The forgotten miner: For months, few remembered Tom Okwach

Tom Okwach and other seven miners were trapped when a mining shaft collapsed. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

Tom Okwach (inset) was trapped when a mining shaft collapsed in Abimbo, Bondo sub-County of Siaya on December 2, 2021.

For more seven months, Joyce Ocholla has lived every parent’s worst nightmare.

On December 2, 2021, Tom Okwach and other seven miners were trapped when a mining shaft collapsed in Abimbo, Bondo sub-County of Siaya.

Six miners were rescued and Okwach was not among them.

The loss of a son has been too much for the family to bear as the search enters its third month.

Every moment Ocholla thought of her son, tears rolling down her cheeks.

With only a handful of rescuers left at the site, the distraught mother said she would not leave the mine until her son was found.

Every day, she hoped that Okwach would be found to make the family complete again, but her optimism faded.

Okwach had been in the mining field for only eight months.

His father, Martin Sikuku, said when Okwach called home two days before the mining accident, he had promised to send the family some money.

They were, however, shocked when a friend called two days later and broke the news that he was among the people trapped in the mine.

“All we want is to find our son. If he is dead, our wish is to have him buried on the family land and not remain buried in the mine,” Ocholla had said.

Tom Okwach's father Martin Shikuku. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

For seven months, the family was torn between continuing to search for Okwach and closure through a cultural practice of burying a banana trunk.

According to Luo tradition, a banana trunk is buried in the lace of a relative who is feared to be dead but whose body cannot be found.

“Many people have been telling us to consider burying a banana trunk in place of our missing son. But to me, this is not an easy thing. I think I am closer to getting my son,” Okwach’s mother once said.

Mzee Odida Buoga, a member of the Luo Council of Elders had said it was not yet time to conduct a mock burial.

“There are instances when the family concludes that their kin cannot be found. That is when a banana trunk is buried,” explained Mzee Buoga.

He added that some rituals will be conducted at the “killer” gold mine at the end of search operation.

At one stage, excavators helping in the rescue operation were withdrawn prompting the family to accuse the government of negligence.

According to Joseph Omondi, the Siaya County Chief Officer in charge of Governance, had said they were sourcing for other equipment to help in the search while Okwach’s sister Janet Atieno said they could not afford the costs of searching for their kin.

Okwach’s wife Jackline Okwach appealed for help, saying she would have wished to see her husband alive or dead.

“This will give us peace as a family. It has not been easy,” said Jackline.

Tom Okwach’s wife Jackline. Right, his mother Joyce Achola. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

Later, Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), a local NGO took over the operations to retrieve Okwach’s body.

According to Kennedy Odede, the organisation’s chief executive, the community asked for their help after local leaders failed to assist.

When the organisation took over, Okwach was believed to be about 15 feet underneath.

The rescuers estimated that it would take at least four days to finish the recovery mission.

The government halted rescue operation on December 12 after walls of the mine collapsed due to heavy downpour.

Okwach’s brother Stephen Alila said the biggest challenge has been the collapse of the walls, that had made the search operation difficult.

At one time Bondo MP Gideon Ochanda told the family to sue the State for the court to give directives on the next plan of action.

“It will be a lot easier to get things done if a directive came from the courts. Of course any other person can sue the government but it is important that it comes from the family,” said the MP.