“I was hopeful that my 30-year-old daughter would build me a decent house since this one can collapse anytime, but the finality of her death is heart-wrenching. She slept too soon and we are interring her remains today”. Elimina Nasimiyu’s mourning for her daughter, who passed away after a short illness, is inherently intertwined with her concerns about her perilous housing situation: “You can see that my house is bending and sinking from the effects of heavy winds and floods … I don’t feel safe in it, especially at night. Most [of the] houses here collapse during the night,” added Nasimiyu.
The 74-year-old widow has lived in Nasianda village in Namanjalala, part of Trans-Nzoia County in the Rift Valley region of Kenya, for many years. The village is approximately eight hours from the capital of Kenya, and many here feel that their problems have been forgotten about.
In October last year, strong winds destroyed around ten houses in Trans-Nzoia forcing the occupants to spent nights in the cold. Those affected called for humanitarian support, but not all received it. Just 20 minutes from Nasimiyu’s house another woman, Irene Nekesa, narrated her own ordeal. She said that the strong winds blew away her roof, leaving her unsafe for days.
For years, she says, her life has been impacted by different aspects of climate change, including storms and flooding: “My sons moved because they felt insecure after we experienced strong winds accompanied by floods in 2020. That, over there was their house,” she says, as she points at the remnants of the building.
A section of Elimina Nasimiyu’s house in Nasianda Village
“You can see how the floods washed away its foundation and it will collapse any time. I repaired the roof of my house and decided to stay here with my two younger girls. I can’t leave because this is my marital home. But, we don’t feel at home anymore”, said Nekesa. A young woman, Nekesa explains that school children are the most vulnerable when it floods because they have to navigate through heavy dirty waters to make it to class.
“The floods come during long rains, when they come during school days we have to carry children on our backs and to school. It is mostly women who bear this burden because we have to ensure that our children are safe. Children get sick too. There was a time last year when I got sick because of walking in the dirty floods … I developed some painful huge pimple-like swellings”.
Another villager I encountered, Sarah Nakhumicha, looked frail. Our conversation quickly revealed that she was ill, suffering from malaria due to the dampness in her house. Sarah was worried because it was cloudy and she was scared that the heavy rains and strong winds would come and carry away her roof or that her house would overflow with water. She too has been a victim of the perennial floods in the region.
“Heavy winds carried away my roof before, in 2020, and I repaired it.”
“Floods and winds have done me a lot of harm and I do not feel safe here always”, she explained. I live alone since my husband passed on two years ago and my children are all grown up. They are not successful but they are out there trying to make a living. Many times we leave our homes when it floods and camp at the shopping centers throughout the night and return home when the waters subside”, she said.
According to the 2021 Kenya County Climate Risk Profile, the main climatic change hazards that affect food productivity and cause floods in Trans Nzoia are the onset and end of the rainy season, moisture stress, and excess rainfall. The stories of the three women that I interviewed thus reflect the lived experience of many other people, with those who are more socially and economically vulnerable most impacted because they can ill afford to repair their properties.
Characterized by cracked mud walls that appear to be sinking, many houses in the area are unsafe. Women were trying to salvage them by remolding. Even in this activity, many feel alone. Although they believe that men are supposed to ensure safety for their families, I am told that they are rarely at home. It is therefore up to the women to take on this difficult task.
According to the United Nations Human Rights Convention, housing is the basis of stability and security for an individual or family. It is at the centre of our social and emotional lives, a sanctuary to live in peace, security and dignity. This is not the case for the affected families in the region as they suffer the impact of climate change with little help from the government.
Stella Aura, the Director of the Kenya Meteorological Department, says that the department advises on the impending danger. She advises residents to take into consideration the weather parameters when building houses, including the impacts of climate change.
“When we issue an alert about adverse weather, the local administration together with County governments need to advise people appropriately to save vulnerable people who cannot change their residence “, she says.
Philip Oloo, the Director for Agriculture and Natural Resources at the Lake Basin Development Authority (LBDA) in the region, attributes the climatic changes in the area to unpredictable weather patterns, soil erosion, and silt deposits in the main drainage system, all of which make it harder to deal with heavy rainfall and call flooding. “One remedial measure that needs to be taken by the County government is to de-silt the major river in the region because the floods weaken walls of houses on the lower sides, making it unsafe for the occupants”, he explains. “The Lake Basin Development Authority has built a small dam in the area for flood control, water conservation, and irrigation”.
Oloo added that community-based nurseries planted mostly by women are emerging in the region to augment what LBDA is doing as a climate change mitigation strategy. Female residents, together with village elders, have constructed trenches and water harvesting basins to allow water passage and installed a man-made footbridge to aid movement whenever it pours.
They are also seeking to transform and strengthen their homes, planting trees to block the heavy winds. They hope their efforts will keep them safe when the winds and the rains come again – but some of their faces reveal more apprehension than confidence.
Scovian Lillian is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi-Kenya
This article was supported by SIRI- Social Impact Reporting Initiative