Tough times drive ageing mothers to Meru quarries

Ms Joyce Kamwithu, 50, works at a quarry in Ntulili village, Tigania West, along the Meru-Isiolo border. 

Ms Joyce Kamwithu, 50, works at a quarry in Ntulili village, Tigania West, along the Meru-Isiolo border. 

Photo credit: Charles Wanyoro | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Farmers in the area are hopeful that rains will come and as usual, they intend to plant again though they do not have seeds.
  • They have appealed to the government to supply them with drought-resistant seeds like black beans (njahi), cowpeas (thoroko) and maize for the planting season.
  • Livestock rearing, which was also a major venture in this part of the northern grazing zone, has also been disrupted by constant invasion by illegal camel herders.

Out of a pale blue sky flecked by tiny clouds, the sun blazes down, forcing Joyce Kamwithu to seek shelter under a tiny acacia tree that has shed most of its bi-pinnate leaves.

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

She is among four elderly women from Ntulili in Tigania West, Meru, who have joined the male-dominated backbreaking work because of adverse 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 since it has not rained for four seasons,” she narrates.

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

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

Early 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 a conflict between communities.

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

The ballast crushers are paid Sh25 per bucket but due to the heavyweight, the women have to part with Sh2 paid to the men who lift the load for weighing. “I crush about five debes per day. Sometimes it is not bought on the same day and we have to borrow foodstuffs from the local shopkeeper since they know where I work. I earn about Sh110 per day but also have to pay someone for getting the huge rock,” Ms Kamwithu explains.

Her eyesight is failing after stone particles hit her in the course of her work. She has no protective goggles.

“The left eye has been struck twice and one time I thought it had been pricked. At times I experience agonising pain but just rub it and the pain subsides. The other one has constant aches and at times I have difficulty even making a call because of eye problems. We also face challenges of getting hit by the rocks, especially the legs, sometimes nails are plucked.”

However, because she does not have health cover and cannot afford medical attention, she soldiers on, hoping for a brighter day.

“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 are also feeding children whose young families fled because of the difficulties they faced here.”

It is the same story of resilience from Ms Margaret Kaembe, 54, who used to wash people’s clothes in the nearby Isiolo town. Given her advanced age, she can no longer trek, having suffered from cold-related ailments. This drove her to the quarry where it is warmer.

The Muriri-Isiolo road is also at times 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 to the government to have mercy on us. What can be done to the destitute children so that they can meet the demands made by the new education system?” she asks.

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

She joined the work following dwindling returns from farming. Ms Karema appeals to the government to supply them with seeds of drought-resistant crops.

Survival

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

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

“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 so that it is not stolen,” she says.

Though a man, Mr Henry Mugambi 68, started crushing ballast three years after he was frustrated by failing rains in his quest to embark on farming.

He had relocated from Nairobi where he had worked as a casual worker on construction sites but started losing jobs since he could not keep up with the youthful and more energetic labourers.

“I realised that the huge stones were too heavy for me. I shifted to roofing but realized my eyes were straining due to the bright reflection. I have persistently crushed ballast and after three two weeks I sometimes buy a goat to keep as an investment though the issue of cattle rustlers is disheartening,” says Mr Mugambi.

But even as the drought persists, Ms Kamwithu like other farmers in the area are hopeful that 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 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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