Nancy Akoth is four months pregnant and like many women in her state has strange cravings.
Some women eat coal, gherkins or soap but Akoth craves soft stones, known in Kenya, where she lives, as ‘odowa’.
“I just have this urge to eat these stones. I do very crazy things. I would even wake up at night and go looking for them. I consulted my doctor and all he told me is that maybe I’m lacking iron and gave me medication on iron, but I still have the urge to eat those stones,” she shares freely.
Luckily for Akoth, she is not alone in craving stones and they are easily found on sale in country’s sprawling retail markets like Gikomba in Nairobi market, Kibuye in Kisumu and the rest in the country
Having observed this over a period of time near Kajulu Hills on the busy Kisumu-Kakamega highway, she felt that the stones the women and especially the pregnant ones, craved for must be having a potent that was of irresistible value to them.
According to Dr. James Obondi, a senior specialist surgeon at the New Nyanza Provincial hospital, the craving for the stones among pregnant women is a physiological reaction to supplement iron deficiency in the body.
He says most pregnant women crave for mineral because most of them suffer from deficiency of iron as a lot of it is supped up by the developing baby in the womb.
“Odowa” as it is locally known, is rich in magnesium, calcium, zinc, iron among other minerals although it is available only in small amounts despite its likeability by pregnant women.
Dr. Otieno says the mineral stone is used worldwide by many communities and not just in Kenya.
It is due to its increased demand that people like Omondi, a mother of four children decided to venture into some kind of business to earn a living.
She felt she could dig out the stone, ‘odowa’ from underneath the rocky Kajulu Hills and offer them for sale.
Indeed when one visits the site, one would find sweat trickling down her face, but she perseveres to move on to accomplish her mission of bending down beneath the trench to get down her mineral.
Armed with a panga, she clears the bush and using a hoe, digs deep to remove the top soils and stones to get to the mineral stone.
“I have to do it to survive!”
she says with a broad smile.
After nearly an hour of operation, Margaret lays down her harvest for the day.
“It’s not yet ready, I have to pay people to transport it to Kisumu-Kakamega road so as to get the market for the commodity from owners of lorries who transport it to Kibuye market in Kisumu town or other parts of the country,”
she adds as she peels off the unwanted cover before packing them in a 50kg sack for transportation to the road.
For several years now, Omondi has always earned her living through selling the stones.
The business has enabled her through educate her four children who are aged 14, 12, 10 and 6 years respectively.
Asked what drove her into the business, she boldly replies,
“I had no any other source of income and women always wanted these stones which are scarce in other parts of the country.”
“I started the business like a joke by hiring land from my neighbour whom I paid a small fee on a weekly basis,” she explains.
Although she does not get a large profit from her sales, she is determined that through the business she will be able to educate her children through secondary education.
Stone digging and selling is more of an income generating activity to most residents of Kisumu’s Kajulu hills and Kisumu town where it is sold in the market.
The stone are also packed and sold in major supermarkets in the country.
Zacheaus Omedo, who appears to be a middle-man in the trade, says he buys the stones from the diggers before offering them for sale to potential buyers.
He says that the process to get the final product is not as easy as one may think when the stones are dug; the outer covering is removed at the site.
The stones are later boiled with a pinch of salt to add taste then later dried in the sun before sold for consumption.
Dr. Obondi says the essence of boiling the stones is to remove impurities and acts as a form of sterilization to curb diseases.
“The stones should be boiled at a temperature of between 100-150 degrees to remove impurities lest they cause appendicitis,” he warns.
The medical experts say chances of contracting appendicitis will depend on the surrounding environment where one resides, citing that slum dwellers are more prone to the disease.
“We sell the stones at Kibuye market in Kisumu city from where they find their way to other markets like Nairobi and Kakamega,” says Omedo.
Among the challenges they face are lack of enough capital, lack of savings for future use, and illiteracy which is very high among traders, the fear of exhaustion and use of child labour.
This issue of child labour is very common since it is cheaper and easily available; the charge is sh20 per sack for a distance of about a kilometer.
“When in the market, a 50kg sack is sold for sh250 but after deducting all the expenses we get like a profit of sh100 per sack,” he adds.
“When business is very nice we sell about 250 bags in a day, with Saturday being the busiest day,” Omedo adds.
It is common to see school children helping their parents during weekends ferry the stones to the main road.
Dennis Omondi says that he has been in the business for the last ten years and is able to meet his daily needs and educate his children.
He said that he has taken up the business like any other. He sells the particles in small quantities, ranging from five shillings to wholesale price.
Despite women craving for the stones yet it has negative implications, they are not 100 percent clean and can contain a lot of worms that lead to dangerous diseases like blockage of the billiary system, amebiosis etc.
He says children are particularly susceptible to roundworms, and sometimes must undergo surgical operations.
Dr. Otieno says that pregnant women craving for the stone could use spinach, liver, omena, terere and mrenda that are rich in iron instead of chewing Odowa, whose iron potent he reckons is very minimal.
He says those who can afford may also buy iron tablets that are available at local pharmacies.
Linet Achieng, a mother of three says that all her three pregnancies drove her to stone eating.
The craving was so strong, just like a thirsty person would madly need water for drinking, but funnily upon delivery the craving stopped automatically.
“I bet it is the unborn baby who craves for the stones!” adds Linet.