Hopes of a good life still elusive in Lolgorian five years after gold was found

By: RUTH MBULA

When the residents of Lolgorian in Transmara, Narok County, learnt that there were gold deposits in the area in 2010, they were elated. That could only mean that their lives would soon change for the better, or so they believed.

But five years down the line, many of them are still languishing in poverty, living on less than a dollar a day.

Congested, slum-like villages comprising poorly built mud huts dot the area, a clear testimony to the residents’ quality of life. Little has changed in the town located in the north-west of Narok County since the discovery of the precious metal.

Mr Saruni Kinyari, a local resident, attributes this to the fact that the Maasai are not conversant with gold mining. Consequently, they have been forced to seek help from the neighbouring Luo, who have been engaged in the trade for a long time.

“We are known to be pastoralists, we know nothing about gold. We own the farms but our Luo neighbours do the mining,” he said. Mr Kinyari says they rely totally on the Luos, and that if the latter stop mining even for a day, they suffer because they do not get anything.Still, he remains upbeat.

“Before gold was discovered on our land, our town was little-known. At least we now have something to be proud of,” he says.Mr Silveus Omwaga Agwaro, a miner from Migori County now prospecting for gold in Lolgorian, says he and his miner colleagues learntthe ropes from their parents.

USED TO WATCH PARENTSMINE GOLD

“We used to watch our parents mine gold at the Macalder mines in Migori County, so when we learnt that there was gold in Lolgorian, a number of us trooped here to to try our luck,” he says. He says that their work entails looking for rocks with gold deposits, after which they report to the land owners, who give them permission to mine, on condition that they give him a certain percentage of the proceeds.

But it has not been easy for either the miners or the farm owners.Mr Simon Odoyo Jaramba, the Chairman of Lolgorian Small Gold Miners Association, says gold mining in Transmara is all about survival, adding that, although they don’t make much from the business, they have to keep at it because they don’t have no other means of livelihood.

“Life is very difficult here. The kind of houses you see here and the lifestyle of the miners tell it all,” says Mr Jaraba.He adds that, contrary to the widely held belief that miners are rich, theirs is a struggle for survival because what they earn from the gold is barely enough to buy them their basic needs.Part of the problem, he says, is that deposits of the metal have been dwindling.

“Nowadays, there is very little gold. One can spend a whole day mining and literally get nothing. Gold deposits have declined over the years,” says Mr Jaramba.He says their job is made all the more difficult by the lack of appropriate machinery for mining, so they use very basic equipment.

Mr Omono Mboko, one of the small miners, agrees, saying they don’t have compressors, fans to supply them with air when they are down the mines and tunnels, and drilling machines.

“We also lack protective gear like gumboots, helmets and gloves as well as torches, so we expose ourselves to danger,” he says.He recalls that they once lost a colleague when the walls of a mine caved in. “Our colleague was trapped inside.

It took us more than two days to retrieve his body since we had no equipment to dig through, or lift, the fallen rocks,” Mr Mboko said.Having survived death narrowly when a tunnel he was working in caved in, he counts himself lucky to be alive.

But he broke his leg and now has a protruding bone on his right leg.The miners say several of their colleagues have sustained permanent injuries after being injured by stones while inside the tunnels.

Mr Mboko says they are doing particularly badly at the moment because of the heavy rains.“Most shafts and tunnels are filled with water. We don’t have machines to pump out the water, so we are forced to wait until the rains subside since we cannot mine when the mines are waterlogged,” he says.

Meanwhile, Mr Agwaro says that besides lack of machinery, their efforts are frustrated by middle men, who set prices arbitrarily, without taken into consideration the demanding work done by the miners, who might get only small deposits of gold from mines that can be tens of feet deep.

“One day the buyers might announce that they are buying a gram of gold at Sh400, then the next day they buy it at half that amount,” he says.

He says ideally, a gram of gold should sell at between Sh2,600 and Sh3,000.Mr Agwaro, who has worked in the Lolgorian gold mines since 2003, says the buyers came to the area when they heard that gold had been found there and began buying directly from the miners.

BUYERS SET THEIR OWN PRICES

“We do not know where the gold is sold, but the buyers come from Mombasa, Nairobi, Migori, Kisii and Kilgoris. Every buyer sets his own prices,” he explained. Mr Agwaro says their business is also hampered by the lack of equipment for detecting gold, so theirs is a case of trial and error.

He says they still use a shaft dug during the colonial era that leads to underground tunnels and mines from which they extracted gold. Even then, one still can’t be certain of getting anything.

“It all has to do with luck. Nothing else. We follow our instincts, which direct us to places where there is gold. We also just look out for gold reefs, which simply mean rocks bearing gold deposits.

When we spot a reef, we start mining,” he explained. He says that when they are unlucky they find nothing after a day’s work while at other times they can earn thousands of shillings in lump sum.

“I once got Sh60,000 at a go after selling the largest amount of gold I have ever mined,” he brags.

Mrs Janet Awuor, a mother of four who works at the mines, says she supplements her husband’s income with the little money she earns from her work. “I help my husband, who is a carpenter in Lolgorian Town, to cater for our family’s needs.

I am employed here and my main job is to wash the ground rocks believed to be containing gold deposits,” said Ms Awuor. She adds that the work is done in an organised manner, with different employees specialising in different tasks.

But the process is long and demanding, given that they use very rudimentary methods.

First, the miners go down into the mines and dig up the gold- bearing rocks, which are then transported to the surface. The rocks are then dried in the sun.

The rocks containing gold are yellow, which helps the miners differentiate between those with gold deposits those without, Ms Awuor explains.

After the rocks have been dried, they are ground in a machine that uses electricity or a generator. Thereafter, the fine sand derived from the process is washed in a wooden box.

The mixture of water and sand is then left to run through a heavy sack that serves as a sieve. The water passes through, while the gold particles remain on the sack, which is later washed in clean water to remove the gold particles.

The particles are then mixed with mercury, which helps to trap and draw the gold particles together. The piece of gold, weighing from as little as a point (less than a gram) is then heated in a furnace to give it a yellowish golden colour.

On the day DN2 visited the mines, most of the miners had got less than a gram of gold since morning. It was past 4pm but they were still hopeful that they would get some more.

Some miners bring their children to the mines even though their chairman, Mr Jaramba, says it is illegal to bring children below the age of 18 into the mines.

“It is very dangerous because they play around the open shafts and in the tunnels,” he says.

The miners have appealed to the national and county governments to provide them with equipment to make their work easier and safer.

About Lolgorian in brief

Lolgorian is a division in Trans Mara West Sub-county, Narok County, about 46 kilometres from Kilgoris Town.

The once quiet, dusty little-known town was first thrust into the limelight on August 23, 2000, following the murder of Catholic Priest John Anthony Kaiser of the Mill Hill Fathers. Father Kaiser had lived in the area before he was killed at the Morendat junction along the Nakuru-Naivasha Highway.

In September 2010, the town was again in the limelight, this time because a foreign company had discovered gold deposits in the area. Residents describe it as the land of fortune.

A first time visitor is welcomed by the serene green hills.

Since it is close to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, the area makes for the perfect tourism site. Several indigenous trees also dot the area.

“Our main interest is to see our cattle feed and get enough pasture. We have little to do with cutting down trees and that, perhaps, explains why you can enjoy the beautiful landscape,” says Mr Noah Mempushi, a local resident

A drive around the Lolgorian hills gives the newcomer an insight into the area’s wildlife which includes zebras, baboons, and waterbucks, among others, that freely feed in the surrounding fields owned by the local people.

Although the local residents boast that the animals are part of their natural “landscape”, they are sometimes destructive.

“Often, stray elephants encroach on our farms and destroy our crops,” says Mr Moses ole Tito, adding that most people in the community are still diehard pastoralists, who have yet to take up farming.

This is evidenced by the fact that only a few maize farms can be seen in the area.

However, some of the people argue that farming in the area is difficult because it is hilly and rocky.

Lolgorian has a population of more than 25,000 people, most of whom are Maasai, but a number of other communities are also well represented here. They include the Kipsigis, Kuria, Kisii, Somali and Kikuyu.

In the recent past, many Luos from the neighbouring Migori County have been flocking to the area to try their luck in the gold mines.

One notable thing here is that many people in the town are armed, as if anticipating an attack.

The Maasai have a long-standing rivalry with their neighbours from the Kuria community over cattle rustling.

Remarkably, the once dilapidated roads in Lolgorian that resembled cattle-tracks are now passable, thanks to devolution.

“Narok Governor Mr Samuel Tunai comes from here, he has to ensure that the roads in his backyard are passable,” said Mr Tito.

The construction of the Lolgorian-Narok Road is also underway.

Governor Tunai says once complete, the road will provide a shortcut to Nairobi.

“Residents currently use a tedious, long route through Kisii, Nyamira and Bomet Counties. The Lolgorian-Narok road will be a relief to us,” said Mr Tunai.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION