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For these villagers in western Kenya, gold is a curse they must live with

Acacia Mineral Company worker at work at their site in Ikolomani in Kakamega County on Feb 28th, 2007. PHOTO: CHRISPEN SECHERE/STANDARD.

Reports that a UK firm has found high grade gold worth Sh171 billion in Liranda, Kakamega, have sparked excitement in the remote mining fields of Macalder in Nyatike.

As the gold miners at Liranda eagerly wait for a piece of the proceeds from the massive find, their colleagues in Migori can only pray that their overworked Macalder mines can produce a similar fortune.

In Macalder, the only news coming out of the deep and dangerous pits has been bad - that of ill-equipped miners suffocating to death in the mines.

Macalder, one of the oldest mines in the country, has never produced significant quantities of gold although experts say plenty of the precious metal could be embedded deep in its bowels.

Despite spending many hours in the mines, residents of this wind-swept area are some of the poorest in the region.

Instead of being a blessing, the area's vast mineral potential has become a curse.

Everyday, thousands of young men find their way into the dark pits in search of the precious metal.

Their mining gear includes torches tied to well-worn helmets.

Dubbed the tunnels of death, the mining pits are veritable graveyards, especially during the rainy season. Scores of young lives have been lost, buried when the pits suddenly cave in - which they do, many times.

Still, despite defying death inside the earth's bowels , many of the "miners" have nothing to show for their hard work. They live in abject poverty and their children rarely complete school.

This despite earning at least Sh500 a day - on a bad day. They earn much more when they have a good find. A gramme of gold fetches up to Sh3,800.

According to teachers in the area, many students attend class in the afternoon, spending the morning either sleeping after spending the night in the mining pits or frantically searching for the elusive treasure.

The lucky ones who stumble on little specks of the precious metal only go to school to flaunt their wealth, for they consider themselves the richest persons in the village. And when they attend class, they are usually indisciplined. Many of the young treasure hunters drop out of school and marry while still in their teens, quickly descending into the fast lane of gambling, alcohol, and prostitution.

Nyatike MP Edick Anyanga blames the area's poverty on the government's poor mining policies and marginalisation.

"Old methods of extraction are killing people. The government needs to invest in minerals to benefit both the miners and the economy," he said.

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