Poverty, joblessness and high cost of living in the country have pushed elderly women and their female children in some areas of Thika, Kiambu County into quarries to eke out a living crushing stones for ballast.
The quarries are crowded with grandmothers, mothers and children doing a job that has traditionally been allied to men.
The women break giant rocks into ballast which they vend to builders.
Ballast crushing has been the 89-year-old Esther Wanjiku Ngugi’s source of livelihood for the past forty years.
The grandmother to many grandchildren said she was introduced to the business by her husband who also used to work in a quarry.
Wanjiku who works with her two daughters alongside her sister said that it does not matter how back-breaking the work is as long as it helps feed her grandchildren as well as enable her to save a coin or two.
Despite working under the scorching sun at BAT quarry in Thika the whole day, the income is meagre and Wanjiku can hardly make ends meet. She also relies on Inua Jamii funds issued out to the elderly by the government.
She is among scores of women who turn up at the crack of dawn in this quarry, regardless of the risks of falling rocks and harassment by men.
“I took the job as my fortune and that is where I spend my days. I cannot manage to stay at home doing nothing and expect to be given,” she said.
Despite her age, Wanjiku manages to crush over five buckets of ballast a day taking home at least Sh 200, money she says is hard to find elsewhere.
68-year-old Mary Njoki who has served at the quarry for over five years said that poverty compelled her into the business.
Njoki who crushes between 5 and 8 buckets a day takes home between 200 and Sh300 on a good day.
Despite battling Vintligo, a disease that causes the loss of skin colour in blotches, Njoki says she cannot wait to be fed by a man and must move out and prove her existence.
“I feel sad when I see energetic women waiting to be fed by men. It is very painful and discouraging. I use my hands because that is what I have at my disposal to prove I can and indeed I don’t beg,” confident Njoki remarked.
For Rose Nyambura, a mother of two who joined the aging women after her watermelon business collapsed over economic fluctuations in the country five months ago, working in a quarry will help her raise capital afresh to restart her wholesale trade.
Nyambura who was selling watermelons in Juja had managed to buy herself a vehicle in the business that she says could return Sh 100,000 profit every month.
Currently, Nyambura only stands to be a former vehicle owner. Her business was crushed by unrelenting economic breakdowns in the country forcing her back to her early days toiling job-stones crushing.
“It’s my business that collapsed but I still have the brains to resurface. I will resume my business once I save enough for a bigger capital,” she said.
Hardworking Nyambura manages to break pickup-full ballast that guarantees her over Sh 1,000 a day.
Lucy Wanjiku who has also served the quarry for over 20 years now echoed Nyambura’s sentiments and urged women to go for every job no matter the challenges.
“Don’t fear what people say, go and do what you feel is right and make a living out of it. I love what I do because that is where I am. Instead of parading in Thika town as a prostitute, my conscious is at peace when I toil this way,” Wanjiku said.
The women not only crush the giant stones but they also market their products by looking for customers who buy between Sh1, 000 and Sh2, 000 a tonne.
According to Timothy Njoroge, the quarry manager, the women are hardworking, resilient and committed to beating odds to make a living.
“Most of these female workers are educated, some even have skills in various courses but due to joblessness they found themselves here. The vigour with which they operate is just amazing,” said Njoroge.