In the hot dusts of an angrily blazing sun, Scovia, 17, winnows repeatedly and pours thick but muddy water from a container she made by cutting out the top of a used 20-litre jerrycan.
After an hour of literally washing the mud as her four-year-old son looks on, what finally remains in her pail are hard-to-see glittering pieces - her gold!
It takes Scovia, who is also five months pregnant, approximately five days to wash 15 containers of muddy soils before she can realise a gram of gold, which fetches her around Shs122,000.
It is a wild gamble. Every morning, she wakes up to the sight of her tools after which she embarks on the previous site or identifies a new location to draw the stone dust.
Three months ago, Scovia says she separated with her boyfriend (whom she identifies as Frank) after four years of elopement at the valley.
Walking 25km a day from Rupa Trading Centre to Nakabati valley had become too tiresome for Scovia, and it is on this note that she submitted to Franc’s advances, who often offered her a lift on his motorcycle to the site daily in 2015.
Frank operates a drilling machine at the mines.
However, two months ago, the pair had a bitter fight that forced her to abandon their home and settled further at Katikekile Trading Centre with her son after the man lost a half kilogramme of gold to scammers.
She says her boyfriend was approached by a woman (who he reportedly kept referring to as hajati), who wanted to buy the gold but ended up stealing it.
“As they were negotiating, they disappeared and hired another tent elsewhere from ours but he returned on the third day to tell me the woman had snatched the gold and disappeared with it,” Scovia says.
The half kilogramme gold that would have fetched them at least Shs65m, took them five months to gather and she hoped that the money would be used to marry her, as well as start up a merchandise business.
Scovia is not the only victim. Musa Okello, an artisanal miner at the valley, told this newspaper that there are at least two incidences every week where women who claim to be brokers and gold buyers steal gold from the miners and disappear.
“These kind of women have become so many in this area because they take advantage of the sexually starving men, who leave their families and camp at the valley for days in search of gold. They lure them into sex in exchange for the precious stone or they just steal it,” Okello says.
Sex for gold
These women reportedly come from Kampala, Masaka, Mbale, Lango, Acholi and as far as Kenya. They target average class miners, who use machines to crush rocks because they believe these are the category who have sizeable stocks of gold, according to Okello.
According to Okello, sometimes women or young girls end up sleeping with men in the night so that they can get money when they fail to get the gold.
Underage girls at the valley are also vulnerable to sex abuse.
“The victims of such sexual violence choose to remain silent because women who are raped or girls who are defiled often do not know who to speak to. The communities in the area are largely illiterate,” Okello says.
At one end, some families are afraid of being excluded from the community once they report such incidences.
“There is a lot of random sex here at night and the bushes during the day, but unfortunately, the nearest health facilities are at Katikekile and Rupa, 28km away,” Michael Owili, a resident of the area, says.
Owili says the artisanal miners do not have HIV/Aids testing facilities and contraceptives such as condoms. He says this has seen a rise in the cases of unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases.
The proliferation of artisanal mining operations across Karamoja region, especially in Moroto District, involves a workforce of thousands of small-scale miners, many of whom are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and trafficking.
Peter Ken Lochap, the Moroto Resident District Commissioner, in an interview with this newspaper recently, confirmed increasing incidences of child labour and sexual abuse in the area, vices he attributed to alcoholism.
“Just this week, we had a meeting to address alcoholism challenge to see that dealers who smuggle alcohol to those far areas are blocked because they overdrink it and do a lot of dirty things,” Lochap said.
“Child labour is a huge challenge there [valley] because when we reach there, they hide the children, yet at the end of the day, these are the children who are sexually harassed, he added.
Estimates suggest there are more than 31,000 people working in illegal gold mining in the entire Moroto District, almost a third of whom are children, according to Karamoja Development Trust (KDF).
It is difficult to estimate the number of children working in mines due to the lack of clear data and uniformed definitions on what constitutes child labour.
The majority of children working in gold mines are employed by individuals running these unlicensed mines or are tagged alongside their parents while they do their work.
“Due to the unregulated and illegal nature of these artisanal mining activities, as well as the absence of protective structures, children are exposed to illnesses, injuries, and at times death from falling rocks and when pits collapse,” Dan Apollo Majory, a social worker, says.
“Besides being exposed to sexual harassment and pressure to engage in sex work, these children are denied education opportunities since they prefer working instead of attending school,” Majory adds.
“At the end of the day, these teenagers, especially girls are getting pregnant and infected with HIV/Aids because they are looking for survival where there is no alternative,” Vincent Lamuria, another social worker in Moroto Tow, says.
“There is also no alternative economic venture that the population in this area can invest in because the schools are too far for the children of school-going age and the land is too rocky and arid to favour subsistence farming,” Lamuria adds.
There are only two primary schools in the area, the nearest being Rupa Primary School, which is about 30km away from the camp and a rehabilitation centre at Lolung, 50km away.