Twenty meters under the ground, lit only by the torches strapped to their heads, a group of eight men are seeking their fortune.
The cramped tunnels have been hewn out of the bare rock using hammers, chisels, bare hands and many days of their own toil. The goal: to strike it lucky by finding a rich seam of gold-containing minerals that will transform their lives.
The dramatic scene is part of a documentary series called Ziwa Victoria on NTV about the impact of the increasing population around Lake Victoria on the environment.
Using stunning drone footage and interviews from 15 locations in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, the film paints a bleak picture of the effects of pollution on the lake and the land around it.
The Kenyan gold miners are in Olini, close to Migori and an hour’s drive from the Tanzanian border. The work is dangerous. Miners are frequently killed in pit collapses and by carbon monoxide fumes produced by the pumps they use to remove water from flooded mines.
They rarely achieve their dreams of a better life. Most people involved in the artisanal mining operations barely make a living, but mining has continued to pull in more workers who have abandoned farming due to the land’s declining productivity.
One report on the region’s “gold rush” by the Centre for Environment Justice and Development, a Nairobi-based non-profit organisation, found that virtually every homestead in the area had its own pit – although there are no official government estimates on the numbers of the scale of the informal industry.
The dangers to the men who go underground are obvious but the process of extracting the gold from the rock they bring to the surface involves a more pervasive killer.
On the surface, other workers – mostly women and children – take the ground-up rock and mix it with water and toxic mercury. The silvery liquid metal forms an amalgam with the gold, meaning the precious commodity can be extracted from the rest of the minerals in the rock. To separate the two, the workers heat small balls of the amalgam on charcoal fires to burn off the mercury.
The women wear no protective clothing and sometimes use their teeth to squeeze the amalgam balls. In the process, they unwittingly risk their health. The toxic metal enters their bodies through their skin and lungs, leading, potentially, to a variety of impacts on the brain, heart, kidneys, respiratory and immune systems. It can also be fatal.
“Most of the time, people just ignore the effects of these chemicals,” said Mr Joram Mwakatika, a gold miner across the border in Mgusu, Tanzania, where the same dangerous processes are used to extract the metal.
Ultimately, the mercury is washed into Lake Victoria via local rivers and it is here that it can impact on many more people and animals.
“People bathe in the river. Animals drink that water. There are fish in there. I think everything is affected,” observed Mr Mwakatika.
Mercury pollution is just one of many environmental impacts on the lake from the growing numbers of people around its shores. One obvious impact is increased fishing. According to Uganda’s National Fisheries Resources Research Institute, the number of fishermen has increased from 70,000 in the year 2000 to around 210,000 now.
“There is a lot of fishing effort, mostly young people, once they finish school and they have no source of livelihood,” said Mr Rodrick Gundu, a fisheries specialist for the Lake Victoria Environmental Management Program (Lvemp) Kenya, in Kisumu. “You see that as the fish stocks go down.”
Mr Joseph Kibelu, in Kasekulo, Uganda, used to fish but moved to farming when it became harder to make a living.
“When I came to Kasekulo in 1991, there were very few people. The lake was nice because the fishermen respected the fishing seasons. There was a lot of fish that time,” he said, adding “These days people don’t let the lake rest.” Farming, though, has brought other problems to the lake. Chopping down forest for palm oil plantations has made the soil vulnerable to erosion, with valuable productive soil, stripped by heavy rains and washed in to the lake. Fertilisers used by the farmers to improve crop yields also make it into the lake where they boost the growth of water hyacinth.
Mr Basil Murila, a community development officer with Lvemp, said farm productivity is going down.
“This is because of erosion. It is because of too much use of fertilisers.”
Benj Binks, the filmmaker who produced the documentary as part of the Giving Nature a Voice series said that education was vital. “It is not like the local people are rich and trying to exploit the lake. They are just trying to make a living,” he said.