The preparedness of the Migori County disaster management team and the national government is being queried following rampant deaths at local goldmines.
The two levels of government have allowed the trade to go on, seemingly oblivious of the risks associated with it.
The miners usually work without protective gear and, in most cases, lack modern equipment.
On Sunday, two miners, including a Form One student at Got Kachola Secondary School, died at Sindule, Masara in Suna West Sub-County, after part of the mine collapsed on them.
Mr Peter Otieno from God Kweru and 15-year-old Samuel Ochieng’ had entered the dreaded Sindule quarry, which was full of water as it had rained heavily the previous day.
Only one of the bodies had been retrieved by Wednesday noon, according to Mr Elijah Odhiambo, the Migori County executive for Disaster Management.
Mr Tom Were, a relative of one of the deceased, lamented that retrieval of the bodies was taking too long. Mr Were told the Nation by phone: “They died after the mine collapsed.”
Mr Hilary Alila, a businessman, faulted the county government for doing little to ensure the safety of miners.
“It is unfortunate that, while the miners do all they can to earn a living, the County Government of Migori had neglected them and left them to work under dangerous conditions,” said Mr Alila. “Even in case of accidents, no proper action is taken to rescue them or retrieve their bodies.”
Mr Odhiambo however said the authorities were committed to retrieving the bodies.
“I can tell you we have been camping at the site day and night with our team, hence the claim that we were are not committed are untrue,” said Mr Odhiambo.
He said the pit in which the duo died had been abandoned after it claimed the lives of miners, including a foreigner.
“It took us a lot of time to retrieve the bodies because a rock had covered them and the level of the water also rose,” Mr Odhiambo said. “We needed very powerful pumps to remove the water, which we borrowed since the county’s has broken down.”
Mr Odhiambo said the business falls under the Ministry of Mining in the national government. He added that the county hoped the new regulations by the government will help to save the situation in Migori, where protective gear would be provided to miners.
The late Mr Otieno’s mother, Ms Loida Achieng’, demanded that the quarry owner take responsibility for her son’s death.
“My son was very young but he took him and brought him to meet his death here,” said Ms Achieng’, adding that poverty had forced the boy to work in the mines.
“My son had insisted on going to look for money to fend for the family after schools closed,” said Ms Ochieng’. “I didn’t know he would meet his death there.”
Early this year, six people died in the Sindule mine and the county government ordered its closure until the heavy rains in the area end. Two months ago, two miners died at the Masara goldmine after its walls collapsed.
“Most of the walls of the mines have been weakened by the rains and become dangerous,” said County Police Commander Joseph Nthenge.
Mr Odhiambo accused quarry owners and the miners that they hired of not heeding the county government’s calls to take precautionary measures.
“When county government officers come here to take statistics on the people and the conditions of the goldmines, they are met with resistance,” said Mr Odhiambo, who also blamed mine owners for hiring minors.
“The mine owners know very well that it is unlawful to employ children in the mines but they still do it with impunity, exposing the youngsters to danger,” Mr Odhiambo said.
In most tunnels in the mines, safety measures are more often than not disregarded.
Most of the deaths reported in many goldmines in Migori in the recent past are linked to suffocation.
Miners normally use generators to light the tunnels and go up to 70 feet underground without safety equipment.
Carbon monoxide from the generators ends up choking some of them.
Many have also died due to crude gold extraction methods.
The miners appealed to the government to improve safety conditions in the quarries.
“This is our only source of income but it has become a death trap” said Mr Hezron Omondi, a gold miner. “Scores of lives have been lost in these mines.
“Why don’t the county and national governments help us?”
Migori Governor Okoth Obado has on several occasions pledged to modernise the local mining sector in a bid to curb the deaths.
Miners in the region have also protested rampant exploitation by middlemen and processors. They said traders from Nairobi and Kisumu pay them too little for their gold but sell it at high prices on the world market.
They told journalists that they live in abject poverty while the middlemen wallowed in lavish lifestyles.
“We are tired of exploitation and we want the government to link us directly to the international buyers; otherwise, we will continue to suffer in the hands of these insensitive brokers,” Mr Henry Okello, 50, a miner from Nyatike Constituency, pleaded.
They miners cited a local company that allegedly exploits them but the firm’s workers, who asked not to be named, insisted that prices are dictated by supply and demand in the world market.
Miners sell a gramme of gold at Sh3,000 to Sh3,800 but they want at least Sh5,000, saying the same quantity fetches more than Sh10,000 on the world market.
Reported by Justus Ochieng, Vivere Nandiemo and Elisha Otieno