The craze for gold prospecting in Kakamega County has driven villagers to give up farming and lease out their land to hordes of artisanal miners in the region.
Some miners have come in from neighbouring countries, including Tanzania, and operate using proxies to avoid detection.
They have brought with them powerful generators and pumps used by those working in the mines as they inch they way in different directions in search of gold in the rocks.
The painstaking job requires patience and can take several weeks or months before the miners stumble on a few milligrams of the precious metal.
80,000 artisanal miners
According to Western Region Mining Officer Samuel Too, Kakamega County has more than 80,000 artisanal miners.
In Kakamega South Sub-County, much of what was family land has been turned into mining sites, with mines that are up to 150 feet deep -- potential death traps for miners who enter them to scoop soils containing rocks that are crushed and sieved for traces of gold.
The artisanal miners descend into the tunnels using a container fastened to a tow cable connected to a rudimentary manual pulley.
As the miners descend into the dark pits, they know there’s a possibility that the walls could collapse and bury them alive.
Several miners have been killed in the mines. Mining officials said they were compiling and updating their data on mining accidents.
“There have been several accidents, leading to deaths of miners and this has prompted us to compile and update our data to reflect the number of reported accidents and the fatalities,” said Mr Too.
The miners use wooden planks to hold the soils together and ensure they do not collapse and trap them underground as they get the soil containing rocks and send it to their colleagues for processing.
In 2017, the reported discovery of gold heightened expectation and sparked excitement in villages in Ikolomani Constituency.
The discovery of 1.31 million ounces of inferred gold resource in the Liranda Corridor drove groups of artisanal miners into a mining frenzy. The discovery was made by the Acasia Mining Company, which was then prospecting for gold in the Liranda Corridor.
Shanta Gold East Africa has since acquired the rights for gold prospecting in the region. The estimated value of the gold at the time was Sh169 billion, but the firm said it could take up to three years to carry out further survey and establish whether the venture was economically viable.
In an interview after the discovery, Acasia CEO Brad Gordon said: “We are delighted to announce the maiden NI 43-101-compliant Inferred Mineral Resource Estimate on the Liranda Corridor.
“This is one of the highest-grade projects in Africa today, and we believe that this initial resource is a first step in the delineation of a multi-million-ounce high-grade corridor."
He added: “This greenfield discovery demonstrates the value of our systematic approach to grassroots exploration and validates our contrarian strategy of investing in exploration over the past few years whilst others have been pulling back.”
Since then, artisanal miners have been sinking their pits close to where Shanta Gold East Africa have set up their rigs and other equipment in the ongoing exploration.
However, several miners have lost their lives in the past, after the mines collapsed on them as they dug the tunnels while others suffered health complications after inhaling poisonous gases in the depth of the mines.
In the latest accident, five people died after a mine caved in at Bushangala village in Ikolomani Constituency on May 6. The five were among 16 miners who had gone underground. Eleven sustained injuries after they were trapped in a section of the mine that collapsed during heavy rain.
One of the dead was from Bushangala village, while four others were from Migori County.
The sub-county police commander, Joseph Chesire, said: “The group had been working on the mine during heavy rains when the soils collapsed, trapping them in the tunnel.”
The police commander told Nation.Africa that villagers rushed to the scene and helped rescue some of those who were trapped.
In December 2019, the government stopped mining indefinitely to avert accidents during the rainy season.
Heavy rains usually lead to collapse of soils in the mining pits.
Chiefs and their assistants in Ikolomani have been instructed to ensure the miners do not enter the pits during the rainy season.
Kakamega County Commissioner Pauline Dola asked the administrators to ensure residents complied with the directive.
Ikolomani Constituency is considered the heart of mining in Kakamega County. Villagers usually flock the mines abandoned by the colonial administration in the 1930s to prospect for gold.
Artisanal miners have intensified their activities in Savane, Shiveye, Lirembe, Isulu, Shisere and Iguhu.
Mr Ernest Chimasia, an official of the sacco representing the miners said: “We are disadvantaged because we lack the sophisticated equipment to detect the presence of gold and other minerals in the soils. But we keep digging the tunnels and risking our lives in the hope that we shall stumble on some gold deposits.
He asked the national and county governments to support the groups to buy proper mining equipment.
Mr Aggrey Chimasia, from Shikokho village has worked in the mines for the past two years. He said at first, he never thought it was worth the trouble working in the mines.
Mr Chimasia and his colleagues were working on a mine at Shikoye in Ikolomani Constituency.
Lots of money
“One day, we stumbled on a substantial amount of gold with my fellow miners and I ended up earning Sh1 million. I bought a piece of land and built a house for my family. People make lots of money from mining but they shy away from talking about it to avoid attracting attention from authorities,” said Mr Chimasia.
“If one is patient and hardworking, the job pays off. There are days when we stumble on substantial amounts of gold after working for months without any luck. But we don’t give up because we know our lives will change after we have struck gold,” said Mr Chimasia, who is also a pastor of the African Divine Church.
Ikolomani MP Bernard Shinali said shutting down the mines would lead to an increase in criminal activity in the villages.
“What we need the government to do is come up with regulations that will protect the miners and ensure they are safe as they go about their activities. This is the big challenge facing the miners who depend on the activity for livelihood,” said Mr Chimasia.