From the Series: An Anthropogenic Table of Elements
Sara bends over the fire holding a black karai.1 After a long day processing the 25-kilogram bag of “waste” she purchased last week from a neighbor’s mineshaft, Sara is finally burning the mercury-gold amalgam she made from it to assess whether the waste will be profitable. “Sometimes,” she says, “you make back what you paid by a lot. Other times. . . ” She trails off and shrugs. “There’s a term for it: pata potea. It means, win-lose. Sometimes you gain, sometimes you lose. But in general, it is worth it because even if you lose, you can get it back again the next time. . . There is always a next time.”
The contents in the bowl begin to smoke as the mercury burns off. She coughs as she is enveloped in the smoke. Smiling, a knowing look on her face, she beckons me closer. My throat tightens as a distinct metallic taste floods the back of my tongue. I move closer, hesitating, my eyes watering. I hold my breath, hoping to protect myself from the mercury vapor. Nestled inside the curvature of the bowl is her golden treasure, little specks of yellow dust. This small sample is worth 500 Kenyan shillings (KSH; roughly US$5.00), about three times what she would make selling dried fish, sweets, or bananas or as an agricultural wage laborer—the most prevalent kind of informal labor here.2 “How could I stop this?” she asks, looking me straight in the eyes. “Look. It is too addicting.”
What does it mean to win for Sara? Sara lives and works in a small mining village in Kakamega County, Kenya. Like most villages in the area, it lacks basic infrastructure: roads, water, sewage, electricity. Only 5.9 percent of households have access to piped water, in stark contrast to the national average of 44 percent. Most residents make less than US$1.00 per day. Sara often remarked how gold, and by proxy mercury, allowed her to cover her daily expenses while paying for clothing, school, and medical fees for her children and meat for the occasional dinner. For Sara, processing gold provided economic security and the ability to live above the average lifestyle of Kakamega’s residents.
But Sara’s economic security is premised on the use of mercury, a potent neurotoxin and persistent environmental pollutant—a “poison,” as Sara acknowledges. Mercury’s chemical properties matter, for miners’ continuing use of it, for how it affects the health of human and nonhuman organisms, and for how it moves and persists in the environment. Elemental mercury easily vaporizes at room temperature. It forms metallic bonds with precious metals, like gold and silver, forming an amalgam. When the amalgam is heated, mercury vaporizes, leaving behind gold particles. Mercury’s ability to bind to metals and vaporize when heated made it a popular chemical in the processing of gold for millennia. But when it vaporizes, miners and those in the surrounding area breathe it in as it travels through the atmosphere. When inhaled, it flows through the bloodstream and concentrates in the brains, lungs, and kidneys of human and nonhuman bodies, binding with proteins and disrupting neural pathways.
Toxicological studies detail mercury’s potential for causing serious bodily and environmental harm. As a potent neurotoxin, mercury has caused severe disruptions in the neurological functioning of individuals, especially children. Miners and surrounding populations are also indirectly exposed to mercury through their diets, when elemental or inorganic mercury is converted into a biologically available compound that enters food webs, collecting and magnifying in the tissues of aquatic organisms as it moves up trophic levels.
Common assumptions about artisanal gold miners’ continuing use of mercury oversimplify the relationship between poverty and environmental degradation. These narratives assume that miners are simply too poor to care about their health and environment—that they are too desperate, or privilege their present gains over their future security. But miners like Sara are actively attempting to secure their futures by making economic gains in the present. They are investing their money into assets and teaching their children how to mine and process gold so that they will have an economic activity that allows them to do the same, in a place where economic safety nets are absent and wage labor is scarce. They do so even as they are beginning to understand that mercury presents a "slow-motion environmental disaster" (Kirsch 2014, 28).
Studies of the Anthropocene have thrown into relief the uneven impacts that global environmental change will have on the world’s most vulnerable communities, as well as the key role that Africans play in the production of raw materials for the Global North. Gold produced in Kakamega’s artisanal mining communities flows into world markets; it does not remain in Kenya. What remains are the residues of mercury and its compounds, amassed in the piles of waste that collect in villages, the air that circulates in the homes and businesses near gold processing sites, the bodies of miners and their children, and the sediments of rivers that feed into Lake Victoria and threaten local food webs. These residues easily disperse into the global environment.
Sara invites us to pay better attention to mercury as an element—its chemical and material properties—and the conditions of possibility that make its use logical and viable for miners. Thus, we can attend to the inequalities of production systems that require some individuals to be directly poisoned so that others may continue to consume. It implicates us all in the production of mercurial futures that are inherently predicated on the notion that one can continue to engage in risky activities and still win. Or, as Sara puts it, pata potea.
1. Name has been changed. Karai is a common name that is deployed in artisanal gold mining communities in Kenya for the black, metallic bowl used to process mineral ore.
2. The informal economy employs approximately 80 percent of the Kenyan labor force, but often pays well below established minimum wages.
Kirsch, Stuart. 2014. Mining Capitalism: The Relationship Between Corporations and Their Critics. Oakland: University of California Press.