Abimbo mine, where the search for gold beats fear of being buried alive
By Harold Otieno Odhiambo
| Apr 5th 2022 | 4 min read
An elderly woman painfully struggles to lift a basin full of rocks and pebbles. After several attempts, she manages to place it on her head and slowly walks towards a diesel-powered grinder a few metres away.
She delivers the rocks to a man and sits to gather strength. She waits for the man to grind the rocks and pebbles into powder, which they believe has gold.
Using a torn scarf, she wipes sweat from her face before embarking on another short but treacherous journey to the site where she hopes to strike gold.
For more than 20 years, this has been the life of Ms Tabitha Achieng, a grandmother. She engages in the dangerous and tiring business at Abimbo gold mines in Bondo.
She is among hundreds of women from the otherwise quiet village who are deep in the search for gold. But despite their long hours of work, there is little to show for it.
They wake up at the crack of dawn, work seven days a week and spend agonising hours courting danger in the Abimbo mines.
“If I do not look for gold, I cannot even afford a meal and I will sleep hungry.”
A spot check at Abimbo at the weekend showed the women checking the grounded powder for gold. Unlike modern mining sites where safety equipment is adopted, the women miners of Abimbo do not have any safety gear.
A few metres away from them, the grim reality of the dangers of the activity is evident as a group of volunteers continues with a search for the body of Tom Okwach who was buried alive more than 100 days ago.
But despite the danger, residents of the rather quiet rural surroundings of Abimbo have to toil every day at the mines to put food on the table.
Ms Achieng explains that the struggle to make living defeats the fear of possibly being buried alive while searching for gold.
Men dig through the caves while the actual search for gold from the rock debris appears to be the women’s job. Deprived of access to the latest technology, the villagers employ the simplest innovation they can afford.
First, they mix the powder with water and stir it to the consistency of porridge, then add a few grams of mercury. Four grams of mercury goes for Sh100.
The mercury coagulates with the minute gold particles and sinks to the bottom of the basin as the villagers gently pour out excess water until only the mercury and gold remain.
Afterwards, they sieve and the mercury is squeezed out with the gold remaining in the cloth.
A majority of the women told The Standard they barely make Sh300 in a day. They live in poverty and their children rarely complete school.
“I make about Sh300 in a day. There are days I do not get anything,” Ms Achieng said, adding that she is saving to take her grandchild to school. The women buy rocks at around Sh250 and pay grinders about Sh150.
Ms Juliet Achieng, a mother of four, started the trade about 10 years ago. She says she also feels the pinch of long working hours and the risks. Ms Juliet spends about 12 hours in the gold mines.
Although they always get a few grammes of gold, it is the middlemen who earn from their hard work. Ms Juliet told The Standard that most of them are struggling to put food on the table.
“We share the machine in search of gold at work in turns. We also have to buy rocks from the men who dig through the caves,” she said.
Interviews with a number of miners established that while the women toil for several hours, the people who reap from their hard work are middlemen who collect the gold every evening at a cheap price.
One of the women who asked not to be named told The Standard that in most cases they take their gold to specific middlemen who have connections with other buyers.
“On a good day, I get about Sh500,” she says.
Schoolgirls have joined the trade and are among those who wash pebbles in search of quick cash.
A number of teachers told The Standard some girls never return to school for afternoon lessons and instead go to the mines to search for gold.
Miner Florence Apiyo said her two daughters have also joined her in the mining trade after they completed college but could not secure jobs.
“Even when they were in school, they used to help me because that is the only way I could get their school fees,” she said.
In an interview with The Standard at Abimbo mines a few weeks ago, Siaya Deputy Governor James Okumbe said they have been working to improve miners’ livelihoods.
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