At the tender age of 13, Tobias Juma ventured into the painstaking search for flecks of gold in Migori mines, joining hundreds of other families in the pursuit of the elusive fortune.
It has been his way of life for the last 32 years.
Every day, he joins other miners chiselling layers of gold-bearing rocks in the winding dark underneath and goes into an overdrive to make ends meet, oblivious of the risks involved, including a possible collapse.
Now 45 and a father of eight, Tobias is still hopeful that one day he will carve out a fortune from the deep pits of the shanty Osiri Matanda gold mine in Nyatike Sub-County.
“I don’t have any other choice but to fend for my family as I make ways to get out of the vicious cycle of poverty,” said Mr Juma, who is among an estimated 5,000 miners in the small dusty centre.
“A soldier dies in the battlefield,” he declared.
On a busy day, Mr Juma spends up to 12 hours more than 600 metres beneath the earth's surface in the venture that he depends on to fend for his family.
When Nation caught up with him in one of the mines, he had a torch strapped to his forehead as he prepared to be lowered down by makeshift lowering gear made of wooden planks and a rope.
The miners skilfully dangle on the ropes tied around their waist, by holding onto them with both their hands in order to land safely in the mining shafts.
Inside the mine, he meets hundreds of other underground miners who work hard on a daily basis in pursuit of a piece of the world’s most coveted precious metal.
Operating in an area where there are more than 30 active pits, the miners have developed an expanded cave underneath which has forced pit owners to demarcate their boundaries as a way of preventing conflict and promoting harmonious working environment.
While the underground teams conduct their duties free from sweltering sun, they are forced to contend with a low supply of oxygen as they go about their business.
Once the gold-bearing rocks are excavated, there are people waiting by to fill the sacks which are then winched outside the mine hole before being transported for crushing to extract some specks of gold.
“I have never lost hope as I work on a daily basis searching for gold,” says Mr Juma, who gets as little as Sh1,000, and over Sh10,000 on a good day, depending on his luck.
However, according Mr William Odhil, who owns a mining pit at Osiri Matanda, which is one of the biggest in Migori County, miners are only extracting 20 per cent of the mineral due to the crude technology they use.
Unlike the neighbouring Tanzania which has supported miners with the latest technology of extracting the metal, he said most of the traders in Migori County operate manually, without safety protection equipment like helmets, reflective wear, ear plugs, gloves, generators and boots, among others.
Mr Odhil, on the other hand, blames the national and county governments for abandoning the gold ventures, which he estimates to be generating millions of shillings in annual returns.
“It is unfortunate that the local miners are not being provided with licences to enable them collaborate and partner with donors or financiers to secure finances to purchase the expensive equipment which is beyond the reach of small scale miners,” he said.
But the County Director for Mining Mr Dan Okoth blamed the regulation which requires small scale miners to get their National Environment Management Authority licences from the national government as hurting the players in the remote villages.
“As a body which is closer to the miners, this should be left to the county government instead of subjecting traders to travel long distances to Nairobi to get the vital documents,” he said.
He, however, indicated that the county government had set aside Sh25 million for the purchase of safety gear to be distributed to artisanal miners through their registered groups in this financial year.
He also appealed to the national government to consider classifying small scale traders and artisanal miners under one category and leave the administration to the counties.
While Mr Odhil accused the county government of failing to provide sanitation facilities like toilets and clean drinking water, the county director of mining said the matter is in the pipeline.
“The issue was initially left to be managed by the department of Trade and Health but has now been assigned its own docket to ensure that the welfare of the traders is adequately taken care of,” Mr Okoth told the Nation.
The residents, who rely on raw water from the nearby River Kuja and Migori, have often borne the brunt of the outbreak of waterborne diseases like cholera.
Due to lack of a health facility in the entire densely populated dusty town, the locals are left at the mercy of quack medical personnel who offer little relief as they exploit the gap in the provision of the critical utility.
The nearest government hospital is Nyatike Sub-County Hospital, which residents say lacks essential facilities and drugs to treat minor ailments.
Mr Okoth, however, indicates that the new department that was crafted in April this year has so far developed a Mining Bill and Policy which is currently awaiting passage at the assembly before it is approved for implementation.
In pursuit of riches, some women also tag along their children to help them out as they crush the rocks and use their bare hands to wash the sand poured in buckets to trap the gold dust.
Most of the traders have, however, raised concern that the price of Sh3,600 per gram of gold being sold to brokers is too little to cater for their overhead costs.
Mr Isaya Ogola, on his part, called on the county government to help them find market to ensure that they are not exploited by middlemen.
On the other hand, Mr David Ogango, who has been a buyer for the last 10 years, attributed the fluctuating price of gold to changes in price on the international market.
“At times, it gets very difficult convincing the miners that prices have dropped by up to Sh300 per gram just a day after buying the commodity at a higher cost,” he said.
The brokers who buy gold from the mining centres usually sell them to a wholesaler based in Migori town at Sh4,900 for a gram of pure gold which consists between 90 to 99 percent.
As a way of exposing the miners, Migori County government plans to organise exchange programme for a variety of traders in order for them to learn on best experience and practices.
“We acknowledge that other African countries like South Africa, Ghana, Mali and the neighbouring Tanzania are well advanced and use more modern technology to get the precious metal,” said Mr Okoth.