From a hilltop, the numerous thatched mud huts that clog a village after which Malawi’s largest uranium mine was named comes into view. It is a month since villagers woke up to tremors of earth-breaking explosives and heavy vehicles bumping to and from Kayerekera Uranium Mine run by Paladin Africa Limited.
They sadly remember Friday, February 7 when the Australian mining firm board issued a six-page announcement of the Kayerekera shutdown in response to falling uranium prices on the global market. The tsunami and earthquake which left Fukushima Nuclear Plant in Japan with life-threatening leakages in 2011 was not big news in the village, but its ripples and trembles has caught up with the residents.
At the mine, nearly all the machines have ground to a halt awaiting the market to recover from depressed prices. In the village, cries of people in poverty are increasingly loud and clear over the resounding silence of the production and workforce that have been digging, purifying and shipping away the mineral for five years. Amid the closure, Paladin managing director John Borshoff’s termed “care and maintenance” era, locals are still seething; we asked for just a slice of the yellow cake, but got none.
“The discovery of uranium gave us hope that our living conditions would improve, but we got nothing except an influx of migrant workers from all over the world, sexually transmitted diseases and broken promises,” says Jennifer Simfukwe.
The epic narrative that is the untold rise and fall of Kayerekera Village did not begin when Paladin signed a development agreement entitling government to K15 on every K100 coming from the mine. Neither did it start when machinery were built in Kayerekera hills that appear grayish in a distant horizon from Simfukwe’s veranda.
The mother-of-three remembers a few sparsely scattered huts across the village before 2009. And the people from the rest of the country and neighbouring Tanzania, attracted by the aroma of money trickling from the mining activity, came and started renting the temporary houses.
“The village was never short of visitors and we, the locals, started constructing anything we could afford to cash in on the demand for accommodation,” she explains.
Soon, there were shops and more huts. Pubs, where the migrant labourers emptied cartons of Chibuku Opaque beer and bottles of Carlsberg blossomed.
“There was, quite simply, almost nothing else that the village did not see. Even sex workers rushed from all corners of our country and neighbouring Tanzania for their share of business opportunities. Today, they have all gone away.
Five years on, the optimism in the blighted high-density limbo is fading like uranium prices. The nuclear settlement is rising to a rude reality of the ongoing break, which has seen about 300 Malawians and 100 expats losing jobs—a harsh fulfillment of the “significant levels of redundancy” Borshoff’s epistle hinted.
“This must just be a temporary withdrawal, but its impact on our lives is massive,” says former miner Blester Simkonda, 21.
He recalls: “To us, the mine meant jobs for locals who had no income generating activity and lots of opportunities for the business-minded.”
Walking around the rural slum is an encounter with lamentations, including why locals are still scrambling for water at a borehole meant for pupils.
Sitting under a leaky thatch of his house, Ndaziona Mhango’s finger led us to houses that are either deserted or immobilised by the uncertainty over Kayerekera.
“Ranging from as low as K500 to K5 000 per month, these huts were home to a migrant workforce behind the increased circulation of money that we had never seen before. We no longer inhale dust from speeding cars or hear thundering explosives, but their departure is affecting our lives dramatically,” says Mhango.
With the ailing economic activity, the beers from quality-certified factories are disappearing and the people are now flocking back to local brews sold in chilabus that have displaced the emerging clubs of old. Villagers who were vending groceries, foodstuffs, beer and other commodities are weeping under the weight of poverty. The only solace is a small population of retrenched workers who are now employed by Malawi Coal in the vicinity.
Welani Mweso, who was working in the environmental department responsible for monitoring the condition of water trickling from the uranium mine into Rukuru River down to Lake Malawi, was in March 2013 retrenched on suspicion of stealing drums of uranium. He denies the accusation, saying no Malawian can smuggle or sell uranium beyond the maximum security Kayerekera Mine.
Eulogising his K87 000-per-month employment, he says: “Like me, most households have lost income due to the setbacks on their jobs and businesses.”
Unlike him, Richard Sinkhonde, a processor operator was among the 194 locals and 71 expats who were retained until last month, to empty, clean and sterilise the production plant. He was retrenched on May 20 when Kayerekera finally descended into ‘care and maintenance’ mode. A moment of silence.
He says being deemed surplus to requirement was a shocking experience, although they had been forewarned—and up in flames went the job which used to bring his family K94 000 per month.
Justifying the closure in February, Borshoff wrote: “By placing Kayerekera on care and maintenance now, we are preserving the remaining value of the ole body until it can be mined profitably to make positive contribution to Paladin.”
Having pocketed their benefits, the workers are still waiting for an uncertain return to work. They quote mine authorities telling them that all positions will be re-advertised and previous employees will be given preference once mining restarts, a position Paladin communications consultant Henry Kachaje echoed soon after the closure.
As the wait continues, village heads want newly elected councilors to put in place by-laws requiring mining firms to invest up to five percent of their profits in developing areas where extractives lie. The new call follows a fruitless lobby for provision of safe water, education facilities and health centres in communities likely to shoulder the side-effects of mining.
Actually, group village head (GVH) Chilekani Gondwe feels the stoppage is not necessarily due to the unattainable costs of continuing to run Kayerekera at a loss. The traditional leader argues that it might as well be in protest to the hard stance taken by outvoted president Joyce Banda to ensure mining firms are investing in and accounting to the populations where they work.
He says: “For a long time, Paladin and other miners have been sidelining local authorities in preference for secret agreements with central government. We hope President Peter Mutharika, Members of Parliament and councilors elected last month will continue reforming laws and policies to ensure transparency and accountability in the mining sector.”
Karonga Diocese’s Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace is part of the civil society campaigning for transparency in the extractives industry. According to the diocesan desk officer Mwawi Shawa, mining companies “must be accountable and transparent to the locals as well respect community aspirations” since they do not operate in a vacuum.
“As an organisation championing the cause of the vulnerable, we continue calling on mining firms to respect the wishes of local communities and exercise social corporate responsibility.”
In this regard, traditional leaders say they are betrayed because Paladin closed Kayerekera without briefing them or spelling the way forward on the unfulfilled projects it promised the people of Karonga and Chitipa. The initiatives included upgrade of schools, provision of safe water for affected communities and construction of a health centre.
“We might have been sidelined from the beginning, but we still demand to know what will happen to the promised development projects,” declares GVH Patrick Yezgani Simfukwe of Karonga.
Among the initiatives, one of the two teachers’ houses under construction at Kalowe Primary School stalled at foundation level and another is yet to take off. At Karonga Boma, a K1.5 billion state-of-the art water system meant for all communities in Songwe now serves the shoreline town, which is already served by Northern Region Water Board.
Besides, former Minister of Health Catherine Gotani Hara revealed that construction of a hugely-awaited health facility in Karonga is yet to take off as Paladin is reluctant to invest more money to ensure the project is up to government standards, which require all health centres to have a minimum set of facilities, including a maternity wing.
“We hear the uranium miners talk about yellow cakes, but it’s a pity the people of Karonga and Chitipa are yet to taste a slice of the multibillion kwacha business,” says GVH Amos Chilanga.
Quieting the cries is just a glimpse of the job awaiting President Mutharika, whose first state-of-the-nation address to Parliament on Monday contains a promise to foster fairness, transparency and accountability in the extractive industry, which contributes K10 to every K100 to the country’s economy.