At the medical camps in Mt. Elgon held in early June 2021, one man said little and did a lot in the classroom turned consultation room. He took more time with patients, delving deeper, probing to understand their health conditions, explaining it to them and also helping them manage beyond the medical interventions. He is a recently graduated medical doctor who, as a child, couldn’t see his future beyond the slopes of Mt. Elgon, having been made uncertain by a family misfortune and the Sabaot Land Defense Force (SLDF) conflict.
He assisted the other medics in the room and being a native, consulted more with the elderly who couldn’t express themselves in Swahili or English.
Away from the consultation room, he was discreet and chilled, a man of few words who would pass for anyone in the street. Nothing in his expression says he went to a primary school that had only three teachers and almost dropped out of medical school. And that is just a glimpse of his story that he had shared with me as we had dinner one of the evenings during the camp. We had to meet after the camp for a longer chat. We did, in Kimilili, at a blue-walled hotel that was nearly empty. The interior looked like it had gotten a recent facelift except for the antique wooden counter. We were served soda madiaba (the 500ml glass bottle soda). It was the only size available.
Emmanuel Chemwotei was born in Changeiywo, Kopsiro in Mt. Elgon district, a sixth born in a family of seven children. His father succumbed to Meningitis when he was five years old.
“He was a drunkard. I remember him coming home very late always drunk and leaving very early. He would beat my mum if he didn’t get the food he wanted,” Chemwotei remembers.
The mother was blamed for his father’s death. Meningitis is a disease that attacks the brain and whose symptoms (headache, stiff neck, fever) didn’t look too far from a victim of witchcraft, or sorcery, or whatever people couldn’t explain in the village. Attempts to evict them from the home didn’t bear fruit but as they stayed there, life became difficult. Chemwotei’s uncle (his father’s brother) would get drunk and talk all night, making sure they heard that they were unwanted there.
“Even before my father’s death, my elder brothers had dropped out of primary school and now with my dad’s family on our necks, two of them went to work at my aunt’s place as casual laborers and supported us with the little they got.”
He went to Changeiywo primary school from class one to five after which his brothers, convinced by their aunt (who had noticed his potential), decided to take Chemwotei to a better school in Kapsokwony (Mt. Elgon district headquarters). His brothers had done well for themselves by then and had even bought a piece land for the family. Besides working for the aunt, they had other hustles going on.
He landed at Cheptikit Academy, barefoot and in his old school’s uniform. It was the furthest he had been from home. His brothers paid for his school fees for class six, got him some necessities and went back.
“It took me one term to catch up, by term two I was number one in the class,” he says.
“And you came from a remote public school?” I confirm.
“Yes, and the school had its challenges. We had 3 teachers, and they were all drunkards. They would come to school at 11am already intoxicated and ask pupils if there was alcohol in their homes, or send them home to bring them milk. All that time we just played. The school had about 200 pupils,” Chemwotei recalls laughing.
“So, how many lessons would you have in a day?” I ask.
“Not in a day, in a week we had 3-4 lessons,” he quickly corrects me.
In Changeiywo, Chemwotei only knew three families who had educated people, and they were all teachers. Class eight was the cap for most pupils, they would get married immediately after, girls and boys alike.
At Cheptikit, he excelled in his studies, always the top student.
After class 7 he went home and that is when the SLDF land issues in Mt. Elgon had worsened. His brothers, who were also his sponsors, were displaced from their aunt’s place and came back home. He had no one to pay his school fees for class 8. So, he stayed home.
“In mid-February one of my teachers came looking for me. He was sent by the school. They were concerned at my absence. I explained that the issue was school fees. He told my mum to bring me to school the following Monday,” he says.
On that Monday they had a lengthy discussion with the director of the school who asked many questions and eventually gave Chemwotei a full scholarship for class 8.
“I was doing well in class but I didn’t know what was next, even if I pass who will pay for my school fees, who cares anyway, at the end of the day there’s nothing to lose,” he thought.
When doing High school selection, he chose Starehe Boys Center and some other district schools. In July someone suggested that they apply to Starehe for a scholarship. With no Wings to Fly and other scholarships back then, Starehe was the only one known to the people around him.
The challenge was to prove that his father had died, his death certificate was with uncles (dad side) and wouldn’t be given to them. They had to find ways of making another one since they had his ID. He had left it as collateral at one of the drinking dens that belonged to a relative.
He was able to apply for the scholarship on the last day.
“Did you have an idea of your future as you were applying?” I ask.
“Not really, I said let me just fill it the form, whatever comes”
“Is there anyone who told you that you were bright and could get somewhere in life?”
“Yes, there were few guys who spoke to me. Our chaplain was one of them.”
Chemwotei’s resolve was to do his best, not to disappoint the director who had given him a free place. But the SLDF clashes had reached Kapsokwony and it was dangerous. One of their teachers was shot dead on his way home from school and that rendered the whole school numb.
“How did the whole SLDF issue affect you?” I ask.
“It affected me psychologically,” he answers, “Initially my brothers were displaced and couldn’t support me anymore and being in a boarding school I didn’t know what was happening to my family who were near the epicenter of the clashes. During the holidays I would stay with my classmate’s family near Kimilili.”
After sitting for his KCPE in 2007, he went home with tainted hopes of the future. Having seen none of his older siblings advance past that stage, he didn’t know what to expect.
I ask about the SLDF skirmishes, how it began and how they became so formidable.
“There were three settlement schemes in Chepyuk, Mt. Elgon. From the stories I heard that land (previously forests) was set aside by the government to settle the Ndorobo (a Sabaot sub group with a distinct dialect) that lived in the forest and so the farms were cleared. The Bok, another Sabaot sub group also joined in clearing the forest and cultivated the land,” Chemwotei brings me up to speed and adds that phase 1 and 2 were allocated mostly to the Ndorobos without issues. Phase 3 is where the milk went sour. There was a lot of corruption. The chiefs and officials would promise people land and charge them a ’fee’ of fifty or a hundred thousand. Unfortunately, many of those who bribed didn’t get the land, and many of them had been staying in the land (a mistake that shouldn’t have happened), clearing it and making it good for farming. The government used people to clear the land and allowed them to temporarily stay in it. Of course, those people had expectations that when the land was to be allocated, they would be considered. They were not. And that is when all hell broke loose.
The militia, led by Matakwei, had already begun to organize and their first target was the chief who took people’s money. He was shot dead. A few of his associates, the ‘loud mouthed’ ones were next in the execution plot. The war was on. The militia was now running the place, armed with guns acquired from the Ugandan side of the mountain, having village administrators, imposing taxation of between one to five thousand per family (or forcefully taking an animal if not paid), requiring one son from each family to join the militia and holding combat training in the forest, like in those Al-Shabaab videos. Caning, cutting ears/mouths and killing were punishments meted on suspected errant members of the society; thieves, drunkards, witches and such.
“They said they were protecting us, police were powerless, and the militia took advantage and went totally rogue,” Chemwotei adds.
“Was Matakwei doing this on his own, because that sounds like a whole military operation,” I ask.
“No, he had backup from some ex-military guys, and probably some politicians,” Chemwotei reveals confessing that his brother joined the militia that left many dead and displaced thousands of people. His brother made it out alive, he wasn’t too deep into it, had lighter duties. Many of the those who joined SLDF didn’t make it out alive, and those who did lead miserable lives. There’s talk of a bloody oath that binds them.
This was the terrifying backdrop that surrounded Chemwotei as he waited for his KCPE results. His dreams of a future he couldn’t picture were silenced by the gunshots that didn’t seem to end. Add to that post-election violence that started in late December of 2007 and you have a boy whose aspirations seemed shattered. The results came out and he didn’t bother to know. “I got my results in late January 2008, I asked someone at the local shopping center to check for me, we had no phone at home. I had scored 422 and nobody had bothered to inform me,” he recalls.
“Hio yote, nani atakupeleka shule?” his mother reacted on hearing the news. It was bittersweet news for her. I can picture her, leso around her waist coming out of the grass thatched hut that has smoke coming out of the top, Chemwotei’s excitement bringing her out. He breaks the news to her, smiling ear to ear, she is happy, raises her arms in a gesture to the heavens but reality soon hits her. Her hands come together and rest on her chin, wondering if this is the final news she will ever hear of her son’s education.
In mid-February one of Chemwotei’s teachers came to his home, frantic and concerned why he had not prepared to go to high school. “There’s a letter for you at school,” he told Chemwotei. “Which high school have I been called to?” the letter hadn’t been opened. The next day Chemwotei walked to Chwele, boarded a matatu to Kimilili and walked up to Kapsokwony where his former school was and got to open the letter.
“I had been offered a free place at Starehe Boys Center,” he reports.
“How did you feel?” I ask.
“I was excited, and concerned at the same time, nitafika aje huko, I also had to raise money for uniform, exam fee and fare to Nairobi,” he responds.
The family suggested that they talk to relatives but after appealing to them he ended up with 500 bob and a metallic box. Others suggested he goes to a nearer school but they wouldn’t commit to paying the fees. His mother decided to sell her only young cow, which fetched eleven thousand. The money was still not enough. He needed about twenty thousand. His primary school teachers got him the rest.
With only basic necessities, he travelled to Nairobi ready for education. When they went to Starehe in the morning he was rejected.
“They wanted a close relative to sign some documents, I had gone with one of my primary school teachers” he explains. His brother had to travel to Nairobi for his admission to be completed almost a week later. It was the end of February 2008.
In the first term of form 1 at Starehe he was number 6. That was important for Chemwotei because it boosted his confidence and sense of belonging, besides getting him free school trips around Nairobi.
The KDF operation against SLDF had begun in Mt. Elgon and that meant he could not go home during the holidays. The school provided for food and necessities during the holidays and he was not alone. So, he stayed.
“I communicated with my mum during the August holidays and they told me not to come, they said things were still bad. I went home in December but didn’t stay long. I would always travel back to school just after Christmas to save money and avoid the new year rush,” he remembers.
I ask him how he processed everything that was going on, how did he deal with it.
“I limited communication with home and I avoided watching news because Mt. Elgon was on the news a lot,” he answers.
In form 2 and 3 he would participate in voluntary service organized by the school. One of those voluntary services would happen at Kenyatta National Hospital where, for three weeks, he worked in the orthopedic ward doing lab errands, ensuring records of patients are on their beds, bringing them drugs and more. That experience is what made Chemwotei decide to be a medical doctor.
The culture of community service was emphasized at Starehe, something I wish other schools would emulate.
He did well in his KCSE. Class, books, learning, exams were always his escape from everything else. He was offered a place to do medicine at Kenyatta University. He would have gone to the University of Nairobi but for one A- in his score sheet.
Raising the initial thirty-one thousand needed to join university was another struggle that led to her mother selling her other cow.
“I went to Starehe and asked for assistance because my sponsors in Starehe (a German organization) had promised to pay for my education until university. They said the funds were not ready. Helb wasn’t ready as well,” he says.
In his first class in med school, he realized that there were many more requirements needed; books, dissection kits, gloves, masks and others. So, he paid first semester fees and bought some requirements and the journey to be a doctor began. He had books in a CD and would read in the library in the computer that didn’t have access to the internet. Since he registered late, he didn’t get a room in the hostel and so for three semesters he ‘pirated’, slept in friends’ room, playing cat and mouse games with housekeepers.
Starehe eventually came through with some of the sponsorship money. They were the custodians of the funds and students would not know how much was actually given by the sponsors. In the second year of university the sponsorship terminated. Apparently, there were accountability issues with Starehe after some sponsors got to communicate directly with students and realized not all the money was going where it should.
“I would borrow money from a friend then borrow from another friend to pay the first friend and survive like that. After a while, I would go back and borrow from the first friend,” he says smiling as I draw a parallel with the government of Kenya right now. His brothers would fail to send him the little cash that his mum had saved out of selling alcohol because they believed he was fully sponsored and the government provided everything. He would go for days without food or would visit a friend’s room and bring up stories as he waited for a meal. Life was tough but it was about to get worse.
“I did my second-year exams and unfortunately failed one unit, Biochemistry 1 and 2. The policy of med school is that if you fail you have to repeat the unit, you don’t proceed with the rest of your group. You remain behind one academic year.”
“How was that for you?” I ask.
“I was demoralized, didn’t go to class for two months, going to sit in class with my juniors was hard to say the least, but eventually I had to go and I finished well,” he recalls.
From 3rd year it was survival, getting maize from home to be food secure, installing computer software for other students and writing academic articles, anything to make ends meet and still study. The trauma of failing in 2nd year was haunting him and he wanted to show what he was made of.
In 2019 November, Chemwotei did his final exam and in February 2020 he was posted to Kitale for his internship. He officially graduated in December 2020, virtually.
“I have successfully finished my internship in Kitale and here I am, waiting for the next chapter of my life,” he concludes.
We are seated at a hotel in Kimilili with a grand view of Kapsokwony where we had just come from after finishing the medical camps. Chemwotei is keen on giving back, the only way he can thank a community that has given so much to him.
Chemwotei is also aware of what ails the people of the mountain. He knows why there less progress as compared to the other communities, “Over-reliance on agriculture (maize farming), disregarding education, lack of exposure (being closed and contented with what we have) and lack of inspiration (young people don’t know what they can do or become).”
He will be back in the mountain, not just treating patients, but also mentoring young people.
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