Gold costs a fortune on the main markets. But to extract it from the ground might mean death. In Migori, many gold miners have been trapped inside their tunnels and others buried by falling heaps of soil.
Some have suffocated from fumes emitted from generators that they use to light up the tunnels, which are both vertical and horizontal.
Migori’s miners live precariously: things could go haywire at any moment. So families keep their men in prayers whenever they go into the tunnels.
“The money is too little compared to the health risks I expose myself to every day,” says Mr Paul Anyona, a veteran of the tunnels and a father of nine.
“I can hardly make ends meet with the Sh1,500 I am paid monthly by our co-operative society,” he tells Nation.
It is the same story from most of his colleagues. Mr Isaac Ouma, 29, says sometimes they go into the tunnels without face masks, gumboots, and gloves, exposing them to respiratory ailments as they inhale rock dust for several hours each day.
In Nyatike and Suna West areas, the mines are often a political issue. They include Mikeyi, Gor Maria, Osiri, Nyathoro, Akala, Mukuro, and Shinyanga, all of which are guarded by village vigilante groups 24 hours a day, every day.
Folks here say they put a round-the-clock eye on the precious metals after it was discovered that some dealers would come at night and prospect for gold without the relevant licences from the government.
Some of the miners have bought crushing mills from Tanzania at a cost of Sh250,000. This equipment is used to crush rocks into a fine powder before mercury is used to amalgamate gold from stone dust.
But there are dangers. Mary Odhiambo is one of those who touches mercury with her bare hands, oblivious to the risk she is exposing herself to.
Experts warn this type of exposure could have long-term health risks on the people here, including nervous system complications. Mr Joshua Owino, a mining consultant, says mercury should not be handled without gloves.
“It is highly dangerous. The managers should address the safety concerns of their employees,” he adds.
The miners also use explosives, according to police, who fear they could land in the wrong hands and be used to commit crimes, including terrorism.
“We are being faced with a new security challenge because these youths may start using the explosives in criminal activities,” says Nyatike police boss Richard Mukwate, who has since been transferred.
He says the explosives are “very dangerous and could easily bring down a ten-storey building within seconds.”
He added: “We have tried to discourage the miners from using the explosives but they have ignored us”.
The county government admits that there have been challenges in controlling the problem. The national government once cancelled licences for mining companies but that seems to have left the gap for individuals to go in at their own risk.
“The county government is formulating by-laws aimed at streamlining gold mining in the region to make it safer and more profitable,” Governor Okoth Obado tells the Daily Nation.
Gold prospecting began in Mikeyi in Nyatike in the 1930s by officials of the colonial government. The name Mikeyi is derived from the abbreviation MK, for Mines of Kenya.
The colonial miners left Mikeyi in the 1960s after the then powerful cabinet minister Joseph Tom Mboya gave them marching orders.
Nyatike sub-county has often been associated with misfortunes such as floods, famine, and poverty yet is has enormous fish and mineral resources.
Mining expert Julius Opiyo says a gram of gold costs Sh2,500 in the villages and about Sh4,000 in Nairobi.