Industry and Trade

Government shut down ‘unsafe’ Mubende District mines leaving many jobless

Many are still looking for a way to get home. The mines are a four-hour drive from the capital Kampala, and the only road in is a bumpy dirt track.

At any glimpse of hope to make a living sans necessarily giving, many would jump into it. In less developed countries, especially in Africa, a desperation in search of employment opportunities would cause traffic of men and women to queue in the hope of job regardless of the lifespan.

Over the past five years, an estimated 70,000 people have left their homes and moved to the gold fields, seeking – if not their fortunes – a way of feeding their families.

Young men with muddy faces climbed out of pits 150 metres deep, hauling huge sacks of rubble; others were busy breaking down clumps of rock, loading up trucks or panning for gold.

Men worked in the mines 24 hours a day, but it was clear the operation was completely unregulated. There wasn’t a helmet to be seen, and some of the workers weren’t wearing any shoes. But no one I met seemed worried by the long hours or poor conditions.

Florence Nampijja, who used to sell second-hand clothes, said her life had changed considerably since she joined the gold rush.

“With good panning, I’m able to look after my four children and my extended family,” she said. “I hope to buy land and put up a good house for my children, feed them well, and send them to better schools.”

Pit owner Ivan Kauma Male enthusiastically showed me around the site. He had bigger dreams.

“When I find gold most of my wishes will be completed,” Ivan Kauma said. “Like driving a Porsche car, putting up good houses, and sending my children to good schools,” said the pit owner.

“This is something I’ve invested in for two and a half years. So I want to get my money out of it.”

But those dreams have been put on hold.

A few days ago Ugandan soldiers armed with tear gas shut down the Mubende mines. They were acting on the instructions of the country’s government. The miners and their families were told they had just hours to evacuate the area.

Many are still looking for a way to get home. The mines are a four-hour drive from the capital Kampala, and the only road in is a bumpy dirt track.

“People are stranded on the road with mattresses, jerry cans, saucepans and children,” Ivan added.

The Ugandan government issued a statement blaming the shutdown on unsafe mining practices, and the presence of foreigners in the camps. The miners say the vast majority of people living in the camps are Ugandan. But they acknowledge the mining was illegal. No one had a license.

Mark Asaph Jjombwe heads up the Artisinal and Small Scale Miners Association.

“The association tried to get a license, although they’ve not yet replied to us,” he says.

The miners say Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni knew about the illegal mining, but chose to ignore it.

Mark explains: “He knows we cannot dig the big gold. So he says, ‘You can have those petty, petty ones. My people, you go and try your luck’.”

But that appears to be over for now at least.

A statement from Uganda’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development said the miners will be registered over the next three months, and the industry will be regulated.

But the miners are sceptical.

“The government believes the investors are going to bring a pack of money, more than the artisans who can actually generate some income for their children,” says Ivan.

“In Uganda we are jobless. I hold a degree in electrical engineering. It’s not because I don’t want to do my work, but they cannot pay me.”

A credible source recently criticised the Ugandan mining industry, describing it as “infested with corruption from bottom to top”.

The group accused a former government minister of processing and exporting hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of gold.

The mines in Mubende District had meant the country’s riches weren’t just in the hands of the elite.

Now, thousands of Ugandans are jobless again.

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