Mt Elgon is in the news again, and that for all the wrong reasons.
Last week, security teams in Mt Elgon recovered five guns and several rounds of ammunition in a spirited crackdown against remnants of the dreaded Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF).
Subsequently, Bungoma County Commissioner Maalim Mohammed issued a one-month ultimatum for the surrender of illegal firearms, warning that those who failed to take advantage of the amnesty would be smoked out to face the full force of the law.
Among the recovered weapons were four AK47 guns, a pistol and some rounds of ammunition, said Mohammed, who added that a suspect had been arrested.
One person following this drama, albeit nonchalantly and with a sense of deep regret, is Ms Salome Chepkwemoi Matwakei, the wife of SLDF’s slain commander Wycliffe Komon Matwakei.
Her association with the man is one she wishes to quickly distance herself from as it was during Matwakei’s reign at the top of the SLDF that the outlawed grouping gained notoriety. By the time the army was sent to Mt Elgon in 2008 to flush out the man and his followers, over 1,000 people lay dead, many more displaced.
But, while Salome Chepkwemoi may distance herself from that reign of terror, she has not been successful in deleting her association, however distant, with Matwakei the man. That is why she is still regarded as “Mrs Matwakei” on the slopes of the fertile foots of Mt Elgon.
This, though, is another brand of Matwakei. While the man was a fiery commander of a bush ragtag army, the woman is more of a diplomat and human rights campaigner.
Her transformation came full circle two weeks ago when she ascended to the helm of the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Chesikaki Ward chapter, hoisted to the top by the women of Cheptais who believe in her transformation and empowerment gospel.
Fade into oblivion
“I have learnt never to take anything for granted in life,” says the soft-spoken mother of five. “I capitalise on every opening to transform my life and that of others in the society.”
When her husband was gunned down during the military operation to flush out the SLDF in 2008, many expected that Ms Matwakei would fade into oblivion, for she had always lived in the shadow of the man.
She did, but only for a while. Today, Ms Matwakei is leveraging on the atrocities of the 2000s to change mindsets. Her biggest peace ambassadors are the many widows who call Mt Elgon home, and who, like her, lost their all at the height of the uprising on the mount.
“As widows,” says Ms Matwakei, “we felt neglected by the society. Some people even pointed accusing fingers at my family, blaming my late husband for the deaths committed by both his militias and the government soldiers who landed here in ’08. But I do not believe in giving up in life. Determination knows no obstacles and I had to take the lead in making sure that we lead comfortable lives as widows.”
The idea to form the Cheptais Network of Widows was mooted in 2009 to help overcome socio-economic challenges that widows experienced after losing their husbands — often the sole breadwinners here — whether at the hands of Matwakei’s men or government security agents.
The organisation, through help from Eldoret-based Rural Peace Link, secured a grant of Sh300,000 from Action Aid Kenya in 2010, which it used to purchase a heifer for each of the 15 members of the group.
Today, Ms Matwakei’s Cheptais network of widows boasts economic independence. The heifers have turned their lives around, and their leader is happy. Her husband, known here at the time as “General Matwakei”, was a rich man by local standards, but controversy trailed him and there was little time for his family to enjoy the riches.
Invested in farming
Ms Matwakei says the Sh360,000 she earns from her farming business annually — she has invested heavily in dairy, maize and beans farming, and recently leased five acres of land to expand her business — cannot afford her the life she led before the uprising, but she is not complaining because she is earning and spending it in peace.
She no longer has to look over her shoulders whenever she goes to the market, and the sneers and inimical eyes of the ’00s are no more.
As part of extending her arms to the community, she says she has adopted seven orphans of the war, all of whom she has sent to school. Life, then, has gone back to normal for this woman, who met the “General” soon after sitting her Form Four exams at the turn of the millenium.
They married shortly afterwards, but her dream of leading a normal life was not to be as her husband raged with ethnic militancy, always agitating for the freeing of large swathes of land in Mt Elgon for his people.
Paradox of a man
Her husband, therefore, was a paradox — loved by some for his “emancipation struggles”, and loathed by many more others for being the commander of a gang that raped, killed and maimed thousands in a span of three years.
He complained at the time that the Chepyuk Settlement Scheme, which sought to resettle people displaced from the mountain earlier, should have been a sole Sabaot affair.
Some locals cited discrimination in allocation of land and high level of poverty as the cause of the uprising between 2005 and 2008. But Matwakei’s chosen path to liberation soon made him an enemy of the people.
His group, high on a potent mixture of tribal politics and bush warfare, degenerated into a murderous guerilla outfit that roamed here like a pack of hyenas, devouring everything on their paths.
The gory details of that misadventure were hidden from the public for years, but when they were eventually revealed during a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Committee (TJRC) meeting at the Kibuk Catholic Church in Kapsokwony years later, they were still as nauseating as they were when they were fresh.
The SLDF, TJRC heard, first imposed taxes among well-off members of the society as a way of funding its activities. And then, from its headquarters in the bush, it started raining terror on Mt Elgon, striking in the middle of the night and razing entire villages. There were mass displacements and the government called on the illegal army to end its activities.
Nothing to lose
But no one was listening. The gang had nothing at home, and therefore nothing to lose. Matwakei, then, became a national symbol of arrogance and brutality; and, in his shadows, his wife lurked.
By the time the atrocities were stomped out by a heavy army boot and the man cornered, his wife had become part of the struggle, dragged into the limelight by the mere fact that he shared not just a name, but a life with Mt Elgon’s most infamous son.
At her home recently, Ms Matwakei remembered her husband fondly, saying, despite all that had been written of him, he was “a devoted Seventh Day Adventist” and “a God-fearing man”. Her judgment of the man is based on her initial years with him and the lasting impression he gave her when they first met.
That, though, is a chapter that she rarely revisits, opting instead to concentrate on the now. Mt Elgon post Matwakei has been calm, but embers of the SLDF still burn in the underground.
Bungoma County Commissioner Maalim Mohamed says police patrols have been intensified to crack down on remnants of the outlawed group, amid claims last week that the dreaded force was regrouping.
According to the administrator, some suspects have been arrested over acts of lawlessness in the region, while civil rights groups want the government to collaborate with the community in promoting healing and reconciliation among the locals.
“Peace and reconciliation is necessary to build confidence among the locals and propel economic development in the area,” says Ken Wafula, the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy’s executive director.
Ms Matwakei, in the meantime, is watching these developments from a distance. She has been in the thick of things and knows how debilitating war can be.
Her children and heifers now occupy more of her time than the land politics of her people, and because she knows that these can only thrive in peacetime, she is preaching reconciliation and harmony to the women of Mt Elgon. “That’s all I care about now,” she says.