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‘My house caved in as I watched’: Why villagers dread gold mine

By Nathan Ochunge | Jan 26th 2022 | 5 min read

Widows crush gold stones at Rosterman mining site in Kakamega County [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

Elinah Lipeya, 67, is lucky to be alive. Sometime in November last year, as she prepared to go to bed at around 9.41pm, she noticed water seeping into her house.

She ran out to alert her grandson and neighbours. Twenty minutes later, her house had collapsed.

Ms Lipeya blames it all on mining activities in Shibuye village, Shinyalu Sub-County, Kakamega County that have left many homes with cracks that can make them fall anytime.

As she recounted the events of the fateful night when she escaped death by a whisker, you could hear the echo of pain in her voice.

“That night there was a heavy downpour. I was preparing to retire to bed when I noticed water seeping into the house,” Lipeya told The Standard.

“The water was coming in through the cracks on the floor. The cracks had widened as a result of the gold mine tunnels running below my house. Miners who had pitched tent in the neighbourhood had dug huge tunnels which extended into my homestead.”

The first time she noticed the cracks, she had just returned from visiting relatives after being away from her home for about a week.

“I could tell something was amiss. I could feel my house shaking and at first I thought it was due to tremors,” she said.

She didn’t give it much thought until she was woken up in the dead of night by “voices of people mumbling below her bed”. This startled her since she could not see anyone.

The voices were emanating from miners who were busy in a tunnel beneath her bedroom.

“I was so scared, but mustered courage and went to find out why they were trespassing. They chased me away saying the gold would ‘hide’ if a woman came closer to the entrance of the tunnel,” she said.

“I sent my daughter to  talk to them but she was almost roughed up. The miners were not friendly,” said Lipeya.

She reported the matter to the village elder who was also chased away by the miners because she is a woman.

Lipeya’s predicament mirrors that of many families in Shinyalu and Ikolomani constituencies.

The Standard established that the affected families are those that live along the Lirhanda Corridor that was discovered to have 1.31 million ounces of gold deposits valued at Sh171 billion. The valuation was carried out by Acacia Mining, a British company that undertakes exploration in the area.

Lirhanda Corridor stretches from Kakamega through Vihiga, Siaya, Busia and Kisumu counties. 

Shanta Gold, an East Africa-based gold producer and explorer, announced that there are gold deposits estimated to be worth $2 billion along the Kakamega-Busia gold belt, which covers at least 1,160 square kilometres.

This revelation opened doors for cartels, unscrupulous businessmen and politicians who, with the help of local administrators, have since forcefully taken over some of the gold mines and have evicted some residents from their ancestral land.

Rendered homeless

Villagers said they have been living in fear of their houses collapsing on them. Some families claimed that the graves of their loved ones had already developed cracks due to the mining activities.

Villagers claimed some casual labourers had been trapped in the mines while others had suffocated but their deaths had been handled with a lot of secrecy.

“At least ten houses have caved in, the owners have been rendered homeless and don’t have money to put up new houses. Many of the houses have huge cracks and it is just a matter of when they will collapse as miners continue to enrich themselves and become overnight millionaires,” said James Amwayi.

He added: “The unscrupulous businessmen acquired the mining fields illegally and mine at night when everybody is asleep. The huge tunnels they dig are the cause of the challenges we are facing.”

Amwayi said even those who lease out their land do not benefit since the investors give them peanuts and always tell them that no gold was found.  

He lamented that the locals have been reduced to paupers in their own homes.

“I have seen widows being offered a paltry Sh200 by the so-called investors. The government must intervene and come to the rescue of the affected families,” said Amwayi.

He said their parcels of land have been degraded by the soil from the tunnels.

Juliet Mang’ula, a widow, said she leased out a section of her land to a gold prospector after they agreed to share the proceeds on a 50-50 per cent basis. He shortchanged her.

“There were around 20 miners at the site every night, I used to cook for them but they never allowed me near the mining area claiming that I would make the gold disappear. But the always claim that no gold was found after working the entire night,” said Mang’ula.

She said the miners dug a tunnel that saw her house cave in. They left without helping me put up a new house.”

The tunnels pose danger to residents and livestock. 

“I resorted to cleaning gold dust which earns me between Sh1,500 and Sh4,000 after selling the little gold I get to brokers,” said Mang’ula.

Melab Lungatso claimed they have lost many young people in the mines but the investors run away whenever such an incident occurs.

“Some of our sons who dig gold at night have died inside the tunnels but those behind it never reveal such accidents. Other miners looking for gold in the tunnels normally discover the bodies,” claimed Lungatso.

Prolonged exposure

Christine Yahama, the coordinator, Good Health Community Programmes, said the government ought to take urgent measures to save locals from their suffering in the hands of gold miners.

Yamaha said prolonged exposure to mercury and sodium cyanide used in gold extraction had affected some residents’ health. The substances damage the nervous, digestive and immune systems and are harmful to a developing foetus.

Halima Nyota, from the Global Youth Mobilisation, an advocacy group has proposed that the miners should be compelled to rebuild collapsed houses and compensate the affected families.

“Proper regulation should be formulated to govern mining activities,” she said.

According to Dr Joshua Azere, overexposure to methylmercury, the organic form of mercury used in gold extraction, affects the neurological system.

“The effects range from movement disorders, behavioural change, hearing and visual impairment and difficulties in breathing. It also causes congenital neurological abnormalities to unborn babies,” said Dr Azere, a gynaecologist at Kakamega County Teaching and Referral Hospital.

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