Several people told me that the wet season would start in October. Dutifully, at lunchtime on 1st October as I was taking the long bus ride deep into western Tanzania to Kahama district, the heavens opened. To paraphrase Toto (of 1980s music fame), you really must bless the rains in Africa because, after all, water is life but as well as the roads turning into a rich chocolaty mess, the start to the rains leads to one of my least favourite natural phenomena. Millions of termites have been waiting for this moment to sprout their wings and simultaneously leave the mound in search of new spots to colonise. After preciously picking the first few hundred from your rice porridge, you just have to shrug them off as an inescapable condiment with a strangely pleasant pineapple-like flavour.
Kahama district has attracted enterprising Tanzanians for many years with its rich seam of gold lying close to the surface. The gold is not found in nuggets but in fragmented particles contained within the rocks. I was fascinated to know more about how the gold was uncovered and, having seen gold mines in other parts of the world, was looking forward to seeing how technology and science has evolved. After taking the long, sludgy mud road to the site, the reality that greeted me was shocking and upsetting.
Men and young boys hand-dig deep, narrow shafts without any supports down to the seam. When these collapse (a significant and hugely dangerous risk in the wet season), digging happens at will and huge amounts of rock are removed by hand in what could loosely be called ‘open-cast’ mining. The rock is bagged up into 50kg sacks and donkeys are used to take this from the mining area on a small hill to the crushing and processing area in a valley by a stream. Where the donkeys are offloaded, women sit amongst the rocks and crack the larger ones into manageable pieces by hand. Men bathe the rocks in mercury nearby; apparently mercury is attracted to the gold particles and make them easier to find. Finally, after the small rocks are crushed into dust in what looks like giant tombola-ticket spinners, men mix the dust with water and pan the mud for any gold particles. A car from the mine owners periodically drives around and collects the gold, paying cash in hand. In all the mine sites I visited, I didn’t see any protective gear for the men, women, children or donkeys other than an occasional pair of wellington boots on men walking around the sites. A truly miserable place.
The donkeys at the site live without shelter. They suffer wounds and huge discomfort from carrying bags of rocks without protection for around 1km each way from the mines to the processing area and the donkeys are frequently beaten in an attempt to speed them up. I saw two donkeys resting and recovering from leg injuries caused from falling into the open shafts. The Donkey Sanctuary has been supporting the Tanzanian Animal Protection Organisation (TAPO) who have recently started working with the owners of donkeys to improve the welfare at the mines which, considering the miserable conditions is no easy task. They work with owners to educate them on donkey care and to create pack saddles padded with rice husks (the most easily available padding material in the area). They are already seeing a decrease in wounds and shorter working days; we saw several groups of donkeys resting for the day which used to be very uncommon.
As the mine workers build their relationship with the TAPO team and learn to trust them more and more, there are strong possibilities for future partnerships with humanitarian organisations, the mine owners and donkey owners to improve regulation and further improve the welfare of the people as well as the animals in the mines. The TAPO team has plans to increase their education work in the mines and wants to spread their reach to cover more mines in the area with their hugely important work. They can’t do this work alone (each pack saddle produced by the donkey owners costs around £3 to make, which is a significant cost in this rural area) and so support from The Donkey Sanctuary has been essential to improve the welfare of these donkeys.
As we slipped and slid our way back to Kahama town, I felt quite haunted by what we had seen. I know that not all gold mining happens in the way I saw in this visit but after seeing Kahama, I’ll certainly look at the commercialised razzle-dazzle of gold through different eyes.
In the three weeks I have spent in Tanzania, I have met with some incredible local Tanzanian welfare organisations and individuals, almost all of whom work for donkey welfare as volunteers. These inspirational people have each made their gratitude clear for the support and encouragement shown by The Donkey Sanctuary and all its supporters who make their work possible. As I head for the airport, my head is swimming with the hope, possibilities and dreams of the Tanzanians I have met who want to stand up and use everything they have to end the suffering.