What you need to know:
- Gold was discovered in Ikolomani 1932.
- A gramme of gold sells for up to Sh5,000.
- Small-scale artisanal mining has supported thousands of families across Kakamega and Vihiga counties for years.
- Most local miners rely on the holes dug during the colonial period and just after the country attained independence.
About a kilometre from former Rosterman gold mine, sounds of machines in operation rent the air.
A small mining centre has existed here for years.
Hundreds of villagers troop to small mining sites every morning, spending more than 11 hours in the scorching sun in search of the precious metal.
It’s a painstaking process that involves many hours of digging down the shafts and the dirt or mud to get the mineral, says 56-year-old Isaac Kabaka, who has been doing that for 28 years and has taught many.
Kabaka is among miners who have specialised in sifting dust from crushed rocks to extract gold.
Small-scale artisanal mining has supported thousands of families across Kakamega and Vihiga counties for years.
Work on the Butere-Sigalalgala road had to be halted for a while in 2015 when locals invaded the excavated areas in search of gold.
Underground shafts several kilometres long dot Rosterman, spreading across Ikolomani constituency.
Mr Benedict Khayego has been a gold miner in Ikolomani for 38 years.
Now 52, Mr Khayego, who chairs the Indombero Artisanal miners group that has 46 members, proudly says he has been a digger since 1982. His group was formed decades ago.
The father of eight has leased a piece of land off the Musoli-Bushangala road where Indombero miners operate seven shafts.
Their day begins at 8am and closes at 5pm, with occasional overnight work, Mr Nickson Kaluma, a member of the group, told the Nation.
“It is a tedious and tough venture, presenting all manner of risks. The shafts are sometimes filled with water, making us spend a lot of time pumping it out before we begin work,” Mr Khayego said.
“Four people enter a shaft at a time while the rest remain outside in a coordinated way. We get about six buckets of soil and share them among us. There are times we don’t get any gold.”
Most local miners rely on the holes dug during the colonial period and just after the country attained independence.
They lack specialised machines to undertake large-scale mining and must be extremely careful when in the pits.
Safety measures include ventilation shafts. Many have suffocated while in the shafts.
“The job is okay but flooding and lack of machines derail our efforts,” Mr Khayego said.
A gramme of gold sells for up to Sh5,000.
Devolution has brought with it challenges too. The county government issues an artisanal miner’s licence for Sh30,000.
“Unfortunately, the devolved government does not give us any support,” he said.
Just metres from the Indombero site, a group of 30 women has just set up a mining hole. Many were part of larger mining groups. The women are on their second day of digging.
“We have just started the group and have yet to give it a name. We took the decision because men in the other groups used to mistreat us,” group chairwoman Scholarstica Daudi said.
“We shall do most of the digging and only seek the services of men where when we need expertise.”
One of the members is Esther Akuwe who has been a miner for 25 years.
The mother of eight says it is a seasonal venture and returns are not always guaranteed.
“Some days are good,” she said, recalling a find that fetched her Sh30,000 three years ago.
“We can go for months or even a year without finding anything substantial. That is why many mining families have to supplement their income with farming,” Ms Akuwe told the Nation as the other women continued with their digging a few metres away.
“You cannot rely on mining alone. Your family will starve.”
A stone-throw away is Jasho mining group, made up mostly of young men. One of its members, Pius Shikanga, is all praises for mining.
“The job has good returns. You can make roughly Sh2,500 in a week,” he said.
Lack of licences has put the miners and the Kakamega county government on a collision course.
County officials have threatened to evict the miners.
Mr Khayego says Acacia, which has since been acquired by Shanta Gold, restricts their work since the firm holds the seven prospecting permits.
He and his companions fear being ordered out as the sites and shafts now belong to Acacia.
They can only dig up to three feet deep.
Mr Jimmi Makotsi, who represents Shisele, Isulu and Shirumba locations on the Shanta Gold committee which was formed to bring the community on board the Western Kenya gold mining project, says there are more than 48 registered artisanal miners in Idakho.
Gold was discovered in Ikolomani 1932.
“Some places were explored and mined extensively. An old site in the area was mined by European companies up to 1952,” Mr Makotsi told the Nation.
Shiholo local Philip Nabwangu says residents used to exchange gold with loaves of bread or cigarette.
That was in the 1930 and 1940s during the gold rush.
“We knew the white man was digging pesa (money), but we never understood its value,” the 92-year-old man said.
He recalls that a plane would land in Museno to get the gold.
“Boers from South Africa began coming as soon as the British left,” Mr Nabwangu added.
According to the old man, artisanal mining started in the late 1950s but the returns have been negligible, “though some families have gained a lot”.
Mutaho, where Mr Nabwangu hails from, is in the gold belt.
He says the name of the village was derived from the word itaha (lamp/light). There lived a British miner in the area and his home was brightly lit at night. Villagers would refer to the home as “Mutaho”. The name stuck.
Second after agriculture
Mr Makotsi says black people who were working on European firms continued mining, setting up a small artisanal industry in Idakho. It has grown over the years.
“Gold mining in Ikolomani is the second economic activity after agriculture,” he said, but faulted the devolved and national governments for not doing enough to ensure full exploitation of the industry.
“Mining is widespread in Ikolomani, Shinyalu, Khwisero and Lurambi. It plays a very significant part in the economy of Kakamega County,” he said, adding that it can create more jobs and transform the lives of hundreds of families.
Ikolomani remains the leader in artisanal mining, though small scale prospectors use rudimentary and even perilous implements.
The White man took about 60 per cent of the deposits. Local small-scale miners would then scramble for the remaining.
Mr Makotsi says the use of mercury in the extraction of gold poses a health risk to many miners and their families.
He asks the county and national government to support the locals engaged in mining.
Many more shafts have been dug in the past 20 to 25 years, he said.
“Artisanal miners are recognised by the law and should be funded, just like what is happening in other sectors such as coffee, miraa and tea. Unfortunately, the government only seems to recognise the holders of exploration licences,” he said.
He wants the law changed to recognise the locals as the legal owners of the mines and shafts.
“They need to be protected since mining is a major source of income here,” he said.
One of the challenges facing the miners is exploitation by brokers.
“They come here and buy the gold cheaply then sell it at huge amounts. There is need for regulation. Locals should be educated to sell their gold directly to businesses instead of relying on middlemen,” Mr Makotsi added.
Mr Nabwangu says livelihoods in Ikolomani can be greatly improved if the government through the Mining Ministry helps locals exploit the gold and find markets.
“Many miners have no inexperience. Those who have worked in the shafts for many years do not know how to operate modern machines. The miners also need protection,” Mr Nabwangu said.