Gold rush as villagers track down precious metal

Gold mining in Migori is increasingly becoming the livelihood of many people. But the entry of big time international investors will boost earnings. PHOTO/STEPHEN MUDIARI

There’s gold in the hills … but there’s little to betray that fact in the villages and trading centres on the way to the goldmines of Nyatike, deep inside Migori.

Humble dwellings and dilapidated shops flash past as one drives along the dusty, rough, earth roads. This is mainly blamed on the fact that most of the miners are ill-equipped to fully exploit the mineral.

They toil for hours to get a few ounces which they sell and head straight to dingy village bars to drink their proceeds. But this is likely to change soon if the scores of foreign firms lining up to exploit the mineral is anything to go by.

According to estimates from Mines and Geology department, Migori’s gold deposits stand at 34 tonnes that could fetch close to Sh67 billion.

The rush by big time local and foreign investors started five years ago with the announcement that a UK firm, Goldplat Plc, had discovered large deposits in the Migori and Transmara counties.

Since then, more than 10 international mining firms have intensified their activities in the area. They include Aviva Corporation of Australia, Afri Ore Ltd, East Africa Pure Gold Ltd, Covenant Mining Ltd, Karebe Gold Mining Ltd, Gold Rim Exploitation (K) Ltd and Abba Mining Company.

Last year, the rush was stepped up with the arrival in Nairobi of South African investment bank Absa Capital for talks with Kenya’s capital markets regulator on the prospects of establishing gold-backed exchange traded funds (ETFs) at the Nairobi Stock Exchange.

“We have started discussions with both the NSE and the CMA regarding a secondary listing of the NewGold Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) on the NSE,” Absa Capital’s associate principal marketing and corporate Communications officer, Graeme Coetzee said in an interview with the Business Daily.

Though Absa insists its interest in Kenya is mainly the product of a long term assessment that has demonstrated East Africa’s largest economy’s readiness for the product, market observers believe there is a direct link between it and intensity of activity in the gold prospecting and mining sub-sector.

But the mining companies have not moved to commercial prospecting due to lack of appropriate licences which cannot be issued until appropriate lwas are enacted.

Mr S.M. Kimomo, the deputy commissioner of mines, told Business Daily last August that draft laws are at the Attorney General’s office.

The laws are also expected to enhance the benefits to communities in mineral rich areas from exploiting their resources through cooperative societies.

Simplest technology

Until they are in place and gold is exploited on a commercial scale, poverty in the villages of Migori will persist. But in spite of this, gold mining is all the craze in Migori, attracting villagers in droves.

In Nyatike, the zeal with which people go mining is something to behold. Deprived of access to the latest means of extraction, the villagers employ the simplest technology they can afford to realise their dreams of earning a livelihood from gold.

The first tell-tale signs of gold digging emerge at Mikei, a trading centre on the Migori-Muhuru Bay road. And they come in as the sound of diesel engines powering machines used to crush rock dug manually by miners from deep underground or pebbles picked up by villagers whose keen eyes have mastered the skill of seeing rocks that show signs of gold deposits.

“This is my garden. This is where I get what to feed and educate my children with,” says Mrs Consolata Adhiambo, 50, a mother of seven, two of whom are in secondary school. Besides her own children, she also takes care of three orphans.

Mrs Adhiambo and her husband Samuel Agwalo were working at Paw Ndege village. The villagers pay the machine operators between Sh60 and Sh150 for a basin of rock debris and pebbles to be ground.

Although the process is fairly straightforward at the mining and crushing stages, it becomes complicated when the villagers sit down to extract the miniscule gold deposits from the rock powder.

First they mix the powder with water and stir it to the consistency of porridge, then add a few grams of mercury, readily available at Sh100 for four grams.

The mercury coagulates with the minute gold particles and sinks to the bottom of the basin, as the villagers gently pour out excess water until only the mercury and gold remain. This they sieve and the mercury is squeezed out with the gold remaining in the cloth.

Where the rock powder has richer deposits, villagers use a sluice in which the water-powder-mercury mix is intermittently passed over a cloth-covered slope. The cloth traps the mercury and the gold which is then squeezed out.

According to Mr Ogwalo, 60, many years of practical experience has equipped him with the skill to spot the rocks that bear gold.

He has lots of praise for the inventors of the stone-crushing machine. “The crusher has really made the work easy for us. Initially we used to use hammers to pound the rock into powder,” he recalled.

A stone’s-throw away, Daniel Otieno, 24 and a father of two, said his day starts at 6am and ends around 4pm, and that most of the time he had something to show for it .

“On some days things can be difficult but on a good day I can even get 1 gram,” he said. That means Sh2,500 to take home.

According to Mr Odhiambo Opiyo, a director of the Lake Region Community Project, gold mining in Nyatike was in its small way becoming the livelihood of many families in the area.

Mr Opiyo said each of the two dealers who currently handle gold in the area gets around 20 kilogrammes of the mineral a month. But he says that the simple process employed by the villagers was harvesting only 20 per cent of the gold, with the remainder lost.

“As much as they see themselves gaining, they are losing 80 per cent of the produce. There are other forms of simple technology that can get as much as 80 per cent of the gold content in the powder,” he explained.

These technologies, found largely in South Africa, also have less health risk than the mercury the villagers touch with their bare hands, leading to diseases and in some cases death.

For miners, safety concerns arise mainly as they venture deep into the earth, whenever they strike a rich vein. Most of them lack nose masks, gumboots and gloves, exposing themselves to chest infections as they inhale rock dust for hours daily.

Lack of special equipment to channel fresh air to the miners deep down also exposes them to a serious risk of suffocation, as seen recently when two miners died in Kitika, part of Nyatike.

Commercial mining ban

The history of mining in Nyatike is traced back to the 1960s when the colonial hunters, Mark and Alderson, lived in the area and after finding gold deposits set up a company called Macalder, derived from their names.

While out hunting, one of them struck his foot on a protruding stone, breaking off a chunk. The two men returned and started mining at the site, setting up Macalder Mines which exploited the gold until the government hounded them out of the country, in the late 60s and commercial mining stopped

The locals were later urged to set up a cooperative society to exploit the mineral for themselves. This lasted until 1988 when the Government banned commercial mining throughout Migori.

Macalder Mines now lie in ruins on a hill, a short distance from the temporary Nyatike district headquarters. But the mining they initiated still thrives across Nyatike today.