IN THE SLEEPY, steep mountainous village of Gekomu, in Kemera Ward found in Nyamira County, a bevy of widows and (orphaned) children are going against odds whilst defying all the hitherto existing traditions vis-a-vis work, by hitting huge stones hard to get their daily bread.
Their husbands have since died. With loads of children to take care of, coupled with lack of sustainable employment, the young and old Kisii ‘mamas’ have no option but to face life the way it presents itself
Despite the hard labour-intensive and energy-draining work they do, they are forced to accept less than $20 a month, after a long time of waiting. Nonetheless, they are not cowed by even that, to at least seek another alternative (which is almost non-existent), or even leave it altogether. Clad in tattered and brown-dirty clothes and gumboots, others bare-footed, they walk up and down the caves and hills cracking stones and ferrying them to a nearby road, for showcasing to potential buyers.
“My husband died in 2007 and left me with seven children. I had no work to do to sustain them, and myself. I had to walk down here, carry this heavy hummer and hoe to hue out stones for a few bucks,” says Hyline Kwamboka.
Kwamboka, while braving the hot sun of midday, with loads of stones on her head, goes on to explain further.
This work is not admirable at all. However, I am grateful because it has helped me to pay school fees for my children and also get food
However, there are a number of challenges here. For instance, I get injuries quite often. Sometimes stones hit me hard and rip apart my bare feet, and hands sometimes. I go to the hospital and get treatment. After recovering, I come back to continue with work, because life has to go on,” she adds.
A few metres away from her is a young beautiful lady, Vinic Kerubo, her daughter and firstborn. She is here doing work like her mother. By her mode of dressing and hairstyle, you could think she comes from a relatively well-to-do family, and that she is foreign to problems. But after interviewing her, it dawns on me that behind the beautiful face and smile lies sorrow and hardship, well masked. When she opens up, the reality within her flows like a mighty river, and emotions take the better part of her, and she turns away her face from the recorder, as she struggles to remain sober and calm. She walks me down the memory lane.
“My father died while I was in form two. He left mum and us. We are seven children our family and we had absolutely nothing to hold on to in regards to survival. My mother tried to do odd menial jobs in people’s homes but the payment she got could not sustain all of us,” says Kerubo.
Things got tougher by the day and I dropped out of school to help mum raise our family. That’s when we decided to walk down here. We are here still, more than a decade later. And we don’t intend to back off any time soon, because this is where we get life from,” she says
Kerubo shares more portions of frustrations, thanks to this work.
“Sometimes we come here and take a long time, more than a week, and cracking stones. During that time, sometimes we lack food, but somewhat we manage to navigate through,” she says.
The topography and soil composition of this place does not favor crop farming in any way. There are rocks everywhere you turn your eyes. A large part of the area, in fact as far as the eyes can see clearly, is covered by tress. Crops are seldom seen, and for the few grown, they are unhealthy, unattractive and very unpromising in relation to harvest.
If one has to plant crops, they first start by removing stones and levelling the ground, then refills the place with better soil. That is another reason for practising stone mining by women of this area, as Getrude Kerubo says.
“As you can see, this area cannot support crop farming. And that forced us to look for an alternative of getting food. We sell stones and buy food for our families. And when the money from stones is not coming as soon as we would want it to, we sometimes resort to doing odd contracts on people’s homes,” she says.
Linet Barongo is another widow working on this site. In tow are her three children, the eldest being in form three, and the youngest in primary school. They are helping in mining and ferrying the stones to their point of collection
“My husband died in 2012 and I had to stand up for my family. My children have to eat and go to school. Of course it is not an easy job, but we must struggle, lest we die. We rise up at 6am and stay here until evening,” she says.
Besides women, there are school children working on their own here. Brian Kebago is one such. He is in form three at Ekerubo Secondary School.
“Schools are closed and we have no food at home, and my parents are not employed. That forced me to come here so that I can at least get money for food,” he says.
However, he says that he could not wish his school mates to know that he engages in this work, because of its demeaning nature.
“If my friends at school know that I do this work, I will definitely be a laughing stock of the whole school. They will make all manner of jokes about me. For that reason, i will do everything to keep this a secret,” he says.
Men are strikingly missing out in this area of work. That sparks my anxiety and I seek to know why. Charles Barongo, is a driver residing in this village.
“Men don’t like this work, because it is tedious and it takes a long time to bring forth money. For that reason, they like doing contracts here and there as long as they get paid every day,” he says.
Widows and children; huge hoes, hammers and folks; hard labour and shame: life goes on
Steve Mokaya is a Kenyan-Based Journalist and Contributing Editor with Tujipange Africa Media.