Breaking up the rock into small pieces before putting them in the crusher Miners digging a tunnel The Rosterman mines Sieving out the gold from the soil Rosemary Obiero the headteacher Rosterman Primary School
His hands covered in fine dust, 36-year-old Amos Atenasi hauls a sack of small pieces of rock into a small shack and dumps the load into a cylindrical machine in the middle of the room.
He hits a button and soon, the room is filled with a deafening noise and choking brown dust. The machine will crush the rock into fine powder ready for a series of steps to extract a precious metal desirable by many - gold. Amos works as a miner at the Rosterman mines located in Kakamega County, just off the Kakamega-Mumias Road.
It is not an easy job looking for gold. Upon arriving at the Rosterman Mines, one is met by deep gaping holes dotting the landscape. Men and women alike go about the tunnels digging out dirt and rock from the ground below under the hot sun. They are in search of a type of rock called quartz. This is the ore that contains the gold that they seek. Working in the tunnels is hazardous because of the low oxygen levels as one goes deeper and there is also a risk of the tunnel walls collapsing. For instance in 2011, three miners died due to suffocation from the fumes of the water pump they were using in the tunnel. To prevent collapse, the walls and roof of the tunnels are lined with wooden beams.
The huge rocks are broken down with a mallet to sizeable pieces and taken to the crusher. Amos has worked here for eight years and prefers the earnings from the mines to any other labourer's job. "On a good day, I can earn up to Sh3,000 unlike when doing another day job where I would get roughly Sh200," says Amos. However, some days he goes home without a single cent. "It is a gamble since you never know whether the rock you have collected will have the gold or not."
From the crusher, the dust is taken to shallow wells dug out by the river where an elevated bench-like piece of equipment sieves out the dirt and retains the gold. The gold is not yet pure and it is placed in metal pans where drops of mercury are added. Mercury is a heavy metal that exists as a liquid at room temperature and thanks to its intrinsic properties, readily forms alloys called amalgam with other metals. The mixture is swirled in the pan and the mercury-gold alloy sinks to the bottom of the pan separating it from the impurities. To remain with the gold, one heats the alloy formed to evaporate the mercury.
This process is risky since mercury is a very toxic metal. According to Dr Damson Oluoch, of Meridian Medical Centre, mercury is absorbed into the body through the gut and skin. "Sudden inhalation of the mercury vapour will cause inflammation of the lungs, damage to the nerves and even death when ingested in high quantities," says Dr Oluoch. Surprisingly, miners like Amos use mercury with no protection at all, handling it with their bare hands and no face mask when evaporating it.
When introduced into a person's body, mercury will remain in the blood for 60 days but will stay in the kidneys and brain for years. "Prolonged exposure to mercury will lead to central nervous system toxicity, renal failure, slow brain motor speed, poor memory, impaired bodily coordination and death," Dr Oluoch adds.
To further remove impurities, the gold sample is heated in nitric acid. Since gold is chemically non-reactive to nitric acid, it remains whereas other metals like iron that may be in the sample react to form salts. The fumes emitted during this process irritate the nasal area when breathed in. Moreover, the nitric acid will cause severe chemical burns when it comes in contact with the skin. "If ingested, nitric acid will cause severe corrosive injury to the lips, mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach," Dr Oluoch affirms. However, despite the health concerns, Amos simply shrugs them off. "I know the fumes affect my chest but it is no big deal to me," he says.
Finally, water is added to the resulting mixture to dissolve the salts and you have your gold powder. "10kgs of rock will yield roughly 1-2gms of gold or even less than a gram depending on my luck," says Amos. The price of a gram of gold varies seasonally depending on the current international gold prices. With the earnings from gold mining, Amos is able to fend for his children and wife at home.
Despite the remarkable economic upside to the gold business, Mrs Rosemary Obiero is a worried lady. She is the head teacher at Rosterman Primary School and she believes the mining business is affecting the education of some of her pupils. Some have been drawn to the lucrative business either by their parents or the promise of money. "These children sometimes skip school to go and work at the mines to wash the gold or crush the rocks," Obiero says. "Currently, two of my candidates have simply gone missing and I suspect they might have been drawn to the mines."
"When we do a follow-up, they run away and even when we try to talk to the parents, there is not much change," she adds. According to her, poverty drives the minors to the gold business. "We often raise the issue during Parents Teachers Association (PTA) meetings but it seems the parents do not care because the child is simply helping to bring in the family bread," Obiero adds. Pertaining the government's response, she says nothing has been done so far and she suggests the perpetrators be arrested to set an example to others.
The story is the same at the recently started Rosterman Secondary School. The acting Deputy Principal, Shikuku Harrison has had difficulties wooing students to join Form one. "Poverty has driven many young people to make some quick money and also raising fees is a challenge especially for those from poor backgrounds," Shikuku says, "They are attracted by the sweet fruits of the gold business at the expense of their education," he adds. "We only have a class of form one students right now but for those who perform poorly, they may opt to work at the gold mines."
Amos denies these allegations saying miners at Rosterman have to be registered with the authorities to work there. "People from the mining office usually make impromptu visits here to determine the amount of gold mined," he says. They also have a local sacco that handles the business.
The presence of gold deposits in Kakamega seems to be both a blessing and a curse to the residents of Rosterman area. Many like Amos can put food on their tables and improve their standards of living, thanks to the gold business. However, if it is true that the industry is threatening the young generation by enslaving them to the mines, it serves as a wakeup call to the relevant authorities to bring some order to the trade.