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Artisanal miners flood Mubende

Many unemployed youth are migrating to the gold rich district in search of a ‘golden’ opportunity.

Below the blue canvas is  an underground mine. The canvas is used to shelter the mine from rain, one of the major causes of mine collapse

Below the blue canvas is an underground mine. The canvas is used to shelter the mine from rain, one of the major causes of mine collapse

About fifteen months ago, a ‘gold rush’ occurred in Mubende district, one of Uganda’s mineral rich areas, 150 kilometers west of Kampala.

Hundreds of youth flocked to Kassanda village, about eighty kilometers out of Mubende town, in pursuit of gold after news spread that a lucky villager had stumbled upon a gold nugget on a hill.

Locals have mined gold in Mubende district for decades, but talk of a new ‘discovery’ in an area causes prospectors to rush in, hoping to lay claim on ‘virgin’ land before anyone else.

At least 700 people from across the country, including some from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have pitched camp in Kassanda, where they eke a living as miners, porters, retailers and gold dealers.

“Life was very hard for us in Kampala after KCCA (Kampala City Council Authority) decided we should stop vending goods on the street,” said Bosco, formerly a hawker in Kampala. ”I had to come here to make money.”

Many young men and women, like Bosco, are not natives of the area. Although most of them were previously working in Kampala, all regions of Uganda are fairly represented here.

The area, covering roughly 10 acres, is a beehive of activity. Temporary structures have been set up using wood and canvas sheets.

This particular camp is so popular that it has been christened ‘Kampala’. Miners from surrounding camps-nicknamed Mukono, Mubende and Mityana, prefer to spend their evening here, escalating the night population to about 1500, according to Pasteur Cypriano, the local council chairman of Rwandese origin.

There are entertainment halls connected to digital television, lodges, restaurants, bars, a clinic, shops, areas of worship, including a mosque, and tens of abandoned deep open pits-a glaring reminder of how risky this business can be.

Emma Kibirige is the chairman of the Kassanda Miners Association. In his late twenties, he is an inspiration to many young miners here due to his ‘rags to riches’ story.

A graduate of economics and statistics from Kyambogo University, he told Oil in Uganda that he fled Kampala where he was employed as a shop attendant because the pay was too low.

“I had a job which paid me 250,000 shillings,” he said. “But when I calculated the amount of tuition I paid, I noticed the 250,000 was way too little money, it could not even get me good accommodation,” added Ema. “I let go and came here with 50,000 shillings only but am now a happy man, no regrets. I have just paid someone one million shillings, not borrowed (sic).”

Emma, who owns a productive mine, revealed that he makes at least one million shillings in profit every week, although his fellow miners claim he makes much more. It is common in this camp for one not to brag about his income for security reasons.

A woman 'washes' the powder using water and mercury to extract the gold.

A woman ‘washes’ the powder using water and mercury to extract the gold.

Rudimentary technology, online markets

The miners here have no equipment to help in exploring for gold, only relying on experience and intuition.

The most advanced piece of technology a few privileged miners have access to is a drilling machine commonly referred to as ‘makita’.

The average gold operation starts with buying a small piece of land, some plots as small as five square meters and mobilizing workers to dig a pit, create a tunnel and start looking for gold.

They follow patterns of gold ‘veins’-distinct gold colored stripes within the rock, and generally dig in the direction where the strips are increasingly evident.

It is normal for a miner to dig tens of feet underground only for the ‘vein’ to disappear, rendering weeks of hard labour useless.

But on some good days, the miner may reach a certain point, and upon sampling the soil, find that it has gold. And that makes all the difference.

Of the fifty mines in operation, only five are currently producing gold.

Upon striking gold, the rocks and soil from the find are then brought to the surface and the refining process begins.

The camp has an elaborate ‘mid and downstream’ industry that ensures everyone here makes a living.

There are middle men who buy the rock from the mine and send it to the crusher to grind it into powder. Then others buy the powder and pass it on to a group of women for ‘washing’.

The women then have to buy water and mercury from the vendors to do the washing.

When the impure gold with mercury impurities is produced after washing, it is taken to another person who will ‘burn’ it to remove the mercury. Then the pure gold is sold to middle men who take it to the gold markets in Kampala.

According to Mr. Kibirige, buyers prefer gold from this area because it is very pure: up to 98 percent pure.

They price is determined using international gold prices which are accessed online using smart phones. At the time, a gram was being sold at 85,000 shillings.

A woman displays a piece of impure gold after the 'washing' process. To purify it, its heated using a burner to remove the mercury.

A woman displays a piece of impure gold after the ‘washing’ process. To purify it, it is heated using a burner to remove the mercury.

Land conflicts

Like many mining areas, there are serious land conflicts here, pitting the artisanal miners against ‘big business’ backed by powerful individuals.

The artisanal miners themselves are in fact squatters in this area, but they have resisted several attempts by the license holder to relocate them from Kassanda to another mining area.

According to district officials, the camp falls within an exploration area licensed to Gemstone International.

“We have heavily invested here,” argues Kibirige. “For instance I have invested 30 million shillings in my pit. So where will I get the money to dig up such a mine in another place?”

The miners argue that they have borrowed from banks to buy equipment and materials to use in the mines and cannot abandon the place.

When asked if they will be in this area forever, the miners unanimously chorus in the affirmative.

“The gold here can take us for over 50 years,” says Mark Jjombwe. “Even our grand and great grandchildren will enjoy.”

For now, they are counting on the government to stand by them.

“All we need is government support because if they manhandle us, 2016 (elections) is approaching,” Jjombwe concludes.

Report by Chris Musiime