West Kenya Artisans
Down a rocky, rutted, hardly used trail, an aging Land-Cruiser creeks and violently judders its way as our guide Aleshia navigates precariously through the tough terrain, towards the old mine site at Macalder, in the South Western Nyanza region of Kenya. Entering the site a man and woman are busy working next to an imposing derelict concrete structure, left behind from the days this was a vast copper mine, the man digs as the woman takes the soil, pouring it into a makeshift sluice. Shut down in the Sixties, all that remains of the mine are a few foundations and vast open shafts serving as ventilation for the underground network of tunnels. Much more dominant still is the tailings dam, towering piles of waste material; left over’s from the excavations, still full of precious minerals that were unable to be extracted at the time, due to technology and economic viability. At its peak, the Macalder area produced around 1 million ounces of gold between 1920 and 1950. Children play bare-footed between the mounds, stained yellow from sulphur with air thick with its distinct heavy smell, chemicals leech out into standing water from recent rains, turning blood red, caused by ‘acid mine drainage’ a process resulting in parts of the nearby river Migori to record PH levels of 3-1 acidity, hugely affecting much of the wildlife that lives there.
The 4×4 can only be driven so far, leaving it next to the ruins we walk the rest of the way. In a scene reminiscent of Sabastiao Salgado’s workers series, I witness what is a hive of activity
At the entrance to a large cave a man gestures at us to come over, on the whole everyone seems happy for us to wander around. We walk over, the man who shows us a piece of Gossan stone, optimistic, he hopes it contains enough gold to justify his efforts, “about 2 ounces” he tells Aleshia who then translates it back to me. There are around 200-recorded Artisan prospects in the Macalder area, they work all hours the sun allows, doubling their efforts after any rain, the water makes it easier to sift the soil.
Back in the car, towards camp, we make a stop off at a bore mill, a fairly common sight along this stretch of road and an important part of the gold extraction process. Rocks and soil taken from Macalder and brought to one of the many mills on the backs of mules, crushed down and then panned.
A man sits by a concrete pool of murky water as he takes a small amount of the crushed material into a metal dish containing liquid Mercury, he no trouble handling this extremely harmful substance, swirling it around in the pan. Mercury binds the gold together separating it from the rest of the soil. Using a piece of muslin cloth he takes the panned gold and draws it between his fingers, draining off the mercury, I watch as it drips back into the dish. Opening up the muslin, he then tips the contents into his hand to show me, the result is anticlimactic. Expecting to see a fresh, glistening, golden nugget, presenting me with a small, dull, silver lump of metal.
A result of the mercury processing they tell me. It is a monumental effort for a relatively small amount of gold, Grasburg open-pit in Indonesia, the largest gold mine in the world, produced 58,474,392 grams of gold in 2006, the Artisans are lucky if they get a few. Most of the profit goes to the wholesale middleman with Western connections, getting the gold to the market place. Many people not realizing where their expensive jewelry begins.
There has been a renewed interest in the Migori Greenstone Belt that Macalder is a part. Australian company Goldplat has just been grated a lease to mine nearby in Narok County, a first for Kenya, hoping to add to the 74 million US dollars it made in the sale of gold last year. Macalder too is beginning to increase its activity; London-based company Red Rock Resources plans to re-process the tailings increasing the recovery rate of the minerals within, this under the condition that the environmental concerns are met.
Fresh drilling is also taking place all over the site, it all looks very promising however. Geologists carefully study every drill core samples looking for mineralization, and signs of the gold in the rock. In this industry these are the kind of ventures that can make or break a smaller company. Macalder has seen this before, built because of the mine, and brought with it infrastructure, Jobs for the local people a huge benefit for the surrounding area.
Regardless of what western countries do in Africa, life will continue as it always does in Western Kenya.
More images from this series can be found on my archive: http://philhillphotography.photoshelter.com/gallery/Artisans/G0000PPFlA8HVTzQ/