Kenya: The Gold Rush That Drives Miners Into Death Traps

14 December 2021

White — washed dirt patches, dust covered women and roaring machines welcome you to Abimbo, the infamous gold-mining village in Bondo, Siaya County.

Located in South Sakwa a few kilometres from Lake Victoria, the village has for decades depended on small-scale gold mining as the main economic activity. The harsh weather conditions in the area can barely support crop farming. "We are left to choose between mining and fishing," said 38-year-old Paul Odhiambo.

There are over 100 mining shafts in the area, employing hundreds of locals - men, women, young and old.

Abimbo came to the limelight on December 2 when a mine collapsed, trapping eight workers underground. As of yesterday, the rescuers had managed to pull out seven miners, one of them dead. One miner was still trapped.

Residents said such incidents are rare and safety is always a priority.

"This is the first time we are witnessing such an incident. We have had minor accidents in the mines but we often save the individuals within a day," said Mr Odhiambo, who added that mining is a lucrative business.

The father of two began mining six years ago and has never looked back. He is now the proud owner of a mining site that employs over 150 people.

Meagre pay

"After high school, my parents could not afford to send me for further education. I had to move to Kisumu in search of a job and stop relying on them," he said. In Kisumu, he worked at several restaurants but his meagre pay could barely match his needs.

On a visit to his village, he was shocked to learn that most of his friends were doing quite well, and some had even started families, thanks to their earnings from the rare mineral. "I went back to the city, parked my belongings and travelled back to the village to join my friends."

He started off as an ordinary miner, getting paid by supervisors. The miners, who rarely accept cash, are often given a share of the gold ore, which they process and sell to middlemen.

Mr Odhiambo, however, explained that getting to the gold ore is not an easy task. In some cases, he said, miners can dig up to 100 metres before reaching the mineral.

Three years ago, he stumbled on gold ore while digging a pit latrine in his family's compound. Since then, Mr Odhiambo has worked as a miner and supervisor, earning him good profits.

When things are going well, a single miner can get up to 10 sacks of gold ore, which after processing, can generate anywhere from Sh300,000 to millions, Mr Odhiambo said.

The busy gold mine is a major source of income for residents, as Senior Chief Patrick Obiero confirmed. He added that mining has also helped reduce criminal activities and gender-based violence in the area.

"Women can make money on their own, same as men, who are always busy at the site, thus reducing family wrangling," he said.

Mining

People travel from as far as Mbita in Homa Bay, Rarieda in Siaya, South Nyanza, Tanzania and Migori seeking fortune.

Ms Macleen Anyango, 35, is one of the people who have benefited from mining. After her husband died last year, she found employment at a gold ore washing site. Unlike miners, she is paid depending on the amount of gold retrieved from the ore, going home with Sh500 to Sh1,000 a day.

But the situation is different when she picks up rejects. "We crush, wash and sieve the ores on our own, pocketing up to Sh20,000," she said. She added that the work has enabled her to feed her two children and take them to school.

Mr Maurice Onyango travelled from Mbita to Abimbo, a decision he said he has never regretted. The recent tragedy, he said, will not deter him from returning to the mines as the handsome rewards outweigh the dangers.

"Every job has its challenges and to us, a collapsed mine is just one of them. When we go down the holes, we are always ready for anything," he said. "We always look out for the danger signs, especially during the rainy season. This helps us avoid getting trapped when mines collapse."

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