Ekalakala — The scramble for Africa's mineral resources is gradually intensifying.
It's in the name of "scramble for resources" that a number of African states have been rendered unstable, thousands of lives lost, property destroyed - and it's not over yet.
Listen keenly and the echoes you will hear, from East to West or South to North, will be those of people flexing their muscles on how they will either reclaim their lost resources - land, gold mines, oil fields and so on, but then there is the other group that wants to protect the resources.
It's never a smooth ride as more than often it ignites sparks that quickly turn the God-given resources to a painful blessing.
-The scramble for Ekalakala 'gold' -
On a normal day, Ekalakala is usually a sleepy and dusty town, with locals minding their business; that of how to will earn their daily bread.
That has been a routine until not so long when they 'ate Eve's fruit' and their eyes opened up.
The eyes are so wide open that they have seen what they didn't before - what they now adorably refer to 'Ekalakala gold'- the sand.
And yes, it's golden.
The discovery of the "Ekalakala gold" has been received with ululation from a section of the community demanding that all must benefit, while the other lot that has been exploiting it for a while is shaken.
They are shaken that the tree they have been reaping from has no more fruits. And, they are suffering.
They want to earn their keep like as has been the case before, as meagre as it is, and don't see the sense of "sitting down with stakeholders to ensure all benefit."
But there are more pressing issues as has been established by Capital FM News.
Poverty is high and the weather is unpredictable, and the only consolation is sand harvesting for a certain section of the populace looking for an easy way to earn quick money.
- Poverty, corruption, environmental degradation and money -
From a distance, we could see Mark, 38, (not his real name) sniffing tobacco.
He is bored.
We drove nearer and discovered he was in the company of colleagues; some are chewing miraa, another is smoking and another is lying on a heap of sand holding a spade.
It is a few days after sand harvesting was banned in the area and from our current position it doesn't look as bad until you move further.
"We don't know what to do after they banned sand harvesting," says Mark, who is not comfortable using his real name.
The father of two is hoping for a miracle to happen before the sun sets "so that our leaders can allow sand harvesting to continue."
For the last two days, Mark has walked home empty handed and is worried that if the ban continues, he will not feed his two babies and their mother.
On a normal day, he walks home Sh600 richer from loading sand, an activity that starts at 6am.
"This is all I have as a sole bread winner in my family," the Form 2 dropout says.
For Mark, just like the about 1,200 sand loaders in the mines located on people's farms, it is about the money they get.
He does not understand how their continued activities have impacted negatively on the community and more importantly to the environment.
It is not so far from River Thika.
After a little talk, Mark was willing to take us through the mines that stretch over a kilometer.
They are wide, deep and dangerous - some can cave-in anytime, more so during the ongoing heavy rains.
About some 20 metres above the sand mines, a layer of green grass can be seen, several trees being blown by the wind, bird nests, a herd of cows and goats feeding along the periphery; up there, life is thriving.
But this may not last for so long if the uncontrolled harvesting of sand continues.
The sand loaders, majority youths, have vowed to stand for their rights.
But some 15 kilometres away from the mines, in Kwa-Wanzilu village, anger is simmering.
A group of youths has put a roadblock to ensure the lorries carrying sand don't proceed from the mines to any other place.
A few minutes before we arrived, a driver of a lorry carrying sand was accosted by the youths who offloaded it and sold it to locals.
Many more drivers have faced the wrath, coupled with the loss of money.
The group too has vowed to ensure the sand harvesting business collapses.
It is push and pull, for the two warring factions. Who will win the duel?
The group of agitated youths is angered because the Ekalakala road is no longer impassable because of the sand harvesting business.
Crater like potholes have formed along the entire 22 kilometre stretch and now that it is raining, they are filled with water.
Every other minute a vehicle is being pulled from the mud.
The transport fee has increased threefold, from Sh50 to Sh150 for the locals going to Matuu town.
But as the roads gets destroyed, transport fee increases, that is not reflected in their income, they say.
Theirs is only to watch, mouths watering, as the "Ekalakala gold" snakes out of their land.
"We will not allow the sand to be transported through this road. We have suffered for long because the investors have refused to give back to the community. Can't they see we are suffering?" Stephen Nzau a resident of Kwa-Wanzilu area wondered.
He remorsefully pointed out that "the only benefit is to the people buying the sand since they pay poorly but sell it a high price out there."
Sand loaders are paid Sh200 per lorry.
A full lorry (14 tonnes) goes for Sh6,000 to Sh8,000, a price that drastically increases as soon as it leaves Ekalakala to say Thika or Nairobi to Sh60,000 or Sh70,000.
This is just part of the problem as the scramble for natural resources continues.
A trail of benefits and negative effects has been left by the sand harvesting business, as established by Capital FM News, during an extensive tour and interaction with locals.
From the pothole-ridden road to more than 1,000 sands loader earning their keep from the business, to hundreds of school going kids dropping from school to head to the mines and so on.
Locals opposed to the sand harvesting say the lorries have been exceeding the amount of sand they should carry.
"The lorries have been extended to carry as much as 30 tonnes from 14 tonnes. But there is nothing to show for us, the poor youths mining are poorer, our roads have been destroyed, not anymore," Nzau who was flanked by tens of youths said amid chants, in his support.
Nzau's sentiments are shared widely.
And county authorities are aware of this, but they always receive Sh2,000 bribe per lorry, and in return, they turn a blind eye.
For them, it is a business.
"The ordinary Kenyan is paying heavily as a few people rake millions out of our gold (sand)," John Mutheu, a resident said.
Bernard Kioko is a driver with the local Sacco and says the cost of maintaining their vehicles has gone high.
"I am almost quitting this job. It is no longer tenable," Kioko said.
Ekalakala ward Member of County Assembly Stephen Mwinthi is aware of the complexity of the issues but he has to strike a balance.
A shaky balance between siding with his support base, which want the sand harvesting to continue and the other faction opposed to it.
He has chosen to side with the environment.
"It is true that sand harvesting has been a big issue on this road. We have said there is no sand harvesting in our region," he said during an Interview.
To the youths depending on the activity, he says they are working on other programmes to ensure they are economically empowered.
And this is not in Ekalakala alone, he says, but a wave of change within the entire Ukambani region is blowing as people seek to control the natural resources.
Another wave of conserving the environment is blowing after the prolonged drought in the country, which was blamed to massive destruction of the environment.
Ukambani region is usually among the hard hit areas, when drought strikes.
The MCA has vowed to stop the business at least for the five years he will be in power. Further, he plans to file a motion in the Machakos County Assembly, banning sand harvesting in the entire county.
Reckless sand harvesting, he has cautioned, will be a death sentence to the community.
A 2014 United Nations report shows 40 billion tonnes of sand and gravel is extracted per year globally.
The legal sand extraction industry is worth $70 billion.
And this is not an isolated problem for Ekalakala and the larger Ukambani region but a global challenge.
On Sunday, there are planned demonstrations by two groups, one for sand harvesting and another against it, but even as this happens, there is a need for locals to be sensitized on conservation, while youths like Mark relying on the business should be empowered on alternative sources of income.