers who tried to resist.
Kaniki is now among the community leaders and elders risking their lives to face the armed illegal grazers.
âThey first came in April last year, all the way from Isiolo and Samburu. They were too many. We did not even try to fight them. They drove in about 4,000 cattle,â he says.
The illegal grazers are well organised. They carry guns, maize flour, water, sufurias, matchsticks and shukas to cover themselves at night.
Community leaders have resorted to dangerous attempts at pleading with them not to invade farms.
âWe are the ones suffering. Our people here do not like violence. So we are only left to talk to people who are heavily armed and convince them not to invade our farms,â Kaniki says.
Area chiefs told the Star they live in fear of death. Sometimes even their community members threaten them, claiming they are not doing enough to stop the invaders.
They now want the government to drive out the illegal grazers from Laikipia and disarm them.
At least 10,000 herders have been trudging through the region since mid last year, driving about 135,000 livestock into private farms.
Kaniki says they turn violent if confronted. They have destroyed private property, burned down lodges, stolen livestock and killed wild animals.
A KWS ranger walks past a dead zebra at a ranch in Laikipia, suspected to have been shot by a herder. / Jack Owuor
WHITE FARMER KILLED
Nearly two weeks ago they murdered prominent rancher Tristan Voorspuy at the 24,000-acre Sosian ranch.
He was the first white farmer killed, marking an escalation of a conflict that appears politically motivated.
Voorspuy was killed after he rode his horse to inspect an area where invaders had burned down three houses the previous week.
The grazers then managed to resist more than 300 police officers for 24 hours, and let his body lie in the bush.
Before his death, Voorspuy penned a commentary explaining that he brought together some investors to buy the Sosian ranch from its Kikuyu owners in 1999.
âThere was no grass or game on the farm. The Samburu who had squatted there had moved off because nothing was left. We now have 1,800 head of cattle and stick to the crucial one beast to 15 acre ratio,â he wrote in the piece, published by the Star.
âWe employ 150 people at the tourist lodge and pay $200,000 in tax every year. It is a culmination of 18 years of love and investment but we are bracing ourselves for an armed walk-on any day now.â
The police moved to drive out the illegal grazers from Sosian ranch last week, but they have not left Laikipia.
The crisis is partly driven by the biting drought and nearly all of the illegal grazers are coming from outside of Laikipia.
The thousands of pastoralists from Baringo, Isiolo, Samburu and West Pokot counties started moving into Laikipia early last year, looking for water and pasture.
There are also serious claims that the invasions have been orchestrated by local politicians, who are using the cover of drought and the general election to stir up ethnic violence to drive ranch owners outside the area.
Ilmotiok chief Jacob Yangere has faced the invaders several times and pleaded with them to leave, mostly unsuccessfully./Jack Owuor
RAPPORT WITH RANCHES
Ilmotiok chief Jacob Yangere has faced the invaders several times and pleaded with them to leave, mostly unsuccessfully.
He says villagers in Laikipia group ranches have a good working relationship with the big ranchers, mostly white-owned.
âThey have helped us start ecotourism projects like bandas and they also bring guests to us. We also talk to them and they allow some of our cattle to graze in their ranches for free,â he says.
âWhen the raiders come, they always encounter the community first. In 2009, we managed to repulse them, but they have become more and more violent.â
Some of his local community members have threatened to kill him, saying he is âonly helpingâ the white people.
âI have been threatened because of my mediation work. They said I should leave the white people alone, because they will kill me together with them,â he says. âBut I only reached out to these white people so we can solve the problem together.â
Francis Lorogoi, chairman of Lekiji group ranch in ilmotiok location, says should the illegal grazers come here, villagers will be too weak to resist them.
Lekiji has approximately 1,500 villagers, drawn mainly from the Borana, Maasai, Meru, Samburu and Somali communities.
Lorogoi is a 39-year-old father of five children. He speaks a heavily accented Kiswahili and faltering English.
âWe also don't have grass here,â he says.
The neighbouring Ol Jogi and Mpala ranches have allowed the community to graze a limited number of cattle in the two ranches for free.
âWe have a good relationship with them. Mpala has renovated Lekiji Primary School. They also employ many of us as staff. When someone is sick, they also use their vehicle to take them to hospital,â he says.
Lekiji and the two private ranches have not been affected by invasions, and they are still more than 20km away from the last spot where the invaders were repulsed.
âIf the grazers raid the neighbouring ranches, we will also be affected,â he says.
Distraught villagers in many group conservancies have lost their livestock and grazing fields to invaders./Jack Owuor
NYUMBA KUMI HELPFUL
The community has embraced the Nyumba Kumi initiative, which helps them monitor newcomers.
Their head of Nyumba Kumi is Lesian Ichembere, a 55-year-old former policeman. He says the illegal grazers tried to move into their ranch last year, but the elders pleaded with them and they left.
âWe were about 30 elders who went to talk to them, led by chief Jacob Yangere. They claimed they were looking for grass but we told them we don't have enough for our own cattle,â he says.
He believes the invasions are political. âI have lived in Laikipia since birth and I have not seen this before. It is only after the 2013 election it has started happening,â he says.
Ilmotiok location has about 40 Nyumba Kumi leaders, currently in constant communication to keep abreast of the raids.
âWe do not sleep. We are always calling each other. Nyumba Kumi has helped us because we can easily pick out strangers and know why they are here,â he says. âWe always want to find out if the raiders are planning to return.â
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