By Kioko Nyamasyo
Kenya as a country largely depends on agriculture as its main economic activity. According to International Trade Administration, agriculture accounts for 40% of Kenya’s total workforce and 70% of rural workforce.
Despite the key role agriculture plays in the country’s economy, most areas in the country cannot practice sustainable farming. This is because only 10% of arable land in Kenya receive high rainfalls.
Less rainfall in most rural areas in Kenya makes farmers engage in subsistence farming. This has led to high poverty rate in Kenya with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimating that 46% of the country’s total population lives on less than 1 USD per day with 36.5% of the total population experiencing food insecurity.
While Rongo Sub County receives substantial rainfall compared to most rural areas in Kenya, it continues to face same challenges as farmers in the rest of the country. Most of the farming in the region is small scale.
Maize is the majorly grown crop in the area but mostly subsistence with less sold to the market. This has led to the region looking for other economic activities.
The region has also tried its hand in growing sugarcane for commercial purposes. The sugarcane is sold to local sugar industries. The sugar industry in the area and country in general is a complex process. Many stakeholders in the industry are partly leading to its imminent collapse.
Most residents have now turned their sugarcane farms to gold mining sites noting that there is more profit in gold mining than in agriculture.
Kichuri Village is one of the largest gold mining sites in Rongo. Mining is largely concentrated at Kichuri Village with Ko’opudho gold mine being the largest in the area.
Joshua Otieno Okong’o one of the workers at Ko’opudho gold mine says that gold mining supports directly over 3,000 families. ‘We have dungeons on the sites, miners use these dungeons to go underground to dig the gold, some dungeons support over 1,000 families every day,’ he says.
‘The reef contains many minerals like zinc and gold, to get the reef from underground you must follow the pattern it is lying since most of the times it is sandwiched between other types of rocks,’ Okong’o says.
Once the gold reef rocks are dug from the ground, they are aired to dry first before being crushed into fine powder. ‘The rocks are first spread on the ground to dry, if it is sunny day, it only takes between one hour and two hours to dry,’ he explains. ‘After drying, we take it into a crusher where it is turned into fine powder,’ Joshua adds.
JoOkong’o says that the gold mine sites help many people from larger Nyanza region. ‘This site employs thousands of people from different places, some even come from Kisii and Homabay counties, as long as you are willing to work you are welcome to join us,’ he says.
Okong’o who is in charge of one of the dungeons says there is a vetting process before someone can go into one of the mines. ‘Going underground needs someone with some experience for his safety and safety of the other miners,’ he explains. ‘Sometimes we use dynamite to break hard rocks and it could be risky for someone who has never handled such stuff before, there is a lot of available work above ground though where someone can work as he learns the trade.’
Millicent Omondi whose family owns part of the gold mining sites takes us through the journey once the stones have been dried. She explains that it is through mining that her husband and her have been able to educate their three children as well as take care of their needs.
‘I am a mother of three with my eldest child studying at Masai Mara University, my second born is at Rapogi Boys High School and I have also adopted my younger brother who is studying at Rongo University,’ she explains. ‘It is through mining that we have been able to take them to school.’
‘This land where the gold mine is situated at belongs to my husband’s father, so it is a family business where every member has a share to the proceedings from the mining process,’ Omondi explains.
Being that the mining is still being done at small scale, the process is labour intensive. This necessitates division of labour. ‘It is the men who go into the underground tunnels to dig for gold, women filter the crushed rocks for gold,’ she says noting that it is women who buy gold after it has been filtered.
‘Sometimes the sample size of gold is low in the rocks, during those times we pay men who dig 50 kilogram of rock at Kshs. 300 (about USD 3), but when the sample size is quite high, we divide the rocks with the miners on agreed ratio,’ she explains. ‘The miners now crush the rocks to extract their own gold.’
‘Buying a crusher is very expensive, it can cost up to Ksh. 400,000 (about USD 4000) since you have to buy different components and have a mechanic assemble them on site,’ Omondi explains. ‘Normally we charge miners Ksh 150 (about USD 1.5) to crush their rocks,’ she adds.
The crush has metallic balls inside that are used to crush the rocks. ‘The balls are equally expensive, one ball we buy at Ksh 200 (about USD 2)and you need around 400 balls in every crush,’ Omondi says. She explains further, ‘due to wear and tear, the balls must be changed every three months.’
‘After the stones have been crushed, the powder now is mixed with water to form a paste which is the first process in extracting the gold,’ Calvin Ochieng, a student at Rongo University and miner explains.
Ochieng adds that the mixture is then passed through a sisal cloth. ‘You can now mix the paste with mercury to get the gold particles. Mercury is used to recover gold particles in the paste, this would though use a lot of mercury so the paste is first passed through a sisal cloth to filter it more before being mixed with mercury,’ he says.
After the paste has been filtered through the sack cloth, it is mixed with mercury to obtain gold particles. Omondi explains that they use white mercury.
‘We use white mercury to extract gold from the sediment, big companies use red mercury though, ‘ she says noting that red mercury is expensive when it comes to extraction of gold since it traps all metals that are in the sediment unlike white mercury that only traps gold alone.
Foreign companies buy the residual after they have filtered the gold and use red mercury to filter even further, Omondi adds. ‘Actually, we make more money selling the residue soil to leeching companies than from the gold itself, some foreign companies can buy a small heap of soil for Ksh 1 million (about USD 10,000) since they have better technology to extract gold compared to us,’ she states.
According to Omondi, mercury is very expensive and most miners cannot afford the white mercury. ‘A kilo of mercury is now going for Ksh 15,000 (USD 150) and we buy from local dealers and give it to the miners for free,’ she says. ‘During filtration process, miners leave up to 90% of the gold deposits inside the pool, we drain the pool everyday to get the gold and that is how we are able to cover the cost of mercury used.’
After the gold has been filtered from the sediment, it is usually mixed with mercury. ‘The amalgamation of gold and mercury is passed through linen, most of the mercury passes through the linen while the gold remains,’ explains Ochieng.
‘I buy 1 gram for Sh 5000 (about USD 50) which I sell at Migori town, the prices at Migori fluctuate but normally I get Sh 1000 (about USD 10) profit from each gram,’ Rose Adhiambo , a gold buyer at the mines says.
‘Even after passing through linen, the gold still has some mercury on it. We burn the gold so that the remaining mercury can evaporate.”
It is burned in the presence of the miner for transparency purposes. Once the gold is burned, it is put on a weighing scale.
Adhiambo buys around 5 grams of gold daily. She is one of the many buyers on the site.
One of the miners Florence Obambo is happy about how mining has changed her life. ‘This is a very good economic activity, averagely I get between Ksh 500 (about USD 5) to Ksh 1000 (about USD 10) per day though when sample size is high I can even get Ksh 7000 (about USD 70) ,” she says.
Obambo adds that mining has changed the life of almost everyone in Kichuri area. ‘Because of mining, we are able to educate our children and have a good life, there is also less crime in the area because almost everyone works at the mines,’ she adds.
Her sentiments are echoed by Jane Owiti who also works at the mines. ‘We wash gold from the crushed powder and depending on your luck you can get good money to sustain yourself,’ she says. ‘The job helps me a lot because I do not have to sell the little maize I get from my farm.’
The mining process might sound glamorous but it comes with a lot of challenges. Although it is helping the community make a living, the many challenges have hindered robust economic development in the area. The mining process is also risky and sometimes leads to loss of life. ‘Although it is rare, sometimes the tunnels collapse and lead to death of miners,’ Ochieng explains.
Okong’o explains that the biggest challenge in the dungeons and tunnels is getting rid of water. ‘Water seeps from the walls and if not constantly pumped out the tunnels can flood,’ he explains. ‘The problem worsens during rainy season when there is surface run off filling the dungeons, we have to use a lot of money pumping the water out using diesel powered pumps,’ he says.
Okong’o also explains that the temparatures inside the tunnels are extreme. ‘It is very hot inside the tunnels and miners cannot stay there for long,’ he says.
Rain season affects everyone on the site negatively. ‘During rain season, sometimes mining is practically impossible and we go home without any money,’ explains Owiti.
‘We have to use a lot of money to drain water from the dungeons, the amount of rocks dug during that time is usually less compared to other days. This means that we are using a lot of money to mine and getting less gold. During those times we barely break even,’ Obambo explains the situation when it rains.
Another challenge is getting the mercury. ‘Sometimes there is scarcity of mercury and that means there is no mining during that period,’ Adhiambo explains. ‘Scarcity of mercury also makes its price shoot up while price of gold remains the same, this means we make less money and sometimes we can even make a loss.’
When the golden is being burned, mercury evaporates in the air and it is inhaled by those around. ‘It is recommended to wear protective gear when burning the gold so as not to inhale evaporating mercury but most people in the area cannot afford such,’ Ochieng explains. There is no independent study that has been done in the area to ascertain how or if inhaling mercury has had health risks to residents of Rongo.
Considering the expenses involved in mining gold, Obambo feels that the price should be higher. ‘I would be happy if we could sell the gold for more than the current Ksh 5000 (about USD 50) per gram since we incur a lot of expenses. When you sell for Ksh 5000( about USD 50), the amount of money you take home is Sh 1000 or less,’ she says.
One of the ways to increase price would be bypassing the middlemen. ‘We would love to bypass the middlemen but currently it is not possible because the gold we buy is in small quantities such that we cannot directly sell to buyers in Nairobi,’ Adhiambo explains.
Adhiambo explains that some miners try to con the buyers. ‘Sometimes they coat metal with gold or put salt inside the gold metal,’ she says. ‘We are forced to cut the gold with pliers to make sure there is no metal or salt.’
The gold sites also provide ready jobs for everyone and this comes with its challenges. ‘Most children were dropping out of school to work in the mines,’ Omondi says. ‘We have now established a rule that no minor is allowed to work at the sites during school days,’ During vacation and weekends, sometimes kids accompany their parents to the gold fields.
The gold sites pay tax to the county government. Every crusher pays a Ksh 10,000 (about USD 100) tax per year. To operate a mining site, you also need a business permit from Migori County Government.
Gold mining has changed the lives of Rongo residents as agriculture and especially sugar industry was failing, they literally struck gold. With proper support in terms of technology and finances, Rongo Sub County can become one of the largest gold producers in East Africa.
The writer is a Master of Science in Communication Studies student at Rongo University