From the fringes of poverty to a life worth living, many peasants in Mubende have the gold mines to thank for that. CHRISTOPHER TUSIIME travelled to the area to find out more about the life of more than 60,000 people who see the mines as their only hope for survival amid anxiety they could be evicted anytime.
After travelling more than 150 kilometres, I was finally in Lujinji village in Kitumbi sub-county, where four gold mines are found. From a distance, the place looks like a refugee settlement camp. Two hills facing each other are dotted with temporary structures built with shiny corrugated iron sheets.
“We can’t build permanent structures within the mines. It is not allowed. You only build a permanent house if you are the owner of the land,” says Ismail Nkwatirire, the chairman LC-1 in Lujinji village.
Nkwatirire says he migrated to the area about 45 years ago. By then, he said, there were only seven families sleeping in huts. In 2012, it was discovered that the area was actually rich in gold. “People started coming here purposely to mine gold. Children, girls, boys, women and men of all ages are here,” Nkwatirire says.
“Women are normally engaged in washing the gold, cooking and selling food while men go into the pits and dig out the gold.”
Even though the small-scale miners are occupying about five square kilometers of the 207 square kilometres that Gemstone International has, work in the mines goes on non-stop. “One can decide to go to mine during the day up to 5pm and then the others can come in and mine up to morning. This takes place every day,” Nkwatirire said.
A gold pit is dug using machines like drills, which are hand-held and powered by electricity. A single pit can accommodate more than 10 people at a go.
Kitumbi sub-county in Bukuya county has only five mining camps. These are Kikadde, Kapya, Kampala (because many if not all of its occupants came from Kampala streets), Lukwago and Kababada.
In each of these camps are several pits that can be owned individually or as a group.
“If you want to buy a pit, which we restrict to only 50 feet deep, you pay between Shs 2m and Shs 5m,” says Joseph Kibira, a landlord in the Kampala mining camp.
Kibira explains that they can’t dig past 50 feet deep because they don’t have the technology that can protect the pits from collapsing and killing the miners. He owns several pits and 15 drilling machines that he hires to miners at about Shs 50,000 each for 12 hours. These pits are enclosed in a fence of iron sheets to avoid children prancing about and falling inside.
DIVISION OF LABOUR
Despite the business being lucrative, it needs collective efforts for one to benefit. In the camps, some load the chunks of soil and stones believed to be containing gold from the pits into a container and send them up using pulleys. Others drill the rocks, while women are mostly engaged in washing dust for gold particles.
Before getting gold, the excavated chunks are crushed to dust by machines. It’s this dust that is washed in water and the residue put in mercury that brings together the tiny particles of gold, forming small particles of the rare gem.
Robert Ssempewo, the chairman, pits affairs, explains that it is not risky to be inside the pit because they have acquired enough knowledge from Tanzanians who advised them on how to construct strong pits that cannot easily collapse.
“When you are inside there, you can’t know whether it’s night or day. There is total darkness and that is why these miners have lights on their helmets on top of the lights that are hanging about inside there,” Ssempewo explains.
To ensure the miners don’t suffocate as they dig deeper, Ssempewo says, it is a must for every pit to have tubes that send oxygen to those inside.
“These tubes are powered by electricity and if it goes, there are standby generators,” Ssempewo adds.
OTHER BUSINESSES THRIVING
In these camps, earning is not only for those engaged in mining. Thousands of other people are reaping big. Shops, restaurants, butcheries, bars and water-selling points litter the area.
In Kampala mining camp, for example, a jerrycan of water goes for Shs 1,000. Saadi Kajoba, the chairperson of Mubende Gold Traders and Miners’ Cooperative Society, says that water is very scarce yet very essential.
“You have to drive many kilometers from here if you want water to wash the gold. People who sell water here earn big,” Kajoba says, while pointing at hundreds of jerrycans that are lined up for sale in the Kikadde camp.
Apart from being a landlord, Kibira also cashes in from the several rental houses he owns. He says he built all the houses from the money he gets from the gold business. He told The Observer that he owns several apartments in Buddo (in Wakiso district) and several other houses that are still under construction in the same area.
“All my children are in those good schools in Wakiso and Kampala. Before gold mining in this place, there was abject poverty; our children never used to study. But now, you can’t joke with us,” Kibira boasts.
Justus Mwesigye travelled all the way from Ntungamo to tap from the riches in the Mubende gold villages. With his bodaboda, he can pocket over Shs 200,000 on a good day.
“From the main road to here [about 30km], we charge between Shs 10,000 and Shs 15,000, depending on the physical appearance of the person. Also, if they have luggage, we can charge more because we know people have the money,” Mwesigye says.
Mwesigye explains that the hikes in transport are also as a result of bad roads. For example, from the main road to the mines, it is 30 kilometers. Additionally, the roads are in a sorry state, with countless potholes. Christine Nansubuga never imagined operating a restaurant would ever be so lucrative. A plate of food, she says, goes for Shs 5,000.
Chairman Nkwatitire is at pains to explain how the area is still struggling to get good schools. He said within the mines, there are no schools and parents with children either transport them to schools in Kampala or let them drop out completely.
Additionally, the health facilities are still scattered. With St Andrew’s clinic being among the few in the vicinity of the mines, hundreds of those who fall sick find means of getting transported to distant places to seek medical attention.
To know the exact number of the people in the mines, the authorities in the area are now working with the Lujinji police post to carry out a mass registration exercise. Nkwatirire says they have so far registered 3,000 people.
“We are trying our best to make ends meet here. All we are asking from the government is that they should licence us. We start paying taxes so that we can sustain our families. We don’t want the youth to go back to Kampala streets and start robbing people,” Nkwatirire says.
In spite of the brisk activity, the miners are facing eviction. A June 28 letter by President Museveni ordered the small-scale miners to vacate the area. It was in response to an earlier appeal by Mubende MPs protesting the eviction by Gemstone International.
“…I agree to giving ample time to artisans in Mubende...[but] those who invaded where the investor had made excavations must straightaway get out,” reads the letter in part.
Speaking to The Observer yesterday, Emmanuel Kibirige, the general secretary of artisanal miners’ association in Kitumbi, said they are going to court to challenge the eviction.