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The women quarry workers of Kieni

A group of women breaking stones at Kiganjo quarry in Kieni, to make hardcore stones. PHOTO:KIBATA KIHU/STANDARD

Every day for the past two years, Agnes Wangui has chipped away at rocks in the hot sun for her sustenance and that of her five children.

For Wangui, who lives in Gatei village - Kieni Constituency, life has been a struggle that is harder than the rocks under her feet.

Her job is to carry waste stones after blocks are prepared and break them into small pieces to make hardcore stones.

While quarry work is considered a preserve of men, other women, just like Wangui, work in quarries across Kieni from dawn to dusk engaging in the strenuous labour. Some with children strapped on their back, others taking a break to breastfeed their infants - it is all in a day's work.

"This job is very strenuous, especially when it comes to carrying those stones from deep within the quarry to out in the open where I prepare the hardcore stones," Wangui says.

Despite the exhaustive labour, Wangui makes just Sh2,400 for two weeks worth of work.

"I prepare seven tones of hardcore stones within two weeks which I sell at Sh3,000. From this I pay the quarry owner and loaders Sh300 each besides other expenses such as lunch, I take nothing home," she said.

Wangui feels if she made Sh5,000 within the same period for the labour extended, her efforts would make more sense. But for now, the mother five has no option but to keep doing what she is doing. With two children in secondary school and others at the primary level, the earnings at the quarry come in handy.

Catherine Wanja, 26, shares a similar story. The mother of three reports to the quarry early each morning with her one-year-old daughter and her husband where they spend all day having no money to hire a househelp.

Besides being a breast feeding mother, the tough job overpowers her many times not to mention the constant disturbances from her child something which lowers her productivity.

"I take three weeks to prepare seven tones of the hardcore stones, sometimes my child becomes unwell and I spend all day without working which means when I earn it goes to paying debts that I had taken within that period and the cycle continues," Wanja says.

Another woman, Charity Wandia, says she uses the peanuts she earns from quarry work to feed her children, cater for their education and pay rent having no land or husband to depend on.

She has two children and two grandchildren who depend on her for all their needs yet the maximum she can make is just Sh180 per day.

"Sometimes I am forced to come with my children to help me in this work so that we try and make at least Sh200 in a day. This is not easy work especially carrying these stones on our backs," Wandia said.

She says her children pass by the quarry each day after school and they help her finalise her day's work before they head on home together.

Wandia was a casual labourer in peoples' farms around Chaka villages before she decided to venture into quarry work in 2014.

"I found this work to be better than working in peoples' farms because it is available all year round. If only we can earn a little more, our lives would be easier," she said.

Paul Muthee, a manager in one of the quarries confirms that each quarry employs at least 30 people eight of whom are women.

He says they are sometimes forced to allow men, their wives and children to work at the site due to the financial problems their workers face.

"The children mainly come to help their parents when they are not in school. Some even drop out owing to early exposure to money," the manager said.

Asked about the paltry earnings, Muthee said the market for blocks is performing poorly.

"We used to sell seven tones of blocks for Sh15,000 but now we have been pushed down to Sh8,000. If only leaders can help us set a fixed market price we would all enjoy the fruits of our labour," he said.

However, according to Nyeri Senator Mutahi Kagwe, quarry workers are exploited because there are currently no laws to regulate quarry mining business in Kenya.

"These workers should form a union and elect representatives who will help push for regulations to be put in place," the senator said noting that having a union will help the miners have a strong bargaining power.

Kieni MP Kanini Kega promised to table a motion in parliament to shift management of quarry mining from being under county governments to the ministry of mining saying the governments have failed to manage quarry business.

Kega said many people are suffering in the quarry mines and the work they do is very difficult and an endangerment to their lives.

Philip Kihara Njau, a local youth leader, observed that the Nyeri County Assembly needs to amend laws to regulate quarry business saying many parts of the county, which are not fertile, rely on quarries as a source of income for residents.