At 28, Charles Frank Limo has been searching for gemstones in a dry and dusty corner of Tanzania since dropping out of secondary school 13 years ago.
With a fairly good command of English, Limo makes a rather shocking but interesting revelation to a group of journalists from Uganda, Ghana and Tanzania who were on a field visit to Mirerani mining township in Simanjiro district, which has been Limo’s home throughout his mining career.
“I do not earn any penny from what I do every day but I can’t ask for pay from my boss (who happens to be Rachael Joseph Njau, a 41-year-old female small scale miner) because we have not yet found any gemstones,” Limo says.
His words are affirmed by Njau, owner of a 50×50 feet mining plot in Block D. She is also the treasurer of Manyara Regional Miners Association (MAREMA), a local body that unites all small scale miners in the region. Njau, like her devoted employee, also has an intriguing confession to make.
“I have been mining since 2002 and have invested Tsh 500million (about 1bn Uganda shillings or US$400,000) in the project. Unfortunately, I’ve not yet struck any gemstones although I have so far dug 600m deep into the ground,” says Njau. She adds that she employs 60 miners— who all survive on handouts.
The major gemstone that they are hunting for is Tanzanite, a stone that is coveted by designers making jewelry for some of the richest people in the world and is only found in this corner of Tanzania.
Limo and his boss have a common catalyst— hope. It is what keeps them mining on, despite their current ill-luck. “We’re ‘optimistic’ that one day we shall finally strike the gemstones and get money to recover all the losses,” they say. Limo reveals that once the fortune is struck, the miners get tenth of the total value of the tanzanite. According to small scale miner Justin Mrisho Mnyari, a single gram of tanzanite goes for as much as one million Tanzania shillings (about 2 million Uganda shillings). Precisely, these are real Tanzanite Dreamers— just like reads the name of the local bar in the mining area, where the miners converge to freshen up after a day’s hard labour. Each shift of mining lasts 12 hours, according to Limo. The lack of pay, ‘blind’ and profitless investment plus the deplorable state of affairs at the mining block leaves you wondering why these people are still willing to push on with the tricky trade. Small scale miner and MAREMA member Abubakar Madiwa has an intriguing answer. “The gemstone mining business is a complex web of dirty tricks from all the major players. This is what keeps all parties going,” he admits, candidly. In summary he thinks it is not just a gemstone business but rather— a ‘game of stones’. From the testimonies of the small scale miners, the miners, gemstone brokers and other stakeholders, I realized that the game Madiwa talks about is a calculative use of dishonesty to outsmart one another.
Like Limo, Juma Alibaki started mining at 15. He is now 25, meaning he started out as a child miner. But during a meeting between Marema members and journalists sponsored by Revenue Watch Institute and Thomson Reuters Foundation for a media training on the extractives industry reporting, Bakari Faraji and Manyara councilor Justine Mrisho Mnyari (both mining plot owners), vehemently denied the presence of, or any use of child miners. But the reality is that small boys aged between 13 and 17 are a common sight at the Tanzanite mines. They are however very elusive to strangers and quickly run into the ramshackle iron shelters where they sleep or shield behind the older miners (called the Wanapolo or the Apolo) once a stranger approaches them. Their hiding skills are evidently borne out of nothing short of training. In the mining slang the mining site, they are officially known as Nyokas (Swahili for snake). A miner I spoke to explained that the Nyokas are basically potters who carry tools and food to and from the mines for the Wanapolo. “They’re basically the link between the surface and underground during working hours,” he says. This shows that contrary to the mine owners’ denials, they secretly intentionally employ underage boys. This secrecy is unfortunate to the young boys’ disadvantage. I learnt from one of the miners that in a bid to hide them from government officials or ‘nosy’ strangers, the Nyokas boys are not included on the official rotas of miners on a particular working shift; meaning they may never be accounted for in case of a mine collapse.
The Apolos at the mine look a whole lot of resigned, forgotten citizens. Looking at them, you are hit by faces that look battered by years of smoke and drug abuse— red eyes, chapped dark lips, and above all dressed in rags for cloth. They are quick to swarm any smartly dressed stranger to launch begging sprees. Their demands are hasty but moderate— ranging from 200, 500 or 1000 Tanzania shillings (about 400, 1000 or 2000 Uganda shillings which is below a dollar). As if coached, they all front hunger as the driving force behind their begging.
It hits you that despite their tedious hard labour, these men are poorly fed. But water at the mining area is an even worse problem.
“Here we only bathe on Friday, Saturday and Sunday; the days of prayers and relaxing,” Limo admits, painting a rougher picture of the squalid conditions that the Tanzanite dreamers have braved for decades. The reason for this is simple: water can only accessed about over 40 kilometers away at Bomang’ombe near Moshi. “Water is so expensive. A 20-litre jerry can goes for between Tsh600-1000 (about Uganda shillings 1000-2000), which is twice or thrice the normal amount in other areas of Arusha,” reveals small scale miner and Mirerani Township vice chairperson Hussein Ramathan Msokoto. Water business is very lucrative in Mirerani and those who fetch it make a real kill. During our field trip, dozens of donkeys escorted by their owners could be seen making water fetching trips, with about six yellow jerry cans strapped on each beast’s back.
Irony of miners
The plight of the Apolos can give one a teary eye. However, a chat with the small scale miners (their bosses), reveals a shocker! Behind their apparent desperation and the whitish sand that covers them head to toe lies a completely contrasting side. “Those boys have made a lot of money from stealing our Tanzanite and however much we search them we can’t get anything,” explains Madiwa. Msokoto chips in with a dazzling revelation, “They enter the shafts with condoms, stuff the gemstones there and push them in their anuses so there’s no way you can search between their buttocks.” For braving this pain, some of them have built big houses and have cars back home. “If the boy feels he has achieved his goal he just disappears suddenly, never to be seen again. The next time you meet him, he is a totally different person— a rich man. This is a real game of stones,” Madiwa reaffirms. These bosses’ claims were affirmed by one of the small miners in a candid confession. “Sometimes we get the stones but don’t declare them to the bosses. We then sell them to dealers at between Tshs100,000 to 800,000 (about Ushs 200,000 to 1.5million) depending on the gemstone weight and quality (here they don’t care about the normal price or weight ranges).
In the game of stones, neither government nor the three foreign mining companies in Mirerani are spared blame. “We have an acute lack of social amenities in this place yet we pay royalties of 5% and 3% income tax to government per month. Even the mining licence fee was increased from Tsh20,000 to 160,000. We think we deserve better because the central government takes all this money,” said the township chairperson Albert Siloli and uses it to develop other areas.
“Mirerani’s total population is 50,000 people but we have only one health centre, five government primary schools, and one secondary school. To mitigate the shortage, we built five private schools, which makes it a total of only 11 schools,” said Edmond Tibita, one of the local leaders.
The small scale miners and area leaders think it is only the Tanzanian government that can help them transform the immense wealth lying in their soils into real development. “Government must establish an Export Processing Zone (EPZ) in this place. It is the only way we can maximize the revenue and other accruing benefits from the mining activities,” says Albert Siloli, the Mirerani township chairperson. There are three big (foreign) tanzanite mining companies operating in Mirerani. They include Tanzanite One, Kilimanjaro mining company and Tanzanite Africa. However, there’s an overwhelming conflict between the small scale miners (locals) and these companies. These locals feel they have not done much to improve the community from which they get a lot of wealth. They also accuse the companies of harassment, under declaration of mineral wealth and connivance with the government to grab their land yet they (locals) are the ones who discover the minerals. Their cries are echoed by Mustafa Mhinda Amani, the founder and Executive Director of Hakimadini, a civil society organization pushing the plight of small scale miners. “There’s no area that big companies are mining that they discovered themselves. Most of the discoveries are made ad hocly as these locals go about their other activities,” Amani says.
“Government has for long treated these miners as illegal but illegality is just a way of criminalizing small scale miners. The truth is that they’re very important players in the economy,” Amani says.