4 January 2005

Kenya: Village Markets Stones As 'Odowa' Eating Catches On

Nairobi — Expectant women in Nyanza Province like to share their experiences. One of those things is a habit others may find strange and unhealthy - eating stones.

Mary Achieng, a villager from Kajulu Hills, digs for the "odowa" stones.

And the habit has caught on, even among women who are not expectant, far beyond the lake basin.

"Odowa", a light yellowish soft stone, has established itself as a consumer product in major towns like Nakuru, Eldoret, Nairobi, Mombasa, Lamu, Nyeri and Murang'a. Adventurous traders even export it to Uganda and Tanzania, says David Onyango, a dealer at Kibuye market.

The residents of the rocky Kajulu hills in Kisumu District know about the stones, how they help expectant women and where to get good ones.

In Konya village, residents wake up early to reach excavating sites uphill where "odowa" is mined.

Poverty is rampant here, and maternal deaths common. For expectant women, morning sickness that brings nausea and vomiting only worsens their malnutrition. Decent meals are rare and far between.

For decades, mothers have been eating "odowa" as medicine for expectant women, an appetiser and an iron supplement. While some eat it out of mere habit, locals say it also increases a woman's strength during labour.

But the claim that it is an iron supplement has been contested. Dr Joseph Amache says "odowa" is actually low in iron and high consumption can cause appendicitis.

"The small sandy stones which cannot be digested easily usually settle in the appendix and can cause trouble after some time," says Amache.

He urges those interested in marketing the stone to take samples to the Government Chemist to establish if it has iron or other nutrients beneficial to humans.

Although women ate "odowa" previously, its use became widespread in the mid 1980s after a widow, Mrs Helda Akendo Nyagweno, began selling them at Kiboswa market, in Kisumu.

She urged other widows to venture into the "business" to support their families. For some time, women from parts of Western and Nyanza provinces scavenged the hills in search of the precious stones.

After exhausting the loose stones on the surface, the women began dig deeper.

Digging "odowa" is the business that sustains most Kajulu villagers after the collapse of cotton and sugar industries in the lake basin.

Armed with mattocks, pangas, shovels and forked jembes, families work in groups, chatting and digging at different sites.

But the diggers do not own the land they mine "odowa" from. Usually, they enter a verbal agreement with the landlords to dig their land at a fee depending the size and the number of days they would harvest.

Some women pay per sack, says Akendo.

Diggers believe that "odowa", regarded as a gift from God, sprouts at deserted craters if left undisturbed for a while.

After harvesting, the women chip and size the stones using pangas, ready for sale. "Decayed" and "hard stones" are sorted out and thrown away. Good ones are packed in 50 kg sacks.

Due to lack of roads up the hill, porters carry the heavy loads three kilometres away to the Kakamega-Kisumu roadside for the final preparation for sale.

For Zakaria Odongo and his wife Beatrice, the preparation process involves washing, salting and drying the stones in the sun. They are then dipped in a brown watery solution laced with iodised table salt to give it the taste favoured by customers.

After drying in the sun for three hours, the stones are either sold by the roadside or taken to Kibuye wholesale market by middlemen. The stones sell at a price of Sh250 per 50kg sack.

Thanks to rampant employment, retrenchment and poverty, more and more villagers have plunged themselves into the "odowa" business.

Paul Omondi, 32, a digger, says plans to construct a road up the hills would ease transportation.

George Owino, who plans to form the Kajulu Hills "odowa" Association to market the stones, has a petition to the government.

"We are seeking a donor or grants from the government to help us purchase better mining equipment and buy the hills where the raw material is available," he says.

A dispute in which the diggers and land owners fought for control of "odowa"-rich land might lead to the collapse of the trade, says Samuel Awiti.

Awiti, 34, turned to the business after the sugar factory, at which he was employed as a machine operator in Nyando district, retrenched him seven years ago. With a wife and four children to care for, he went to the "mines".

John Obura, 28, opted to join too after he lost his job as a clerk at a cotton ginnery in Homa Bay.

"The quarries assure us of daily bread to take home," says Obura, who married two women from "odowa" earnings.

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