Food crisis drives women to quarries

Ms Felistas Syombua, 21, crushes stones to make ballast at a quarry in Gaitega village, Murang’a East District. Many women in the area have turned to the trade to make ends meet. Photo/SAMUEL KARANJA

The high cost of living has pushed women and children in some areas of Murang’a County into quarries to eke out a living crushing stones for ballast.

The quarries are teeming with mothers and children doing what has traditionally been men’s job.

The women break huge rocks into ballast which they sell to builders.

Ballast crushing has been 21-year-old Felistas Syombua’s source of livelihood for the past one-and-a-half years.

For the single mother of one, it does not matter how back-breaking the work is as long as it helps feed her two-year-old child.

Meagre income

Despite working under the scorching sun in a quarry at Gaitega village in Murang’a East District the whole day, the income is meagre and Ms Syombua can hardly make ends meet.

She is among scores of women who turn up at the crack of dawn in this quarry, regardless of the risks of falling rocks and harassment by men.

“I am paid according to the number of buckets I make a day and a 20kg bucket of ballast goes for Sh10,” says Ms Syombua, who came to Murang’a in search of greener pastures from Mwingi in Kitui County.

She crushes between 18 and 23 buckets a day, and takes home between Sh180 and Sh230 on a good day.

The quarry owners then sell the ballast at between Sh1,000 and Sh2,000 a tonne to middlemen, who later sell it for up to Sh5,000.

“When my baby is not restless, I hit my target of 23 buckets a day,” says the soft-spoken woman as she crushes the hard rock.

She says she moved from her village in Mwingi and was employed as a house-help in Murang’a but later opted for the quarry.

Next to her is a 12-year-old Standard Six girl at Gaitega Primary School. She is among children in the trade and that is how they spend their school holidays and weekends.

The girl says the money she earns assists her mother to buy food. She can crush up to 18 buckets of ballast a day.

“I use some of the money to buy clothes and shoes for myself while the rest my mother spends on food,” she explains.

Her schoolmate is proud to earn Sh200 a day.

One would easily mistake the Standard Seven pupil for an adult, perhaps because of the beating he has taken breaking stones.

Area district commissioner George Natembeya said it was wrong for children to work in the quarries blaming men for abandoning their families after turning to alcohol.

The DC and area environment officer Patrick Lekenit recently ordered seven quarries closed for exposing workers to danger.