When Judy Rotich completed high school in 2014, her life came to a screeching halt. She had scored a grade C, and she had no hope of proceeding with further education unless she joined college as a self-sponsored student or enrolled in a private college.
These two options were beyond her contemplation because she knew her widowed mother could not afford the fees.
For the next one year, she idled at home in Kimwarer village in Elgeyo-Marakwet County, all the time musing over her dismal future prospects.
Then one day she came across an advertisement pinned on a wall at Kimwarer shopping centre. The nearby Fluorspar Company was looking for an apprentice from the local community.
She applied and against all expectations, she was accepted. With this development, she thought her future was all mapped out. First, the company was going to sponsor her for a two-year mechanical engineering course at the Eldoret based Rift Valley Vocational Training Institute.
During long breaks from college, she would work at the company for a salary that would help her meet basic needs. More important, she would be picking up valuable practical skills that were not accessible to her classmates at college.
Then the unexpected happened. Last month, the company closed shop. The lease for its operations expired and the government declined to grant a renewal.
Judy’s life was arrested midstride. She had a semester to clear college. The lucrative job she had been guaranteed by the company and the big plans she had fell apart in a surprising turn of events that left her dazed.
Judy’s story is similar to that of many families and residents of the mining community that worked at the Kenya Fluorspar Company that started its operations in the area in 1971. For them it is a mix of fond memories and an uncertain future.
The fluorspar ore deposits were first discovered in 1967, which led to the establishment of the State-owned mining company, with the government allocating 9,000 hectares to set up its operations.
The government privatised the firm in 1997 and a special mining lease of 20 years expired on March 31, 2018 and was not renewed.
Judy is a beneficiary of the mining company’s programme that had sponsored at least 24 local students in technical institutions, offered scholarships for 25 local students in national schools and supported schools in the area improve their amenities.
The firm was also involved in medical programmes, improving roads around the valley and providing water to neighbouring communities.
In addition to offering jobs, there were many people making indirect incomes. Most of them have been left orphaned by the sudden departure of the company that has been the centre of their lives for nearly half a century.
The local town owes its existence to the fluorspar company. Mzee Francis Chebet recalls before the mining operations started, the valley where it now sits was devoid of human settlement.
Mzee Chebet, a former assistant chief who served from 1981 until 2004, in Kimwarer Centre, Soi location, recalls the impact the company had on the community.
“We were the first people in Kerio Valley to get electricity,” he recalls proudly.
“People envied this area; we had development projects coming up, businesses, schools and social amenities breathed life into this locality; we hoped for a brighter future for our community . . . all this changed when the company closed its doors.”
Besides formal employment at the mines, there were other opportunities, too. The company needed transport for raw materials and some businessmen secured financing to buy lorries for this line of work. Some of them went on to establish successful transport enterprises.
Some of the transporters have been particularly hit hard and they expressed fear that it was a matter of time before auctioneers come calling because of unserviced loans.
One of these transporters is a businesswoman who requested anonymity. She and her husband own five lorries. Four of them are now lying idle in front of her shop. She has been lucky to secure transport of construction materials in the neighbouring Uasin-Gishu county for the fifth lorry.
“I used to employ 10 drivers and an equal number of loaders who were working in shifts. Today, I have only one driver and a loader. The rest are now jobless. In sum, we are talking of nine families at the risk of falling into destitution.”
Alongside the groceries shop, she operates a hardware shop. Since the company closed, business is so bad that these days she opens the hardware only when she has a customer who needs something.
The groceries shop is not doing well either. Most of her customers were employees of the fluorspar company who have left. It was not just an exodus of people; it was also an exodus of money.
When business was booming, she and her husband embarked on constructing a three-storey building, the first high-rise in the town. The construction has stalled.
Ben Komen is a young man whose future looked bright. The 38-year-old youth used to work at the company as a security officer and later, as an environmental supervisor.
“When I got the job at the company, my fortunes changed for the better. I was earning enough money that afforded my family to enjoy significantly improved standards of living,” he says.
He considers himself lucky that he had learnt landscaping while working in the environmental department of the company. He occasionally gets landscaping contracts at Iten and Eldoret.
Most of his former workmates are finding the going a shady harder. Almost all economic activities in the area revolved around the mines. Chances of getting even a casual job are rare today.
“There are a few available casual jobs that can be found on the farms. However, the farmers have little or no money to spare and some of my former workmates are paid for their labour in grains such as maize in order to feed their families,’’ he says.
There are a few others who had saved some money which they have invested in livestock. Mr Komen points out that this economic engagement is risky because the region is prone to cyclical droughts that regularly wipe out livestock.
He reveals that there are fears that many high school students whose parents depended on jobs at the company to raise fees will drop out. This he adds is likely to fuel crimes such as cattle rustling.
For now Judy has put her career and studies on ice. She currently buys and sells milk in Iten town. She hopes to save enough money to go back to college in September to complete her diploma.
Her fellow apprentices are in a similar dilemma.