We spoke to one such person when looking for something to shoot in Voi. There was nothing. We walked around, but neither Osborne nor Emmanuel saw something that tickled their fancy. We had to leave. Then we met some kid who said he knew of some place where miners are making a killing with precious stones.
He took us off the tarmac and onto a rough road that went on and on for miles. There was nothing but brown, loose sand and sisal plantations on both sides that stretched into the distance were hills kissed the sky on the cheek.
Sometime along the way I slept. This job is fun, no doubt, but it is also mentally exhausting. We wake up before the sun’s alarm bell rings and shoot until the last minute of its day. Throughout that day, we post on social media (which you should follow by the way) and at the end of the day, when everyone else has gone to bed, I sit till past midnight banging out copy. So I do not get enough sleep. That is why when the distance to a location is far off like this one to the mines, I place my head on the heap of baggage between me and Oz and catch up on sleep debt.
We got the place. It is called Mkuki. Mkuki is not a place you can expect anything worth anything. It is one of those places which, at first glance, you wonder why the hell people are still living here. Like a place God overlooked when handing out his graces. It would be almost impossible to find beauty in such an ugly set of circumstances, I thought. The grass is not green. There is no grass even. It is littered with pockets of shrubs- plants that have dry sticks for leaves. Yet this is not even the dry season. The houses are mud-walled with corrugated iron sheets that reflect the sun’s fury. It is a bare piece of land that borders Tanzania a few kilometers to the South.
Immediately you get to Mkuki you notice the caste system. You will see a decently dressed man sitting under a shade with a table full of green granules. Then you will see cars parked outside the mud houses that remind you of Siaya. Even the cars vary. There are Proboxes for the brokers black and shiny new Toyota Allions for the big kahunas. Then there are the reja reja people. The hoi polloi. The ones who walk around in clothes so old they must have seen Mother Nature’s grandfather. These people walk around with shovels and their faces are always full of dirt. These are the most important residents of this place. They are miners. The reason everyone else is here in the first place.
We met many miners at Mkuki, but the one who caught our attention the most was a mzee named Wai Wai. He is a local celebrity. The moment you meet him you see why he is the resident socialite. Wai Wai has been mining at this place since 1986. Do you know how far back 1986 is? And please, you forty something year olds who are reading this and rolling their eyes, you can go ahead and roll them until you bruise your cornea. But for me, in 1986 I was not even a thought. In 1986, my elder brother was still sweet talk on my father’s lips.
Yet that is when Wai Wai moved from Mombasa to Mkuki to start digging the ground for the Green Garnet. The Green Garnet (sometimes called the Tsavolite) is a green gemstone with a long history in Kenya whose details I cannot get into right now. This gem is as rare to find as honesty in the company of politicians. You can dig a hole for weeks and come out with nothing. Some people have gone underground to look for this stone, but never made it out. They ran out of oxygen.
A story is told of some guy who was blown up into pieces so small by explosives that when they finished collecting his bits from the mine, he fit into a green polythene bag. This is however a solitary case. It was a tragic accident. The thing is that when you start digging, you get to a point where there is a hard rock which you cannot dig through. So the only way to gain access to the deeper places is to blow up the rock with TNT.
So what happens is that some guy is given the TNT to place. You burn the string and then you run out. Of course it takes time to before it explodes…something like 10 to 15 minutes. On that particular day, the blast took too long, and so the guy thought that the fire on the TNT string had died out before getting to the end. He went to check, and just as he got there, the thing went off. The ground shook. And the rocks around the area got a fresh coating of paint.
That was close to a decade ago. Nothing like that has ever happened again.
However, there is no denying that miners like Wai Wai risk their lives every day when they go underground. They literally put their lives on the line for this green rock which God hid so far below as if He did not want anyone to find it.
When I asked Wai Wai why they struggle to find something that maybe our creator did not want us to find, he said “If God did not want us to find it, He shouldn’t have created it.”
What do people use this green gem for? Ornaments. Beauty. Privilege. Fantasy. Some girl somewhere wants a fairytale wedding where a man goes down on one knee and puts a huge shiny rock on her finger. There is person somewhere across the blue ocean who wants to wear this around his/her neck for status. Then there is the Government of Kenya who gets pocket money from here in the form of taxes. This gem is so expensive that only one gram of Tsavolite goes for nothing less than 100k at sale.
When you look at Wai Wai’s hands, they tell the stories of 30 years of slogging in the underworld. They are not hands that you would like to have. But someone has to do this work. Me and you cannot do this work. Our hands are too fragile to even change a flat tyre. When you look at Wai Wai’s hands you see blisters that have erupted over and over again. You see black spots on his palm from holding a nail and hammer for three decades. His little fingers has been cut so many times that it has formed different dimensions.
This is how he fends for his children. He digs. Eighteen hours a day. He digs hoping that he strikes the Green Garnet. Through this, he has married twice and raised his five kids, whom he has sent to school. He does not want them working at the mines. He does not want them growing up with the kind of hands that he has. He wants his four sons to have smooth, soft hands for holding a pencil and touching a woman (his words, not mine).
When Oz saw those hands, he knew immediately that he want to shoot them. Of course with his camera, you oaf! And he did. It was a spectacle in Mkuki. Everyone gathered around to see Wai Wai pose for a camera. The villagers cheered on, making jokes at him just so that he could smile. He did. He smiled and laughed, unashamed of his teeth that are the colour of earth.
As we said farewell to Mkuki, I shook Wai Wai’s hands. I wondered what he thought of my hands. I do not know if they reminded him of his son who transports stuff from Mombasa to Kigali, or his daughter and son who have businesses in Malindi.
I will not forget those hands for a very long time. They are the most beautiful treasures that Mkuki has been blessed with.
I wonder where that name Wai Wai came from.
Images shot using Samsung NX 300
cover image: Emmbee