Small-scale gold mining: tales from the field

Hunger and poverty are driving people in Ntcheu, Balaka and Neno to illegal mining activities. Our reporter BOBBY KABANGO recently visited the gold mining camps in the three districts and in this three part series on small-scale gold mining, he shares the tales of miners, their life in the pits, challenges they face and how they sell gold.

It’s a four-hour drive from Phalula Trading Centre along the M1 Road in Balaka to Nyuludzi River, where gold miners have set up camp.

Some of the gold nuggets mined from Nyuludzi River in Ntcheu

Upon reaching the site, you are met with an environment that has almost been torn part. About 50 villagers are busy, a number of them in torn and dirty clothes.

Huge rocks and a section of land along the river bank have been cleared away. The mostly notable features are heaps of rocks and sand that have been dug from the river bed.

The villagers here are seeking for only one thing—gold.

Simango is considered an expert in panning gold

Men and women of various ages and children some as young as 10 of age are busy, some are turning the rocks, others collecting the sand and others moving here and there. The river is a bee-hive of activity.

I had set off from Blantyre to visit Neno, Balaka and Ntcheu districts after hearing reports of illegal gold mining.

Studies show that areas along Lisungwi and Nyuludzi Rivers in Ntcheu and Neno have rich gold deposits.

According to RareGoldNuggets.com, Lisungwi is one of the well-known gold deposits in the country. The river and Nyuludzi valley have great potential for gold mining.

Most illegal miners have been flocking to these areas to undertake small scale mining activities. Most of the miners are not licensed to prospect for gold, let alone mine it.

Margret says hunger drove her to illegal mining

After walking 30 kilometres from Phalula Trading Centre in Balaka, into a thick jungle, I am greeted by smiling villagers.

I am told most of the villagers are involved in small scale gold mining.

After cross-checking that I was not a government official, they informed me that there are three different gold mining camps within the three districts.

A woman says the miners live in fear of being attacked.

“We thought you are a government official posing as a reporter because of your dressing,” she says, laughing.

There are at least 50 artisanal miners who have invaded this area, according to one of the miners.

However, she says the environment at the river camp is under a lot of stress due to the sudden surge of people looking for gold.

Men remove rocks from Nyuludzi River bed to pave way for gold panning

“Soil erosion, creation of sink holes, and loss of vegetation cover along the river is worrying me. Miners also need firewood for cooking so they cut a lot of trees for fuel wood,” she explains.

The miner also says the river is a water source for the villagers, but due to mining activities, the water is always contaminated and dirty.

“The water is so bad that even cattle are having problems to drink it because of stones and mud in it,” she says.

The other danger, she says is that the river bed is being dug up, a development that can lead to siltation and floods.

The miners say gold mining activities has also seen a rise in corruption in the area.

“Some chiefs demand money when they find you mining gold. If he finds you, just give him something [to bribe him]” a woman chips in.

As I walk along the length of Nyuludzi River assessing the damage the miners have caused, I clearly see why unregulated mining can be so damaging to the environment.

 

Panning gold

In Nyuludzi River, the gold panning is mostly done by women. After spotting a potential site, the women go to work.

Armed with a hoe, a basin and a bucket they start digging the river bed until they reach small rocks and sands that contain gold.

A woman who only identified as Margret from Bamba Village in Traditional Authority (TA) Phambala explains that they wash the sand in a basin and sieve it to filter gold particles which would remain in the water at the bottom of the basin.

“Gold particles always remain at the bottom of the plate. That’s how we collect the particles,” she says.

For about two hours I watched the women move rocks and sift sand from the river bed.

As they dig the river bed to find the gold-rich sands or what some call pay dirt, the women sing as a way of encouraging each other.

Ululations are a sign that one has struck gold usually a nugget—a small lump of gold ready-formed in the earth.

Margret says she loves gold mining despite the hours the women spend in the baking sun.

She says a small nugget can provide meals for the home for a week.

“I make about K9 000 per day and at times I can make up to K40 000 a day,” she purrs, as she wipes beads of sweat from her brow.

“It’s a well-paying job. Perhaps, that is why most people would want to venture into mining because there is a lot of interest [buyers] for gold,” adds Margret, who started mining gold in 2015.

 

Averting hunger

The gold miners say they engage in mining because they have no food. They say crops failed due to erratic weather patterns and fall army worms.

“If we do not do this, we will die with hunger. For now the alternative is to mine gold and sell it to Mozambique,” says heavily pregnant Elenata Geoffrey, who is panning for gold alongside her five-year son.

The two have been sifting the sands and rocks since six in the morning and are yet to strike gold.

“We do not have food to eat today. My husband has nothing to feed us, I tried to talk to him that we help each other in mining gold but he refused,” she explains why in her condition, she is still looking for gold.

“I do not have any option than to mine gold so that I can sell it and buy food,” she says.

On this day, Elenata’s life and that of her unborn baby could have been lost after a big rock fell on her.

“I think God loves me and the baby in my womb, that’s why I have survived the incident,” she said limping away.

Elita Simango from Namagona village is an expert in panning gold. She is very famous in the area for her experience.

“Almost everyday I make over K15 000 because I am good at finding nuggets,” she says, while showing her nine nuggets that were carefully wrapped in plastic paper.

 

Gold potential

Illegal gold mining activities in Neno, Balaka and Ntcheu expose the fact that Malawi has potential for gold mining.

Research shows that Malawi can be an exciting new gold producing country in Africa, as most of its gold resources remain unexplored.

The recent signing of gold exploration licences and development agreements with a number of multinational gold miners is about to put the country on the map of major gold producers in Africa.

Although gold occurrences have been known in several places within the country, no major large-scale gold production has started.

In 2003 the Malawi government through the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs told Malawians that it was looking for partners or donors to help in developing a larger mining operation.

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