Every day, 28-year-old Gabriel Alusola of Lirhembe village in Kakamega County is sure he will touch gold; the real metal, one of the most expensive and rare commodities in the world.
In fact, Mr Alusola says he has probably held more gold than some of the richest people in the world. He is a gold digger. He knows what a glimmer of yellowness on soil means — he has internalised the smell of raw gold, and his eyes can instinctively pick out specks of it from a heap of sand.
“I know gold, and how to derive it from the underbelly of the earth,” he says.
He describes the search for gold as a dance with death. A dangerous tango where he sometimes leans too close to breathing his last.
“When you are down there, it is you and your God. We put our lives in this business,” says Alusola.
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As an artisanal miner, he has spent countless hours tucked inside a small hole, digging on and on until his hands are sore and cracked.
He has gone 160 feet deep, with only a plastic container placed at the entrance of the hole as his source of oxygen.
He says when he is inside, the only means of communication with other miners guarding the entrance of the hole is through a long pipe thrown inside the hole.
“You keep your fingers crossed and hope nothing with go wrong. Any slight malfunction and life ends for you,” he says.
He recalls an incident last year where two miners went too deep in the same site he works, and were killed when the hole caved in.
“When you go in you can die or live. You enter knowing there are only two possibilities,” he says.
Ironically, Alusola is languishing in poverty. For a man who deals with gold daily, his life is a sharp contrast to what most people would expect it to be.
His house, made of plastered mud walls and rusting iron sheets, sits a few metres from the site where he works.
His six children suffer from severe malnutrition and jigger infestation that has eaten most of their toes.
One of his children died two months ago after her body got wasted from extreme protein malnutrition.
“By the time we took her to hospital, doctors could not help,” says Alusola.
When The Standard visited their home, one of the children sat wailing and tugging at his mother’s skirt, asking for food.
The little boy is almost three years old but has never walked. He is plagued by malnutrition and ring-worms that make him crawl on all fours, unable to stand. His tiny limbs and distended abdomen causes him to lose balance when he attempts to stand.
Their mother, Pamela Khalechi, who never went beyond lower primary, stays home to care for the children while her husband is out at the mine, looking for money.
“People say gold is expensive, but we don’t see the money. The most you can get is Sh3,000 after a lot of labour,” she says.
Their older son, barely 10 years old, joins his father at the mine to collect remnants of soil which has specks of gold that has been abandoned by other miners, to sift through with hopes that he can find even the slightest sign of left over gold.
“Sometimes he gets lucky, but it is rare. He should be in school, but there is no money to buy him uniform,” says Pamela.
Only two of the six children go to school.
Alusola’s story sums up the struggles of miners in Kakamega. They continue to risk their lives, but never get the returns they hope for.
Saidi Butich who also works at the same mine as Alusola says they never quite know where the gold they mine goes. They sell it to brokers who negotiate and buy at the lowest price possible.
He says they are told the gold is sold to affluent gold smiths who own shops in major towns and later exported to different countries.
“People say gold is expensive, but we have to use brokers because otherwise we would have no place to take it,” he says.
One of the brokers who asked not to be named said the price of gold is not regulated and it depends on who has the best negotiation skills.
“Because there is no regulator, and the gold is sold in black markets the price cannot be standardised,” she told The Standard on phone.
For Alusola, the struggle to find a Midas touch that will change his life continues. For now, it seems everything he touches crumbles into nothingness.
“My children, and the house that I live in worry me to no end. I try my best, but I wonder where our gold goes,” he pauses.