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Kenya’s Women Farmers Clash With Herders and Wildlife

As parts of Kenya are gripped by drought, people and animals increasingly come into conflict over water and grazing areas. In Lamu County, women farmers often have to face off against herders and wild animals as they compete for the dwindling resources.

Written by Sophie Mbugua Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Mary Mbugua gathers dried maize that had been uprooted by buffalo on her farm in Lamu County. As lakes dry up and vegetation becomes scarce in the region, wild animals have been wandering into farms to look for food and water. Sophie Mbugua

LAMU COUNTY, Kenya – Ever since the March to May rainy seasons failed to deliver the expected rainfall, Lamu County in northern Kenya has been in the grip of drought. Many farmers have left home to look for work in the city, leaving their wives behind to find enough water to keep their families fed and their crops alive.

But as the effects of climate change lead to longer, harsher dry spells, the women of Lamu County find themselves competing with two other groups for the dwindling resource: Pastoralists who claim that the farmers are encroaching on their grazing land and wild animals who come into the settlements looking for water – and food.

Rehema Karisa, a mother of one from Sedemke Village, runs the family farm on her own most of the time, as her husband works in Mombasa about 210 miles away and visits only twice a month. A subsistence farmer growing mangos, cassava, maize, tomatoes and pawpaw for her family to eat, Karisa has come into conflict with livestock keepers from neighboring Tana River and Garissa counties who insist on grazing on her farmland.

“They claim that this is their grazing ranch and that they are free to graze whenever they wish,” says Karisa, visibly angry. “Before we settled here no one, including these pastoralists, ever grazed here. How come now this is their land?” Karisa says the herders know when her husband is away and have threatened to shoot any man they find on her farm on the days he’s gone.

After several complaints to the area chief, who she says offered no help, Karisa and a few other women from the village decided their only choice was to work together to drive the herders away. And to fight violence with violence.

“A herder beat up a woman who confronted him,” says Karisa. “We organized ourselves, cornered one and beat him up to send a message to the rest that we mean business protecting what is ours despite our men not being around.”

According to Jacob Orahle, the Lamu County senior warden at the Kenya Wildlife Service, pastoralists bring over 10,000 cows into the county every day in search of pasture and water. And herders are not the only threats to a farm’s survival in Lamu County. Jane Ndungu, chairwoman of the Lake Kenyatta Water Resources Users Association, says the freshwater lake is a main source of water for wild animals, livestock and over 50,000 residents – but increased drought and increased agricultural activity are causing water levels to drop. As plant life in the forest struggles to regenerate without enough rain and lake levels continue to decrease, animals are forced to venture outside the forest to survive.

“The county has never seen water catchments areas reduce or dry as much as they are now,” says Ndungu. “Lake Ivitho, a water source to Lake Kenyatta, has completely dried up, reducing the water levels at Lake Kenyatta and forcing hippopotamus to graze in the neighborhood, with buffalos roaming in the human settlements in search of food.”

Mary Mbugua, a resident of Mpeketoni village, a settlement scheme near Lake Kenyatta, says she regularly has to scare off the buffalo, hippopotamus and baboons that wander into her farm, eating crops and devouring smaller animals.

“Since the livestock started grazing around the lake, buffalo and hippopotamus are invading the farms destroying the crops,” says Mbugua. “And monkeys are feasting on the young goats and chickens.”

Grace Wambugu, 59, a mother of six who also lives in Mpeketoni, says a buffalo attack resulted in her breaking a leg. “I was at the farm going about my business. At about 11 a.m. a stray buffalo ambushed me. I tried to run, but at my age, I could not outrun it,” she says. “I lay silent and pretended to be dead. By the time the animal left, my left leg was broken,” having been trampled on by the buffalo.

Wambugu spent three months in the hospital and the county wildlife conservation compensation committee, which is mandated to pay victims of wildlife-human conflict in the county, gave her 14,700 Kenyan shillings ($145) to cover her medical bill. But as a widow, Wambugu is responsible for the family farm, so the compensation didn’t stretch far. “For three months unable to do anything on my own, my family resorted to selling 2 hectares of land to construct a well within the compound as I could no longer go to the well,” she says.

A pastoralist lets his cattle graze on farmland that doesn't belong to him, in Sedemki village, Kenya. (Sophie Mbugua)
A pastoralist lets his cattle graze on farmland that doesn’t belong to him, in Sedemki village, Kenya. (Sophie Mbugua)

Ali Shebwana, chairman of the compensation committee, says the government can’t keep up with the rising number of compensation claims as prolonged drought forces wildlife further into human settlements. “The problem is out of hand due to drought, but no compensation has been paid out since 2013,” she says. “There is a backlog of cases waiting for vetting, while money for the cases already decided is released annually to the ministry, but it doesn’t flow into the communities.” Shebwana says that by February this year, 35 counties in Kenya had reported about Kshs 2.4billion ($23 million) worth of death and injury cases.

For now, the Kenya Wildlife Services department is working on putting up an electric fence around Lake Kenyatta, to keep the wildlife away from the villages. It also plans to relocate some animals to protected national reserves and has launched a countywide plan that aims to set aside grazing zones that are separate from agricultural land.

Wambugu hopes the electric fence will go up quickly, but Karisa is less optimistic that the government’s plan to allocate grazing areas will happen any time soon. “The government takes too long,” she says. “I just wish they would do so before the next planting season.”

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