Women dig into gold panning

HARARE - When Mwatsara Beta began working as a gold panner along Chiambuka River in Ngorima communal lands of Chimanimani — in the sun, mud and noise of one of Zimbabwe’s prime panning sites, the other miners laughed in disbelief.

They asked her if she had mistaken the Chiambuka River for a hairdressing salon. And when she offered suggestions about work, she was told to shut up, as the place was “not a place for a woman”.

But she was undeterred. Today she trudges back and forth with sacks full of river sand to wash in muddied waters in search of gold grains.

In the midst of the male-dominated artisanal miners, the 51-year-old widow — pushed by endless poverty — is part of a growing number of women who spend their days excavating gold across the country’s rivers.

The Mozambique-born Mwatsara, who married a Zimbabwean at the age of 16, has lived a life of tragedy.

Her husband died, and the five children she had all died in infancy. 

Her harrowing story is contained in a report compiled by the Platform on Gender and Extractives.

“Her husband’s relatives accused her of being a witch and blamed her for her husband and children’s death.

“The relatives chased her from the rural home near Chipinge town after which Mwatsara being homeless went to live at the long distance bus terminus in Chipinge town.”

The report added: “It was while living at the terminus that she heard of the gold rush in Ngorima communal lands, approximately 50km away.

She decided to join in and has been panning for gold for several years, living in a shack at the local business centre.”

Mwatsara conceded that “the unregulated mining has wreaked havoc on the formerly pristine environment” but she cannot think of any other option besides mining.

The Oxfam-supported report acknowledged that mining in Ngorima communal lands was illegal but cited that “the whole problem arose as a result of a gap left by ZMDC (Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation) when they abandoned their mining venture owing to non-viability of the project.”

Government in 2014 banned alluvial mining within 200 meters of river banks, up from 20 meters to avoid environmental degradation.

Mwatsara is one of many widows and elderly women forced by circumstances into unregulated mining. 

The platform on gender and extractives shared several stories of how many women became involved in mining.

Eggie Dhliwayo, a widow aged 82 who gave birth to seven children, said prior to 2003, she would support her family from proceeds gained from selling fruits.

Currently, her two daughters Mildred and Precious as well as her daughter-in-law Maria, are actively involved in the unregulated gold mining taking place in Rusitu area in Chimanimani where she lives.

Dhliwayo says she disapproves of the unregulated mining because of its damage to the environment especially the rivers.

She said she used to get herbs to prepare natural home-made remedies for mild ailments in the family from the river banks.

The herbs are no longer growing along the rivers because of heavy pollution by dangerous chemicals such as mercury used by the gold miners.

Also facing a similar tragic predicament is Maria Dhliwayo, who only has primary education and is married to Kefas Dhliwayo.

The couple are parents to nine children, of which two are still minors.

Maria has been criticised heavily by her in-laws and neighbours because she has decided to abandon farming and engage in gold panning on a full time basis.

This has resulted in her fields lying fallow year-in and year-out as she chases the elusive tiny pieces of gold in the local rivers.

Her husband, a retired worker from the local timber industries is a psychiatric patient, who cannot be expected to work in the fields.

In an interview, Maria confirmed that her marital family and fellow gold panners were ostracising her since “good wives were expected to stay at home, tilling the fields” and yet she broke these social barriers by engaging in mining.

She was quick to acknowledge, however, that she was not getting enough money from the gold panning to fully support her family such that her daughter in Grade Four had not been going to school for two terms because she could not raise the school levies required.

For some like Mai Jessie, illegal gold panning — despite the clear environmental degradation — has given her a source of livelihood.

On the other hand, Mildred Gamu, 48, a widow with eight children, has taken the path of unregulated gold panning taking place in the local rivers.

She is adamant that given a choice, she would rather be farming than mining as the negative impacts from mining outweigh the positive gains.

The growing presence of women illegal gold panners comes as the Mines ministry last week admitted that the fights obtaining in mining locations had become excessive.

The sector is facing problems with the registration of claims with women again largely disenfranchised because they lack information.

Speaking in the National Assembly last week, deputy Mines minister Fred Moyo admitted security of tenure was being wantonly disregarded, with some people assuming multiple ownership of claims and giving government sleepless nights.

“The violence that has erupted in mining areas is a headache,” Moyo told senators.

He said a ministerial committee has been set up which will work with district administrators, the police and the chiefs to try and come up with an amicable solution.

“We have a project that we have embarked on to ensure that we have the titles of all the mines into the cadastral system,” Moyo said.

Meanwhile, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe is pushing measures to stop police from arresting artisanal miners for carrying gold as authorities put in place a framework to boost gold deliveries to Fidelity Printers and Refinery (FPR) after setting a target of a record 28 tonnes of the yellow metal this year.

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