By Seliphar Machoni
When mining was discovered in some parts of Kakamega, residents saw it as a relief and a life-saving opportunity to raise their living standards, as they were ready to give out their lands where gold was discovered at throwaway prices, knowing that they were the key beneficiaries of the gold.
Young and old -women and men- were excited about the job opportunities that came with the gold mine, such as shaft digging, gold extraction, gold washing and gold selling, unaware of the health hazards associated with the gold mining process.
Gold mining in Kakamega County started in the early 1930s; since then, 655,000 tons have been extracted, bringing in more than 4 billion Kenyan shillings to the region. The region is presently on the edge of a gold rush as more investors invest in the gold mining business. This happened when one of the Kakamega mines dug up a small find of high-grade gold.
As much as gold has its benefits, like creating job opportunities, it has its own downfalls, especially for women participating in the process. Starting from traditions that surround gold mining, to health hazards.
Bushiangala area in Ikolomani Constituency, Kakamega County, is just one of the areas where mining is taking place. We met Florence Khaunga, who was busy washing sand a few metres from where mining was done. She was not the only woman at the place; several other women were carrying sacks full of sand on their backs, others hitting rocks, and others washing the rocks and sand. It was a very busy area with a lot of noise as everybody was busy with different activities.
Florence was the owner of the land where mining was taking place. Talking to her, she explained that when gold was discovered in her land, she was excited because she saw it as an opportunity to cater for her basic needs, take care of her five children and pay their school fees since she was a single mother.
Florence, who is 40 years old, before gold mining, was a farmer. Because of the soil type around Bushianagala, the food crop did not do well. She decided to mine the gold in her land to cater for her family’s needs, only to be told that, as a woman, she was not allowed to mine or get near a mining shaft according to the cultural beliefs of her community.
“According to the traditions of the Waisukha subtribe, which is one of the Luhya communities, women, especially those who are yet to reach menopause, are not allowed to mine or to go near a mining shaft as they are considered to be bad luck or bad omen, and they can cause the gold to disappear. But those who have reached menopause can go close to the gold mine shaft but are not allowed to go inside,” Florence explained.
Women like Florence, who are not allowed near or inside the mine, are tasked with washing, winnowing, hinting, and separating the gold from sand and other dirt.
She said that she had no option but to lease her land to her male neighbour at a throwaway price to allow mining to take place. She added that when the agreement was made between her and the buyer, she was paid a lump sum, but she complains that she has never received her share of the profits whenever the gold from her land was sold.
According to Florence’s community cultural belief, any woman whose land had gold was to sell or lease it to a man to do the mining. Such cultural norms and beliefs deter women from making a decent living from gold mining since it’s a lucrative business in those parts of Kakamega. Women are the most hardworking people, but the more their efforts are undermined and go unrecognised, the more they keep on remaining behind in terms of development. According to the Kenyan constitution, women have the right to own land and other properties, but tradition denies them the privilege to control them.
Health effects that come with mining activities
Activities done by women at the mining site have adverse effects on their health. When it comes to washing gold from sand, Florence says that they use mercury. Mercury has many negative effects on people’s health.
When mercury has accumulated in someone’s body for a long time, it is dangerous, especially to pregnant women, the elderly, and children. Women at the mining site risk their health by handling mercury with their bare hands without protection or protective gear, thereby, leading to mercury poisoning and visual and hearing problems.
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. Pregnant women also risk giving birth to babies with congenital diseases.
But because small-scale gold miners like those in Bushiangala have no other means of extracting the gold, they opt for mercury, which is inexpensive. More than 250,000 small-scale gold miners are unaware of the risks they put their female workers at.
According to Florence, they work under a scorching sun, carrying large sacks full of sand and crushed ore to a tool like a table, which they use to sieve and wash the sand and ore, which they then mix with mercury.
Due to carrying large sacks on their backs for a long time, Florence says that she has been in and out of the hospital due to back pains and is now surviving with painkillers.
“We always carry sacks full of sand and ore on our backs—not one sack but several sacks of sand and ore to get at least a good portion of gold. In a day, I carry four sacks. Due to the continuous carrying of sacks, I developed back pain. I have been in and out of the hospital, which was costly until I decided to start using painkillers to relieve the pain every day after work.”
She explained that she cannot quit working in the gold mine because that’s where she gets her basic needs and uses the money to pay for her children’s school fees since she has no land to till and has to work every day to make a good amount of money because the payment is poor.
“After working for a day, we get paid 200 to 250 shillings with the shaft owner, which is not enough if you don’t work every day.”
She narrates that, after sieving the sand, they add mercury. In many cases, they have to battle mercury irritation, which affects the eyes, nose, throat and skin, causing them to cough, have a runny nose, and experience shortness of breath due to direct and everyday encounters with mercury and sand. She also experiences hand trembling, body weakness and weight loss after working for a long time.
As much as mercury is inexpensive and enables small-scale gold miners to extract gold easily, they tend to ignore the health risks of mercury exposure.
Cultural beliefs that hinder women from freely owning assets should be abolished to make it possible and easy for women to have the right to own land and use it in whichever way they want.
Women should be educated on the health effects of mercury and other tedious activities at gold mining sites.
Girls to Women Organization
Girls to Women organisation located in Kakamega County took the initiative to educate women at the Bushiangala mining site on the importance of wearing protective gear anytime they are handling mercury or going on with their activities at the mining site.
In addition, the Girls to Women organisation called upon the county government to provide working equipment and protective wears like gloves and gumboots to gold miners and women working at the mining sites. It also requested that the women’s welfare policy to be included in the mining bill to enable women to fight for their rights at the mining sites to ensure that women are not drugged behind by outdated cultural beliefs and to protect women from harassment and sexual abuse from their male co-workers.
The organisation also asked the female leaders of the county government, led by the County Women Representative, to be at the forefront of fighting for the welfare and rights of women working in different mining sites in Kakamega County.