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November 16, 2018

Village where sand harvesters don’t let the dead rest in peace

A grave left hanging in one of the homesteads in Kobala village, Karachuonyo, Homa Bay county. /HABIL ONYANGO
A grave left hanging in one of the homesteads in Kobala village, Karachuonyo, Homa Bay county. /HABIL ONYANGO

Rose Akoth has been in the sand harvesting business for 15 years, ever since her fisherman husband died.

Left with five children to take care of when she was only 25, she decided to venture into the business, which was initially flooded by men.

In her experience, she and her colleagues have unearthed and reburied seven bodies in Kobala village, Karachuonyo constituency.

Kobala is among the sand mining sites where the dead are not allowed to rest in peace, following the uncontrolled sand mining in various farms in Homa Bay.

At first, she was scared, seeing the remains of people believed to be their forefathers who died a long time ago, before the land was abandoned as infertile. However, with time, exhuming and reburying the human skeletons has become something usual.

"The dead have rested enough. Life needs to continue and people also need to earn a living," she told the Star during a visit to the site.

Akoth is one of the women from Kobala involved in sand harvesting around Homa Bay, despite the life-risking dangers they face, such as injuries, disease and even deaths following heavy floods and landslides.

Sand harvesting is the main economic activity for residents of the villages along Lake Victoria and even some other regions in which the commodity can easily be found.

The activity has led to environmental degradation, which has mostly been blamed for the frequent flooding in the region.

“We have no alternative. It is the only activity that can empower us so as to educate our children and even provide daily meals,” Akoth said.

She said for all its risks, sand harvesting brings immediate income, compared to crop farming.

"We always hire the quarry sites from the current owners, where we pay the owner at each and every sale of sand per truck,” she said.

NO RITUALS

According to Luo tradition, reburying the dead may require performance of some rituals and even a short celebration. However, the community does not embrace such values.

"Once we find remains, we just put the skeletons aside and continue with our activities, and at the end of the day we rebury and life continues," she said.

"There is nothing much we can do. This is the only activity we can depend on as women of this area. We cannot go fishing and the area is not fertile enough for farming."

In other homes, the dead have been accorded some respect. However, this does stop the women from continuing with their sand harvesting.

A number of graves whose families do remember the exact burial sites of their relatives could be seen hanging after the sand around them was harvested. In other homes, there are open graves after the families were forced to rebury their dead.

Lucy Anyango, 27, said they do not intentionally disturb the dead. In some places, even though there are no longer residents, they have preserved the burial sites.

"We are not happy to come across graves. It happens accidentally. But when we are informed, we usually do not interfere with the grave but harvest the sand surrounding it," she said.

Asked whether this has been haunting them, Anyango said, "It has become something normal. This is the only source of livelihood."

NO TURNING BACK

The harvesters have vowed not to stop unless the county government finds them an alternative source of income.

Meanwhile, they have formed a self help group, where they save and anyone faced with a problem, such as lack of school fees for her children, can get money and pay back later.

The group has enabled Pauline Achieng, 38, a widowed mother of five, to educate her children.

“My firstborn is currently in university, two are in secondary schools and the other two are in primary schools. This has been made a success following the help I get from the group loans and the little I get from mining,” she said. 

Problems the sand harvesters face include extortion from middlemen, low payment, longer time to get customers, especially during rainy seasons, and even infections due to lack of protective gear.

Achieng said on a good day, each of them can go home with a maximum of Sh300, despite spending the whole day harvesting sand.

"The middlemen usually pay us Sh1,500 for a 10ton lorry. We then pay the landowner Sh600, remaining with Sh900," she said

"Since we always form a team of three, each of us gets Sh300 from the balance." 

She said sometimes life becomes hard, especially during heavy rains, since few lorries can reach the area due to the poor state of roads, forcing them to sell the commodity at a throwaway price.

ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION

The region has always been prone to floods, especially during heavy rains, which usually lead to destruction of crops, displacement of residents and sometimes deaths following landslides. This has, however, not stopped the residents from continuing with their sand harvesting.

Environment executive Dickson Nyawinda says his department is drafting a bill that will deal with sand harvesting and transportation.

He said once enacted, it will deal with people who feel that they own the land and can do anything they like with it.

"Everyone is entitled to a good life. Your neighbor is entitled to a good life, and the environment must be protected so that no one is disturbed," Nyawinda said.

He said they plan to initiate a rehabilitation programme, where fish ponds will be constructed in the already degraded land to make it economically beneficial to youths and women.

"We want our people, especially from the sand mining areas, to stop mining sand and rear fish. This will elevate them from the numerous problems they face, from extortion by middlemen to deaths, flooding among other problems," he said.

"It is very unfortunate what is going on in parts of Kobala, where the dead are not allowed to rest in peace. However, our people should be human enough to realise that the dead must also be respected," he said.

Nema Homa Bay county director John Maniafu urged the county government to enact laws to control and manage sand harvesting.

He said the county has been collecting cess from the businessmen who buy sand from the miners but has failed to control the sand mining, blaming it on poor leadership

“We cannot put the lives of our people in danger, yet they risk their lives only to benefit other counties. People must learn to protect the environment for the betterment of future generation,” Maniafu said.

He said the worst-hit areas include beaches, river banks and sandy farms next to the lake, where the most vulnerable include women and schoolchildren.

Maniafu said the county has set up an Environment Committee, where all the stakeholders will be consulted to tackle the underlying problems.

Moreover, the Senate Committee on Environment is set to visit various encroached riparian areas to assess the state of the environment.

Read: Why hunger for resource is a threat to environment conservation

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