In Kenya, faith groups work to resettle youth returning from al-Shabab

In Kenya, faith groups work to resettle youth returning from al-Shabab

NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — In Kenya’s coastal region, interfaith efforts to slow down or end youth recruitment into the militant Islamist group al-Shabab are gaining progress, with some recruits abandoning the extremist group’s training grounds in Southern Somalia to return home.

The group — al-Qaida’s affiliate in East Africa — had stepped up secret recruitments in the coastal and northeastern regions since 2011, when the East African nation’s military entered southern Somalia. The radicalized youth, many of them younger than 30, were often sent across the border to train as jihadists.

But now, the activity has slowed down, partly due to efforts by the interfaith groups. More than 300 such youths who had traveled to Somalia for training as jihadists had been rescued and brought back to the country.

Across Africa, hijab in schools divides Christians and Muslims

The reports attributed to security officials last week indicated that the youths will be vetted and de-radicalized before being reintegrated into their communities.

Shamsa Abubakar Fadhili, the chairperson of the Mombasa Women of Faith Network, a branch of the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya, has been leading interfaith efforts to resettle the returned former militants. The Inter-Religious Council of Kenya brings together Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.

“We need to bring them back to the communities,” said Fadhili. “We use the youth to find others who have been led away and try to change them. Some have police records, or pending court cases.”

“I applaud the efforts. Something is happening and I think there is hope that those who have been recruited into militancy can be rescued,” said retired Anglican Bishop Julius Kalu of Mombasa, who is involved in peace efforts in the coastal region.

Although the recruitment has slowed, there are still thousands of Kenyans fighting alongside al-Shabab. In 2015, the government announced an amnesty for those who had joined the group. Some of the recruits returned home, but human rights organizations raised concerns over the returnees’ disappearances and extra-judicial killings.

Clerics familiar with the matter have described the efforts as a balancing act, using faith to combat hopelessness, marginalization and unemployment while working with government authorities. “It’s a delicate matter, but I think what we need now are closer collaborations, even with the security agencies,” said Kalu.

According to the Rev. Stephen Anyenda, a Baptist who is the chief executive officer of the Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics, youth are recruited through a gradual process in which recruiters offer incentives and make promises until the targeted youth acquires full trust.

“Many of them are unemployed, so they are vulnerable to recruitment. They see little meaning in life. They also feel bullied by the society and start engaging in unhealthy activities, sometimes due to peer pressure,” said Anyenda. “Recruiters targeting the youths may offer money for a new lifestyle or even support the families to start small businesses.”

According to Fadhili, many of the young people have no spiritual nourishment and are therefore susceptible to radical political ideas.

However, said Fadhili, “Many of them are eager to change, so we stay with them.” She said she had recently rescued 12 youths who had already started their journey to Somalia to join al-Shabab.

Fadhili has been helping the youth start small businesses, giving them seed capital so that they can improve themselves and avoid the lure of criminality.

Islamist militants fuel Christian persecution in Kenya, faith leaders say

According to Fadhili, the work has also reduced crime in the most dangerous areas of the city of Mombasa by 45%, in addition to helping slow al-Shabab recruitments.

At the same time, she fears that limited resources may force her to stop, and she fears for the worst when that happens. “I am concerned the youths will simply slide back,” said Fadhili.

Kenyans see ‘hand of God’ in Kipchoge’s record-breaking marathon run

Kenyans see ‘hand of God’ in Kipchoge’s record-breaking marathon run

Eliud Kipchoge celebrates as he crosses the finish line Oct. 12, 2019, in Vienna to make history as the first human being to run a marathon in under two hours. (Bob Martin/The INEOS 1:59 Challenge via AP)

The two-hour marathon barrier has finally been broken. As Eliud Kipchoge arrived back home in Nairobi on Wednesday (Oct. 16), citizens of his country pointed at a “hand of God” in his record-breaking, sub-two-hour run on Saturday in Vienna.

Kipchoge, a Roman Catholic, ran the 42.2 kilometers (26.2 miles) in 1:59:40 in the race dubbed “No Human Is Limited.” He became the first runner in history to run the distance in under two hours. Later, the athlete compared the achievement to Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon in 1969.

“I am … celebrating. I always celebrate in a calm and humane way,” said Kipchoge, after quietly reentering the country.

The race has united the people in villages, towns and cities in Kenya and stirred religious responses in the East African nation, where more than 80% of the population are Christians.

“I think he made it by trusting in God that all is possible,” the Rev. Nicholas Makau, a Roman Catholic priest in Nairobi, told Religion News Service. “He seemed (to) challenge a widely held view that humanity is limited, but he has shown that when people try, they can succeed.

“I think he is a religious person by upbringing who was doing it for his belief,” added Makau.

Kenya, in red, located in eastern Africa. Map courtesy of Creative Commons

The Rev. Wilybard Lagho, vicar general of the Mombasa Roman Catholic Archdiocese, followed the race from the coastal city of Mombasa.

“This means we can achieve more than we have always thought,” said Lagho. “Faith contributes to the success of human beings in mysterious ways we may not be able to quantify. But I think Kipchoge knows how to balance between spiritual and physical ability.”

The race has set a good example for humanity, said retired Anglican Bishop Julius Kalu of Mombasa, who keenly watched the race from the start.

“I was impressed by the pacesetters, who I think did a good job,” said Kalu, comparing their work to the call of Christians. “They supported Kipchoge to the end. This is what we should do as Christians — support each other in both good and bad times.”

Since the 1960 Rome Olympics, Kenyans have dominated long-distance running, from 800 meters to marathons, in the Olympics, World Cross Country Championships and the world road racing circuit.

The long distance running success has often stirred debates, with analysts citing physical attributes, the food and an ingrained culture of running. Recently, some religious analysts have also thrown in faith and ethics.

“The runners need their faith for endurance and perseverance, whether in training or in the actual race,” said Kalu.

In April this year, Kipchoge told Running Coach, a blog for runners, that religion played an important role in his life.

“It keeps me from doing things that could keep me (away) from my goals. On Sundays, I go to church with my family and I pray regularly, even in the morning before a race,” he said.

His latest race gripped the world as live coverage drew thousands of people to social and public places, including church centers in Kenya.

On Sunday, Kenyans went to church and thanked God for his achievement. They praised it as the work of a Christian role model.

Eliud Kipchoge is hugged by his wife, Grace Sugutt, after breaking the historic two-hour barrier for a marathon on Oct. 12, 2019, in Vienna. Kipchoge has become the first athlete to run a marathon in less than two hours, although it will not count as a world record. The Olympic champion and world record holder from Kenya clocked 1 hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds Saturday at the INEOS 1:59 Challenge, an event set up for the attempt. (Jed Leicester/The INEOS 1:59 Challenge via AP)

Even before Kipchoge left Kenya, Christians converged in churches to pray for the success of the race.

The St. Paul’s University Catholic Chapel at the University of Nairobi held special prayers for Kipchoge. The choir wore black and yellow T-shirts with inscriptions INEOS 1.59, the name of the challenge.

His elderly mother also watched with keen interest.

“I prayed and fasted for him so that he achieves what God had planned,” Jane Rotich told the Kenyan newspaper The Standard soon after the race.

She said she had been waking up every morning at 3 a.m. to pray for her son.

Kipchoge, who even before this race held the world record in the marathon, is one of Kenya’s most consistent marathon runners. He has participated in 11 marathons and won 10 of them, including the 2016 Olympic marathon. He has come oh-so-close to finishing several marathons in under two hours. In 2017, in Italy, he came within 25 seconds of the two-hour mark. And in Berlin in 2018, he was just 1 minute and 29 seconds over.

However, the record-breaking run in Austria on Saturday will still not count as a record. The “race” was designed specifically for Kipchoge and for the goal of finishing in under two hours. There were no other competitors in the run, the date was chosen for optimal weather, and he was supported by a rotating team of pacesetters as well as a car that used lasers to show the best place to run. These advantages are not allowed during typical marathon running and will keep this achievement off any official records.

But, according to the runner, that was not his goal. He wanted, simply, to see if it could be done. In his tweet before the race, Kipchoge wrote: “I don’t know where the limits are, but I would like to go there.”

“I expect more people all over the world to run under 2 hours after today,” he said after the race.

Kipchoge hopes to run in the Olympics in Tokyo next year and improve his world record — and perhaps, finally, get an official sub-two-hour marathon on the books.

Kenyans see ‘hand of God’ in Kipchoge’s record-breaking marathon run

Kenyans see ‘hand of God’ in Kipchoge’s record-breaking marathon run

Eliud Kipchoge celebrates as he crosses the finish line Oct. 12, 2019, in Vienna to make history as the first human being to run a marathon in under two hours. (Bob Martin/The INEOS 1:59 Challenge via AP)

The two-hour marathon barrier has finally been broken. As Eliud Kipchoge arrived back home in Nairobi on Wednesday (Oct. 16), citizens of his country pointed at a “hand of God” in his record-breaking, sub-two-hour run on Saturday in Vienna.

Kipchoge, a Roman Catholic, ran the 42.2 kilometers (26.2 miles) in 1:59:40 in the race dubbed “No Human Is Limited.” He became the first runner in history to run the distance in under two hours. Later, the athlete compared the achievement to Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon in 1969.

“I am … celebrating. I always celebrate in a calm and humane way,” said Kipchoge, after quietly reentering the country.

The race has united the people in villages, towns and cities in Kenya and stirred religious responses in the East African nation, where more than 80% of the population are Christians.

“I think he made it by trusting in God that all is possible,” the Rev. Nicholas Makau, a Roman Catholic priest in Nairobi, told Religion News Service. “He seemed (to) challenge a widely held view that humanity is limited, but he has shown that when people try, they can succeed.

“I think he is a religious person by upbringing who was doing it for his belief,” added Makau.

Kenya, in red, located in eastern Africa. Map courtesy of Creative Commons

The Rev. Wilybard Lagho, vicar general of the Mombasa Roman Catholic Archdiocese, followed the race from the coastal city of Mombasa.

“This means we can achieve more than we have always thought,” said Lagho. “Faith contributes to the success of human beings in mysterious ways we may not be able to quantify. But I think Kipchoge knows how to balance between spiritual and physical ability.”

The race has set a good example for humanity, said retired Anglican Bishop Julius Kalu of Mombasa, who keenly watched the race from the start.

“I was impressed by the pacesetters, who I think did a good job,” said Kalu, comparing their work to the call of Christians. “They supported Kipchoge to the end. This is what we should do as Christians — support each other in both good and bad times.”

Since the 1960 Rome Olympics, Kenyans have dominated long-distance running, from 800 meters to marathons, in the Olympics, World Cross Country Championships and the world road racing circuit.

The long distance running success has often stirred debates, with analysts citing physical attributes, the food and an ingrained culture of running. Recently, some religious analysts have also thrown in faith and ethics.

“The runners need their faith for endurance and perseverance, whether in training or in the actual race,” said Kalu.

In April this year, Kipchoge told Running Coach, a blog for runners, that religion played an important role in his life.

“It keeps me from doing things that could keep me (away) from my goals. On Sundays, I go to church with my family and I pray regularly, even in the morning before a race,” he said.

His latest race gripped the world as live coverage drew thousands of people to social and public places, including church centers in Kenya.

On Sunday, Kenyans went to church and thanked God for his achievement. They praised it as the work of a Christian role model.

Eliud Kipchoge is hugged by his wife, Grace Sugutt, after breaking the historic two-hour barrier for a marathon on Oct. 12, 2019, in Vienna. Kipchoge has become the first athlete to run a marathon in less than two hours, although it will not count as a world record. The Olympic champion and world record holder from Kenya clocked 1 hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds Saturday at the INEOS 1:59 Challenge, an event set up for the attempt. (Jed Leicester/The INEOS 1:59 Challenge via AP)

Even before Kipchoge left Kenya, Christians converged in churches to pray for the success of the race.

The St. Paul’s University Catholic Chapel at the University of Nairobi held special prayers for Kipchoge. The choir wore black and yellow T-shirts with inscriptions INEOS 1.59, the name of the challenge.

His elderly mother also watched with keen interest.

“I prayed and fasted for him so that he achieves what God had planned,” Jane Rotich told the Kenyan newspaper The Standard soon after the race.

She said she had been waking up every morning at 3 a.m. to pray for her son.

Kipchoge, who even before this race held the world record in the marathon, is one of Kenya’s most consistent marathon runners. He has participated in 11 marathons and won 10 of them, including the 2016 Olympic marathon. He has come oh-so-close to finishing several marathons in under two hours. In 2017, in Italy, he came within 25 seconds of the two-hour mark. And in Berlin in 2018, he was just 1 minute and 29 seconds over.

However, the record-breaking run in Austria on Saturday will still not count as a record. The “race” was designed specifically for Kipchoge and for the goal of finishing in under two hours. There were no other competitors in the run, the date was chosen for optimal weather, and he was supported by a rotating team of pacesetters as well as a car that used lasers to show the best place to run. These advantages are not allowed during typical marathon running and will keep this achievement off any official records.

But, according to the runner, that was not his goal. He wanted, simply, to see if it could be done. In his tweet before the race, Kipchoge wrote: “I don’t know where the limits are, but I would like to go there.”

“I expect more people all over the world to run under 2 hours after today,” he said after the race.

Kipchoge hopes to run in the Olympics in Tokyo next year and improve his world record — and perhaps, finally, get an official sub-two-hour marathon on the books.

For Kenya’s Yiaku, medicinal herbs are their forest’s blessing and curse

For Kenya’s Yiaku, medicinal herbs are their forest’s blessing and curse

Naisimari Lentula, a Yiaku herbalist, with a community forest scout outside her house. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.Naisimari Lentula, a Yiaku herbalist, with a community forest scout outside her house. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.

  • The Yiaku, hunter-gatherers turned herders who live deep inside Mukogodo Forest in central Kenya, have relied on herbal remedies for ages, with knowledge passed orally from one generation to the next.
  • However, high demand for the herbs from neighboring communities is exposing the forest to new threats — a trend mirrored across the country.
  • Recognizing that traditional knowledge is crucial to forest conservation, the government has taken steps to protect it, at least on paper. However, the Yiaku have received little support, even as their most knowledgeable elders pass on and their community becomes increasingly assimilated to their pastoral neighbors.
  • This is the third story in Mongabay’s three-part profile of the Yiaku’s management of their ancestral forest.

LAIKIPIA, Kenya — Naisimari Lentula, 80 years old, strolls carefully along a narrow footpath through the forest. Suddenly, she stops, her eyes fixed on several aromatic shrubs with bluish flowers that are tumbled over near the path. “This is the work of encroachers,” she says bitterly, then neatly sets the shrubs back to rights with the help of her walking stick.

For Lentula, inspecting the condition of the plants around her homestead is a routine she has perfected and performed every other morning for decades. “I have been using these shrubs for medication and used their fruits and tubers as food all my life,” she says.

A mother of four and grandmother of a dozen, Lentula is a Yiaku. The indigenous group lives deep inside Mukogodo Forest in central Kenya. Traditionally hunter-gatherers, the Yiaku have embraced pastoralism in recent decades. Although the Mukogodo area is well served by several government and privately owned hospitals and clinics, the Yiaku tend to frown on conventional health care, instead sticking to herbal medicines they gather from the forest. Like many elderly Yiaku, Lentula is a walking encyclopedia of traditional medicinal plants.

“You have to know the value of each and every tree here in order to survive and sustain your family’s livelihoods,” she tells Mongabay while stripping a piece of lichen-encrusted bark from a tree to administer to her sick neighbor. Her concoction includes the boiled bark of several tree species, mixed with fresh goat blood and honey — an instant cure for diarrhea, she says.

Despite her frail appearance and failing eyesight, Lentula doesn’t plan to retire from her calling as an herbalist any time soon. Nor does she take lightly intrusions that interfere with Mukogodo’s forest ecosystem. Like other Yiaku, Lentula has made it her sacred duty to monitor the 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) forest and ensure it remains intact.

In fact, the Yiaku are the only indigenous group to whom the Kenyan government has given full responsibility for managing its ancestral forest. They have been so successful at doing so through forest patrols, strategic placement of defensive beehives, and traditions such as the designation of sacred shrines and taboos against cutting trees, that the government plans to spread the model to other communities around the country. Medicinal plants are an important motivation for the Yiaku to conserve Mukogodo.

“We can only access medicinal plants if we protect this forest,” Lentula says.

However, high demand for the herbs, from neighboring communities, is exposing the forest to new threats. In addition to regular small-scale disturbances like the one Lentula observed, community members say outsiders in search of medicinal plants felled several cedar and olive trees in the last year. What pains Yiaku elders most is that some of these were highly treasured trees in a sacred shrine that serves as a water source for the community. They say the intrusions occur mainly during dry seasons when other communities’ habitats have been devastated by drought. The forest suffered the longest spell of intrusions in recent memory this past year.

“The encroachment by outsiders in search of herbs could put us on a collision course with the authorities and affect our livelihoods,” says Matunge Manasseh, a Yiaku elder. “We harvest these herbs with a lot of caution so as not to affect the life of a tree, but these encroachers lack the technique and know-how of which specific part of a tree has these medicinal values and instead they cut the entire tree while only the bark has medicinal value.”

Manasseh tells Mongabay that the Yiaku community has been generous with information about medicinal plants, but that in return the recipients have ended up using it to damage the forest. “We are now becoming cautious about who we share this knowledge with and for what purposes,” he says, adding that the community must focus on protecting rare tree species that are most sought after by outside herbalists.

To combat incursions from herbalists, the Yiaku have become more vigilant. They don’t allow strangers inside the forest without the elders’ consent. Early this year, the community’s forest guards arrested three intruding herbalists, turning them over to the council of elders for disciplinary action, which typically results in the imposition of curses.

It is unclear how many other arrests the guards made recently. Forest encroachment is a politically sensitive issue nationally, and especially in Laikipia county, where Mukogodo is located, and it’s common for conflicting accounts to emerge. The Yiaku forest guards claim to have arrested several individuals cutting down trees or taking medicinal plants in Mukogodo and to have handed them over to local authorities. However, the guards couldn’t say how many arrests they had made or when, and the provincial administration chief and Kenya Forest Service (KFS) conservator both denied having received the alleged culprits.

Map shows Laikipia County in Kenya, where Mukogodo Forest is located. Image courtesy of Google Maps.
Map shows Laikipia County in Kenya, where Mukogodo Forest is located. Image courtesy of Google Maps.
Map of Isiolo, Meru, and Laikipia counties in central Kenya shows Mukogodo Forest (center). Cick here to enlarge. Image by Yvonne A. de Jong and Thomas M. Butynski, wildsolutions.nl.
Map of Isiolo, Meru, and Laikipia counties in central Kenya shows Mukogodo Forest (center). Click here to enlarge. Image by Yvonne A. de Jong and Thomas M. Butynski, wildsolutions.nl.

A national problem

The Yiaku aren’t alone in facing down forest degradation for medicinal plants, and the trend has drawn the government’s attention. In Kenya, as in many African countries, the use of herbal medicine is on the rise, in part because conventional health care is unattainably expensive for many, or simply unavailable, especially in rural areas, according to a 2008 government brief. With just 15 doctors per 100,000 people, “The conventional system provides for only 30 percent of the population, implying that more than two-thirds of Kenyans depend on traditional medicine for their primary health care needs,” the brief states.

That reliance is taking a toll on the country’s forests.

“We are losing important medicinal tree species to commercial herbalists who are overharvesting trees that are premature,” says Peter Kitelo, a member of the Kenya Forest Indigenous Peoples Network, a Nairobi-based advocacy group. Kitelo says unscrupulous herbalists are exacerbating forest destruction and the loss of medicinal plant biodiversity in the Mau Forest Complex, home of the Ogiek indigenous group to which he belongs, as well as in other forests across the country.

The view is shared by conservationists, who note that rising human populations are raising the pressure on forests.

“Communities are increasingly encroaching on forests due to climate change and to expand their agricultural land, thus putting pressure on forests and medicinal plants,” says Joseph Mungai, a technical consultant with USAID who is advising the Kenyan government on forest conservation and climate change resilience.

By the same token, because traditional medicinal knowledge among the Yiaku and other indigenous peoples plays a vital role in their conservation of forests, researchers are concerned about the rate at which this knowledge is being lost. Over the past century the Yiaku have adopted the culture and language of their pastoral Maasai neighbors, and most of their old people have died without passing their immense wealth of traditional knowledge on to the next generation. Currently there only two remaining elders who can fluently speak the Yiaku language.

Yiaku elders Moses Litiku (left) and Naisimari Lentula (right) walk in Mukogodo Forest. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.
Yiaku elders Moses Litiku (left) and Naisimari Lentula (right) walk in Mukogodo Forest. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.

Edmund Barrow, an independent community conservation and governance consultant based in Nairobi, says the traditional knowledge of indigenous communities is crucial to sustainable land and natural resource management. Indigenous people know more plant species and their medicinal properties than most researchers do, he says, adding that this knowledge should be incorporated into forest policy, both to safeguard it and help conserve the forest.

He also says it should be added to school curricula to keep it alive. “We need to bridge this gap in order to ensure the knowledge doesn’t die with the elders,” he says.

“Traditional knowledge about biodiversity is inadequately protected” and used, says Barrow. “We have very good laws [and policies] on paper but implementing them remains a challenge.”

Since 2009 Kenya has enacted progressive laws and taken other steps to protect and conserve indigenous and local communities’ intellectual property rights over their traditional knowledge, skills and practices, including traditional medicines. However, implementing them has remained a pipe dream, despite the formation of institutions dedicated to the effort.

For instance, in 2009 the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (KIPI), the government agency in charge of patents and trademarks, introduced the Traditional Knowledge and Genetic Resources Unit. One of the unit’s main initiatives was to establish a comprehensive national database of traditional knowledge, in partnership with various Kenyan research institutions, according to Stanley Atsali, a patent examiner with the KIPI.

But nearly a decade later, nothing has been done. This despite the country’s adoption, in 2016, of the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Cultural Expression Act, which specifically mandated the establishment of the database and gave the national government powers to consult with county governments to make it happen.

“We are yet to kick off the process,” Atsali tells Mongabay. “We are working with county governments and research institutions to fast-track this process.”

None of the high-level initiatives have trickled down to the Yiaku. They say they have yet to receive any support from either the national or county governments in documenting and protecting their traditional knowledge, despite the government’s acknowledgement that it has been so critical to conserving Mukogodo Forest.

Article Courtesy of Mongabay.  Shadrack Kavilu is a freelance environmental journalist based in Nairobi. He has published in local and international media outlets, including the Mail and Guardian and Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

A view of Mukogodo Forest, a 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) tract of largely intact dry forest that is home to 45 mammal species, including threatened elephants, buffaloes and leopards, as well as around 200 bird and 100 butterfly species. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.
A view of Mukogodo Forest, a 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) tract of largely intact dry forest that is home to 45 mammal species, including threatened elephants, buffaloes and leopards, as well as around 200 bird and 100 butterfly species. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.
Clergy divided as Kenya moves to save forest, evict 40,000 settlers

Clergy divided as Kenya moves to save forest, evict 40,000 settlers

Anglican archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit speaks in Nairobi on May 19, 2016. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili

NAIROBI, Kenya – When forest rangers arrived at Mau Forest Complex in June to evict thousands of illegal settlers, frightened villagers started moving out.

Villagers sought refuge at churches, schools and trading centers as smoke billowed from their homes, which were razed in the exercise. Churches, schools and crops have been burned in a clearing process that government officials say will save the main water supply.  

Amid the mass clearing, clerics have been pulled into the controversy. Some religious leaders support the evictions, saying they are key to protecting the forest complex as a God-given heritage and an essential ecosystem. Other leaders are opposed, saying the evictions are inhumane.

More than 40,000 farmers and herders have been targeted in the mass eviction. They have been occupying 146,000 hectares (about 360,000 acres) of the 400,000-hectare (988,000-acre) forest land in a section known as Maasai Mau. They had bought pieces of land in what some church leaders describe as politically driven purchases aimed at influencing voting patterns in the region.

Some have lived in the forest for more than 30 years. But with visible massive destruction of the forest and river sources, the government is now forcing residents to move. Concerns include how removal of trees and brush has exacerbated erosion, increased soil in riverbeds and put them at risk of running dry. Communities downstream depend on the rivers to supply drinking water, including for livestock and wildlife living in refuge parks.

In the eviction process, large-scale tea farms have also been shut. Owners have been ordered to let the crop grow into bushes. Some 7,000 residents have been evicted this summer as the government reclaimed 12,000 hectares from them.

Jackson Ole Sapit, the Anglican archbishop of Kenya, told Religion News Service he supports the evictions. He said the forest is a holy ecosystem that must be saved at all costs.

“If we don’t preserve it now, we will soon see communities suffering serious water shortages, and even wildlife and livestock,” he said. “This is very urgent.”

According to Sapit, the forest is home to many rivers that serve important bodies of water,  including Lake Victoria, Lake Natron and the River Nile.

The forest “gives life to the Mara River, which is the lifeline of the wildebeests migration, one of the wonders of the world,” said Sapit, referring to the phenomenon in which 1.5 million wildebeests, zebra and antelope make a circular tour between the Serengeti game reserve and the Maasai Mara in Kenya in search of greener pastures. “Killing forest will kill the wildebeest migration.”

Others agree the government is taking necessary steps.

“I think the evictions are a win-win situation for Kenyans — including the settlers,” said the Rev. Charles Odira, a Catholic priest and a conservationist. “It may take time to restore the forest, but in the long run the action will prove very beneficial for the country.”

Kenya’s government has ruled out compensation for forest residents, saying that they settled there illegally. The residents have to look for alternative land to settle or return to their original homelands. Some have been surrendering land title deeds, which government officials claim are fake.

According to Hassan Ole Naado, deputy secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, most of the settlers are innocent citizens who were duped by racketeers to purchase the forest land.

“The racketeers used their influence and power to swindle these people. The authorities should pursue them (instead),” said Naado.

An aerial view of Mau Forest and neighbouring tea estates in western Kenya on Oct. 7, 2017. Photo by Patrick Sheperd/CIFOR/Creative Commons

While the evictions have widespread support in Kenya, some church leaders have raised a red flag. They say they are not opposed to the conservation of the water supply, but they argue the evictions are cruel.

Paul Leleito, a retired bishop of the African Gospel Church, said government authorities have failed to follow a steering commission’s recommendations to clear the area by marking the forest border, determining land ownership and using resources to support residents who are forced to leave.

“My concern is they have enforced the evictions without a proper prior warning,” said Leleito. “Many of those affected by eviction have no shelter and are living in the open where (they) suffer cold nights. Some of them are sick. Children are not going to school.”

Leleito urged the government to give evicted residents time to plan their departure.

“For now, the people should be allowed to harvest the crops they had planted in farms,” said Leleito. “This is not happening, and the crops are likely to go to waste.”

Meanwhile, clerics are warning politicians not to use the evictions to score political points, which they fear is dividing the local communities. Sapit suggested that the forest should be fenced in to prevent future encroachment or illegal settlement.

“We need to look at the greater good and encourage the government to protect the environment,” said Sapit.

The Mau Forest in western Kenya. Map courtesy Google Maps