A gold mine in Bureti Sub-county, Kericho which has been in operation for the last eight years has pushed the area into the league of other gold mining regions existing in western Kenya.
The approximately three acres mine located in Kenene village overlooking River Ewaret is abuzz with a hive of activities by residents and non-residents hoping to strike it rich.
An impromptu visit by a multi-agency team led by the area Deputy Commissioner Lawrence Omondi last Wednesday established poor workplace, health and safety conditions at the mine.
Kericho National Environment Management Authority Director Mr Valentine Lala noted that many of the artisan miners discard the pollutants into the water body and the residents including their livestock relied on this river as their source of water.
Lala warned that people living in areas surrounding the mines are slowly being affected and the effects of the pollutant may start manifesting themselves in coming days. “They use mercury to process their gold which is a toxic chemical and the exposure to toxic mercury will be detrimental in the coming days.” said Lala.
The NEMA CEO warned artisan miners to comply with existing regulations or risk closure of the outfits.
“The landlords of the mines must acquire an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) certificate confirming their conformity to the existing environmental legislation in the county. We give them until 20th, May when we shall revisit the site to ascertain conformity,” said Lala.
According to the World Health Organization high mercury levels can damage the nervous, digestive and immune systems and poison the lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.
When KNA toured the area, at least 200 people were working under the scorching sun in different processes designed to separate the ores containing the gold. Some were spotted going down four underground mines of averagely about 100metres deep to extract ores from the earth’s surface. There are at least eight functional grinding machines present. Mining activities of the precious metal from production to final processing are witnessed at the site.
According to a section of women the mine was discovered in 1961 during the colonial period by European settlers then living in the area.
The women who work for the first mine carry large sacks of crushed ore on their backs to wooden tables where they sieve the powdered ore into plastic basins mix with water before adding mercury. Allegedly that work stopped soon after Kenya gained independence in 1963.
Mama Esther Maritim, 75, said that work on the first mine commenced in earnest in 2013 and she is still working at the site despite her old age but seeks the assistance of young men.
“The British used to live here in 1961 and they are the ones who stumbled upon gold while digging the land to build their houses. When Kenya gained independence they left and no one went back to exploit the precious metal until 2013. I have been spending the money I earn from this place to educate my five sons and one daughter. Two of my boys are now working at the mine. I cannot do much but I pay the young men who come here to look for work to carry the heavy bags full of rocks containing the ore to the grinding machine and they also help me to wash out the mixture,” added Maritim.
The second mine which the locals call Kwa Shimo is said to have been discovered last year in August by a farmer who as he dug a pit latrine stumbled on a shiny piece of rock. In the compound are four underground mine shafts. About 20 to 30 people were working in the shafts in shifts.
The scary shafts have gaping openings and just standing next to them one could feel the warm air coming out of them. The miners use ropes tied on a hand- powered pulley mounted on top of the pit. Some men would carefully lift or lower others, their faces specked with mud and dust with battery powered torches held tightly on their woolen hats into the pit using this pulley and bring up the rocks as well.
The vast majority of the artisanal miners were seen using mercury to extract gold from the ore. On wooden tables they sieve the powdered ore into plastic basins, add mercury and then heat the mixture over a charcoal fire. From observation mercury is used to recover minute pieces of gold that is mixed in soil and sediments.
Mercury and gold settle and combine to form an amalgam. Gold is then extracted by vaporizing the mercury through heating. The miners use charcoal fire to heat the mixture which evaporates leaving behind a lump of gold.
According to 33 year old artisan miner Daudi Bii, gold mining is energy sapping. He said he has worked inside the gold mine for now two years after leaving his lumberjack job and was content from the payments he earned after selling his hard earned sweat.
“I have been working in the second mine where I descend and sift for gold. This work is dangerous but there is a lot of money down there. I do it three times in a week and work for close to six hours then I exit from the underground tunnel with a sack full of rocks containing the gold ores. We use cement bags to carry it to the grinding machines which then crush the rocks into fine earth. In a week I extract three to four grams of gold,” he says.
“I sell the precious metal to the buyers who are always here on a daily basis for Sh3, 500 per gram. In order to get into the shafts, we pay Sh100 and in a week I get Sh25, 000 up from Sh6, 000 that I earned from my previous work. Yes it is hard work but the earnings justifies it,” says Bii.
Bii regrets the miners take all the risks only to have to deal with brokers who buy the gold cheaply. “A gram of gold here trades at Sh3, 500 compared to the average global price of Sh5, 996,” he noted adding with proper tools and expert advice, their quest inside these gold mines would be more productive.
An unlicensed gold buyer who sought anonymity said he visited the mining site every day and would buy from the miners and sell it double the price to gold dealers in Migori.
In an interview another gold buyer at the site Anthony Rotich said most buyers budget to buy at least 10 grams of gold from the miners before selling to brokers dealing with the precious metal.
With a five year stint in the business, Rotich said the purity of the gold from the mines determines its price adding that coronavirus may lead the world economy into a recession plunging the prices further down.
“I have been in this gold buying business for the last five years. I have been to Migori and West Pokot mines and I was on transit to Kapsabet mine when I opted to seek business at this one here. The purity of the gold here is around 67 to 70 percent. This determines how the gold dealer will pay you. The economic uncertainty in the world due to Coronavirus scare has seen many dealers keep off for fear of losing their money,” said Rotich.
But despite the difficulties associated with this type of work, the residents and non-residents alike are not about to give up their quest to dig for gold.
By Sarah Njagi