Middle-aged women crush ballast to make ends meet in drought 

Grace Karema crashing ballast

Ms Grace Karema, 47, crushes ballast at a quarry in Ntulili village, Tigania West along the Meru-Isiolo border. Some elderly women have joined the male dominated work due to drought that has made farming unproductive and invasion of their farms by illegal camel herders from Isiolo side. 

Photo credit: Charles Wanyoro I Nation Media Group

The sun bears down from a pale blue sky flecked by tiny clouds, forcing Joyce Kamwithu to seek shelter under a tiny acacia tree that has shed most of its bipinnate leaves.

Though she is sweating, the 50-year-old grandmother continually pounds the hard igneous rock to make ballast and earn her day’s bread.

She is among a group of four middle-aged women from Ntulili village in Tigania West, Meru County, who have joined the male-dominated backbreaking work because of hard times.

“I started crushing ballast four years ago after the rains failed. I used to practise subsistence farming and do casual work on people’s farms, but the changing weather patterns rendered our farms unproductive as it has not rained for four seasons,” narrates Ms Kamwithu.

Livestock rearing, which was also once a major occupation in this part of the northern grazing zone, has also been disrupted by constant invasions by illegal camel herders.

The camels mainly feed on pencil cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli), usually planted as fence hedges in most homes and graze on farms, thus preventing cultivation.

Earlier this month, the herders ignored a ban on grazing in Meru County enforced by the government after over 10 people were killed at the beginning of the year in conflicts between communities.

Joyce Kamwithu

Joyce Kamwithu, 50, crushes ballast at a quarry in Ntulili village, Tigania West along the Meru-Isiolo border. Some elderly women have joined the male dominated work due to drought that has made farming unproductive and invasion of their farms by illegal camel herders from Isiolo side

Photo credit: Charles Wanyoro I Nation Media Group

“At times, I get home and start hearing gunshots from camel herders near homesteads, and we do not cook because of the insecurity and we are forced to sleep hungry,” says Ms Kamwithu.

The ballast crushers are paid Sh25 per bucket but due to the heavy weight, the women must part with Sh2 to pay men to lift the load for weighing.

“I crush about five debes per day. Sometimes it is not bought on the same day and we are forced to borrow foodstuffs from the local shopkeeper, because they know where I work. I earn about Sh110 per day but I also pay someone to get the huge rock for crushing,” she narrates.

She explains that her eyesight is failing from stone particles hitting her eyes in the course of her work as she does not have protective goggles.

“The left eye has been struck twice and one time I thought it had been pricked. At times, I experience agonizing pain but I just rub it and the pain subsides,” she says.

“The other one has constant aches and sometimes I have difficulty even making phone calls due to eye problems. We also face challenges of getting hit by the rocks, especially on the legs, and sometimes nails are plucked.”

But because she does not have health insurance and cannot afford to pay for medical care, she soldiers on, hoping for a brighter day.

Men and women crash ballast

Some of the elderly men and women who crush ballast at a quarry in Ntulili village, Tigania West along the Meru-Isiolo border. 


 

Photo credit: Charles Wanyoro I Nation Media Group

“I do not think of going to the hospital, because of the cost involved. With the escalating cost of living, my priority is getting our daily bread. We also feed children whose young families fled due to the difficulties they faced here,” she says.

It is the same story of resilience from Ms Margaret Kaembe, 54, who used to wash people’s clothes in nearby Isiolo town.

With her advancing age, she could no longer make the long treks and started suffering from cold-related ailments, driving her to the quarry, where it is warmer.

The Muriri-Isiolo road is also sometimes unsafe as it is constantly used by raiders.

“We have many orphans and children left without their breadwinners due to the rampant killings. We are crying out to the government to have mercy on us. What can be done for the destitute children so that they can meet the demands made by the new education system?” she poses.

Ms Grace Karema, 47, who started crushing ballast in 2014, also has a nagging eye problem after numerous encounters with flying dust and other foreign objects hitting her eye.

Man crashes ballast

Mr Henry Mugambi 68, crushes ballast at a quarry in Ntulili village, Tigania West along the Meru-Isiolo border. Some elderly women have joined the male dominated work due to drought that has made farming unproductive and invasion of their farms by illegal camel herders from Isiolo side. 

Photo credit: Charles Wanyoro I Nation Media Group

She joined the trade on noticing the dwindling returns from farming and says life for elderly and widowed women in the area was challenging.

Though she makes good money after selling about 10 debes that she crushes daily, it is not enough to survive on due to her numerous responsibilities.

“One of the young people killed had married here and they left young children, whom we have to take care of. I am also disheartened by what is happening here. Look at my finger now – it resembles the handle of a mallet,” she says.

“We do not want to see the camels here because they bring along insecurity. I usually rush home before sunset so that I can keep my remaining goat inside the house to keep it from being stolen.”

Meru woman ballast

Ms Margaret Kaembe, 54, crushes ballast at a quarry in Ntulili village, Tigania West along the Meru-Isiolo border. Some elderly women have joined the male dominated work due to drought that has made farming unproductive and invasion of their farms by illegal camel herders from Isiolo side.

Photo credit: Charles Wanyoro I Nation Media Group

There are also elderly men in this business. Henry Mugambi, 68, started crushing ballast three years after he was frustrated in farming by failing rains.

He had relocated from Nairobi, where he was a casual labourer at construction sites. He said he had found it difficult to keep up with youthful workers.

“I realised that the huge stones were too heavy for me. I shifted to roofing, but realised my eyes were straining due to the bright reflection,” Mr Mugambi says. 

“I have persistently crushed ballast and after two weeks, I sometimes buy a goat to keep as an investment, though the issue of cattle rustlers is disheartening.”

Meru elderly women ballast

Ms Margaret Kaembe, 54, who crushes ballast at a quarry in Ntulili village, Tigania West along the Meru-Isiolo border. Some elderly women have joined the male dominated work due to drought that has made farming unproductive and invasion of their farms by illegal camel herders from Isiolo side.

Photo credit: Charles Wanyoro I Nation Media Group

But even as the drought persists, Ms Kamwithu, like other farmers in the area, hope that the rains will come and, as usual, they intend to plant again, though they do not have seeds.

“We need seeds to try our luck and plant to supplement our earnings. We are optimistic that we could get sufficient rain and get some harvest,” she says.

Ms Karema appeals to the government to supply them with drought-resistant seeds like black beans (njahi), cowpeas (thoroko) and maize for the planting season.

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