KISII, Kenya – On a fine afternoon in Nyantitira village, about 192 miles (310 km) west of Nairobi, Gladys Nanzala emerges from her house armed with a spade, a bucket and a few sacks. She is heading back to the stone mines, a few meters away from her door.
The 40-year-old mother of four had been crushing stones since the early morning until noon, when she went home to make lunch for her family, before heading back to the mine. This has been her life for the past five years; she says she made the decision to go into stone mining alongside her husband because of the ever-rising cost of living.
After first digging out the stones in large pieces from the mine, Nanzala uses a hammer to crush them into gravel. On a good day, she can crush 30 buckets of stone. When she has crushed 300 buckets, equal to 10 tons of gravel, she sorts and carries them out of the mines to display them on the roadside for sale.
After Nanzala and her friends fill a 10-ton truck, they sell their gravel to contractors and developers who use it in various construction activities, building houses in Kisii town, which lies about 1.2 miles (2 km) away, but is rapidly expanding towards Nyantitira.
A 10-ton lorry of stones sells for between 7,000-10,000 Kenyan shillings ($70-$100). After the women pay the expenses involved in the mining, including wages for the workers who load the lorries and the fellow miners that they hire to help them mine and crush the stones, they are left with little to show for their work, but enough to make a difference to their families.
“The money we get from the sale of stones helps us pay our children’s school fees, buy food and other household goods, and [we] also use it to pay more women artisanal miners to assist us,” Nanzala explains.
The Demand for Gravel
In Kenya, “artisanal mining” refers to mining operations that use traditional or customary methods such as the ones used by Nanzala and her friends, who crush stone largely by hand.
Nanzala is among a group of women who have defied the Gusii community’s social norms, which dictate that some jobs are held only by men, and that women should stick to household jobs such as cooking, fetching water and firewood, and looking after children and relatives. Now, a growing number of those women are still responsible for household and care duties, but they also go to work in the mines.
Kisii experienced an influx of new residents in 2007 and 2008, when post-election violence in Kenya drove many residents of Kenya’s big cities back to their hometowns. Yet more people moved back to Kisii following the presidential election in August this year. Most of them have not yet left; the country’s political fate is still to be determined after the Supreme Court nullified the August result.
The Supreme Court has ruled that a new election must occur before November 1, and set a date for October 26, but main opposition candidate Raila Odinga has withdrawn from the race, arguing that the problems with the August 8 vote will not be addressed in time for the new election.
This ongoing sense of insecurity has translated to an increase in demand for housing outside the major centers in towns like Kisii. As local developers cash in on the construction boom, stone miners have ready buyers for their gravel.
A Risky Job
Nanzala says she feels lucky to be able to work together with her husband inside the mines, even though she also knows the risks involved.
“Stone mining is not an easy job,” she says. “There are many accidents and we sustain injuries. Some of them are fatal, especially when the mines collapse, burying the casualties alive.”
Nanzala says a friend of hers was killed during a collapse in their mine about three years ago. And in 2015, three miners were buried alive when another quarry near Kisii collapsed in on them.
Kenya’s 2016 Mining Act provides for the safety of artisanal miners, ensured by the ministry of mining through county governments, but Nanzala and her fellow women miners told News Deeply they were not aware of the law.
The First Women Inside Stone Mines
Rose Nyanchama, Nanzala’s sister-in-law, is also involved in stone mining. The 22-year-old mother of two has worked in the mines for the past year and a half, motivated by the hope to have her own income rather than depending fully on her husband’s.
“My husband does not give us money to support my own projects or businesses, and since I cannot find formal jobs because I did not complete school, I resolved to work with him and make money of my own,” Nyanchama says.
Nyanchama reinvests the money she earns into her stone mining business, hiring other women to dig and crush the stones for her, and she pays them after she makes a sale.
It is only here in Nyantitira that you will find women inside an active stone mine. In other parts of Kisii, such as Omogonchoro, women are only involved in crushing and selling stones by the roadside: Men are the only ones inside the mines.
In an Omogonchoro stone mine, James Osoro loads a truck with stones after a successful negotiation with a buyer. He says there are no women involved in this mine.
“The men here believe that women should remain home and look after the children as their husbands go out to look for a source of money,” he says.
But that could soon change. For women like Nanzala and Nyamchama, and many other women in Kenya, the ever-rising cost of living is pushing them to challenge gender roles and community taboos, as they struggle every day to make a living.