By Valentine Obara
The chirping birds with periodic interjections of domestic animal sounds early in the morning would ordinarily set residents of Onyata village in Rarieda Constituency to tend to their small farms.
For the last three months however, the village and its surroundings rise to the sounds of stone crushing machines. The quest for gold is on.
Throughout the day, dozens of men and women take up positions in homesteads with an apparent efficient albeit informal system of operations that consists of digging out stones from tunnels and taking them to grinders.
The grinding of the stones is done manually or by machines. The particles are then sieved using mercury.
It is at the sieving stage that workers hope to get the highly valued metal they call ‘pesa’ (money).
A gramme of gold ore goes for at least Sh3,000 (US$29). The metal is usually sold to brokers. Mr Fredrick Were, a resident, says the mine has been in the area since the late 1930s.
It was dormant until mid this year when mineral explorers from south Nyanza landed in Siaya County.
“They were walking around looking for a place with gold when they reached here and found this hole, which was dug by white people,” Mr Were says.
“When they realised that white people worked here and left in 1936, they began removing the waste blocking the entrance to the hole. After about three months, they came across some stones that had gold.”
Although gold mining is not new in Asembo location, the activity had been dormant for many decades save for some isolated cases.
Ms Milka Akinyi has been looking for the precious metal in rivers for years.
“I have known how to do this but we have not been at this site for long. I have done it since 1972,” she says under a scorching midday sun.
“I have been to south Nyanza, Bondo, Kakamega and now I’m in Asembo. Business is good.” Her voice is drowned by the sound of the rock crushing machines.
She focuses on the sieving equipment, made of timber and a piece of woven sack.
“The ground particles are brought to this equipment. Gold remains in the sieve. We then squeeze out the particles of fine sand, add mercury and get our gold. We know it is of good quality by merely looking,” she adds.
The gold activities are rapidly changing the face of Onyata, as the village emerges as a trading centre.
Business people have built stalls in places that were bushy and abandoned as recently as the beginning of this year.
They sell a variety of essential commodities like food and clothes. And like any small town in Kenya, mobile money agents have landed here and doing good business.
Activities related to gold are attracting local tourists.
Even with the many “goodies”, the small centre has begun experiencing problems usually associated with urbanisation.
Conflicts between locals and “outsiders” have become common in the last few months.
On the day we visit the village, we cannot witness the excavation of stones from the pit because the entrance has been ordered shut by authorities following tensions the previous day on who has the “sole” rights to enter the tunnels.
Mr Were says apart from the south Nyanza group, the mining has attracted people from as far as Tanzania.
“Locals are complaining that they are denied their rights. People from Siaya County are being stopped from getting into the tunnels. The exact amount of gold removed from this hole is hard to estimate because some ore is transported to south Nyanza. Locals want it refined here,” Mr Were says.
A county government official who requested anonymity said villagers and the investor prospecting for gold have signed agreements.
The shadowy investor is said to have interests in many other mines in western and Nyanza.
Meetings are frequently held between concerned parties as county officials seek to ensure the activities are carried out legitimately.
They also want to prevent conflicts that may turn the fortune into a curse.