Voi — It is viewed as a poster child of drought-ravaged villages in Taita-Taveta County. With persistent rainfall failure over the years, farms across the region have become neglected tracts of parched soil.
The scraggly bushes are emaciated. The scanty vegetation dotting the countryside has turned sickly brown.
During the day, gusts of angry wind kick up a storm of brown dust that coats everything with a fine layer of dirt.
The unforgiving heat from the scorching sun that triggers midday mirage completes the picture of misery for this marginalized area.
When night falls, there is no respite. Large herds of marauding elephants from Tsavo East National Park, traipse through homesteads, destroying tanks in their frantic search for water.
"Living in Kishushe needs strong will, but this is our home. Farming activities cannot thrive due to the lack of rain and wild animals. This is why mining has become our pathway to economic prosperity," says Chrispus Mghalu, an elder of Kishushe in Wundanyi Sub-county.
That perennial drought, hunger, and human-wildlife conflicts have been constant realities confronting thousands of Kishushe residents for ages, is not a matter of conjecture.
These conditions have pushed the majority to languish in extreme poverty, as they toil daily and struggle to eke out a living from any activity that can earn them a living.
However, the staggering irony of destitute residents struggling amidst massive fortunes is a hard-to-accept fact that only portrays the painful reality facing most marginalized rural populations.
While the residents live in a permanent state of penury, this near-inhospitable land they have called home for centuries is a veritable goldmine with huge potential to radically transform the economic fortunes of villages suffocating under the weight of decades-long drought.
Under Kishushe ground lies vast deposits of iron ore, that has seen foreign investors make hundreds of millions over the years from mining and exporting the product.
Out of these monies, only a marginal percentage trickles back to back to the community.
Mghalu terms it a sad situation that monied foreign investors have made huge fortunes from the minerals in the area, while the local residents live in abject poverty.
He attributes this situation to the unfair treatment of downtrodden miners whose efforts to enter the mining sector are frustrated by an inflexible regulatory framework, hostile policy, and uncooperative administrative offices.
"Some government offices are obstacles to our success. They are reluctant to sign papers for groups yet large-scale miners are issued permission without hassles. This discrimination against the artisanal miners must stop," he says.
Over the years, Kishushe's fame as a mining zone has largely been pegged on the extraction of iron ore; an exercise requiring massive capital investments.
However, the recent discovery of huge amounts of quartz has energized the residents and triggered unprecedented buzz in this laid-back village.
Gerishon Mwawasi, a farmer-turned-miner, says they plan to engage in large-scale mining of quartz. This will be a shift from traditional farming which has failed to impact on their lives.
"We want to empower our community and this is through mining. This quartz might be the solution we have been looking for," he says.
Quartz is an industrial mineral with a variety of applications from the construction sector to the beauty industry.
Depending on the type, quartz can be used in making jewelry, fortifying glass, and in horology, to make clocks and watches.
Quartz can also be used in making mortar while refined quartz is used in making silicon for use in computers and other technological devices.
David Zowe, the chairperson for Taita-Taveta Artisanal Miners Association, explains that quartz mining will not only boost domestic incomes for thousands of poor households in drought-stricken Kishushe but also create employment for youths in marginalized areas.
He says their plan received a significant boost after 20 small mining community groups merged to create a one Community-Based Organization (CBO), to spearhead the registration, quest for funding and acquisition of modern mining equipment to boost their activities.
Mwawasi adds that government grants to artisanal miners will come to groups and not to individuals.
"The massive quartz available can change. The Kishushe Miners CBO will help groups get licenses and proper funding to start mining," he said.
He added that the Devki Steel Plant in Kwale County was a potential market for the quartz, once the groups started mining.
One major milestone for artisanal miners was the granting of mining consent by the land owner.
Currently, the 20 mining groups have been given the nod by Kishushe Ranching Cooperative Society, to start mining operations.
Consent from the land owner to engage in mining is always the primary condition for mining activity to take place.
Matilda Waleghwa, a Board member of Kishushe Ranch, confirmed the ranch had granted mining consent to miners' groups, with more requests still pending.
She added the ranch was committed to supporting the local mining sector, contrary to the views that only large-scale miners were considered.
"We have already given 20 consents to groups and more are on the way. We want to empower the community and make sure they earn a living from this natural resource," she said.
Waleghwa, however, said consents would only be granted to local groups that recognized the ranch, as the legitimate land owner with rights to grant or decline requests for mining.
Benedict Mwabili, the Chair of the Kishushe Miners CBO, said mining remained the only economic activity the residents could engage in.
He cited drought and wildlife as factors that have made farming impossible in the region.
Mwabili raised alarm over the failure by the local administration office to sign forms for groups as required by law.
He stated that such obstacles will not derail the miners' dream of earning a living from mining.
"We have been frustrated by government offices refusing to sign group forms. This is sabotage and we are taking this complaint to higher offices," he said.
David Irungu, the Regional Mining Officer, says like all minerals, demand for quartz was determined by the market needs.
While hailing the artisanal miners for their efforts, the Irungu said there was no official data to conclusively determine the volumes of quartz deposits available in the region. - Kna