After my first experience of small scale, closed pit tsavorite mining I had the weekend in Arusha to plan my next move. As informative and interesting as this first experience was, the mine I visited wasn’t currently producing Tsavorite’s so the plan for Monday morning was to get back out there and find someone who could take us to a working mine that was.
Over the weekend, Arusha is noticeably quieter, with many gemstone dealers closed, so I took the opportunity to relax and take in a local football match. A team from Arusha was playing a team from Iringa in what turned out to be a largely forgettable encounter in the shadow of mount Meru. The only clear cut chance of the match was blazed high and wide by a Congolese striker about 20 minutes into the second half, as a long suffering Forest fan this isn’t the first time I have witnessed such an event.
Seemingly not taken by the spectacle of his first ever football match, Ramma wondered off for most of the second half to find a charger for my phone and left me in the company of the 60 or so other fans. In what would turn out to be the first in a series of fortunate chance encounters I would experience in Tanzania, the man sitting to my right, Styve Mziray is a tour guide who specialises in mining tours in Tanzania. Styve is listed on the official Tanzanian tourism board website, under cultural tourism and has lead parties of academics, students and tourists to mining locations all around Tanzania. We arranged to meet the next day to plan a 3 day trip to more mining locations around Merarani.
With Styve, I was able to explain exactly what I wanted to see and leave the organisation to him. In the end we arranged a 2 day tour with a crew of 3: Styve, driver Festo and Ramma. We planned a stopover in Ramma’s village, which he reliably informed us was close to the first mining destination we were going to visit, Lemshuko.
Again, the expedition started with a trip to the Ministry of Energy and Minerals, where Styve checked with the minister that we had permission to visit the mines he had contacted and that their licenses were up to date. For reasons I’m not 100% sure of we were then told we had to visit the ministries branch in Merarani, a journey we hadn’t planned to make, however we weren’t there for long and were then able to get on our way to Lemshuko. The journey from Merarani took about 3 hours,through what felt like very remote bush and the odd Masaai village where we stopped to check directions and where I was periodically introduced to Masaai people by Ramma.
Lemshuko is home to larger scale Tsavorite mining operations, including one operated by Swala gem traders, as well as smaller mining claims. The mine we had arranged to visit was operated by Alpha One, a Tanzanian owned company which employees around 15 miners. Although a small claim, they were better funded than the first mine I had seen, with some of the equipment that Saidi and his team were looking for investment to buy, on site.
Here they had 2 mine shafts, one of which was a near vertical drop, with ladders and a rope to aid an ascent or descent. At this first shaft, there wasn’t a lot going on with just a couple of miners and a dog hanging around. We were shown a bag full of material from the mine which was not of great quality, not suitable for cutting, and we chatted to the miners. One of the guys we met had been mining for 30 years, the soles of his feet hardened from years of not wearing boots. We didn’t go down, as the miners were waiting for the air to clear after blasting earlier that day. In the photos below you can see the black pipe from the compressor that delivers oxygen to the bottom of the shaft and helps to clear the air. I was told that this shaft was around 50m deep and although they had blasted here today they had been concentrating on mining the other shaft recently.
On the way up the hill to the other shaft we were shown some of the mines equipment and some stones from the other shaft in the hut that the miners use as accomodation. As you can see the equipment is old and has to be regularly maintained. Here we saw the compressor and a generator. Whilst I made detailed notes at the time, I was to later loose these, along with my passport, so cant give you a detailed description of how they work. If anyone reading this recognizes them and has any insight please feel free to comment or message me and I will credit any information given and link to your blog or website if required.
The entrance to the next shaft is about 50metres higher up the hill and you’re treated to a stunning vista from the top of the pile of excavated material by the entrance to the mine. Surely a welcoming sight for any miner emerging from a long day down the mine.
In the first picture you can see the entrance to the mine and the rope used to help get in and out. This mine is much steeper than the mine I had visited the week before but not as steep as the other shaft at Lemshuko, with just a rope to help with the climb, no ladders or other supports.
As we descended, holding onto the rope for dear life, I was met with enthusiastic calls of ‘Mzungu’ and ‘Hello, how are you?’. Mzungu is a Swahli word which translates literally to something like ‘wealthy traveler’, but in Tanzania especially, means ‘white person’. After a couple of weeks in the country you are well used to hearing the term and its certainly nothing to be offended by. There were 15 or so miners at work, preparing an area for blasting and I was welcomed with handshakes and smiles from everyone.
It was at this point that sadly the motor in my camera lens gave up . In fairness to the Nikon D3300 I dont think it was designed with precarious descents into mines in mind. So, from that point on my photos were blurry and sadly the photos I have of Tsavorites in the rocks at the bottom of the mine are useless. You’ll have to take my word for it that there were some there. Although the rest of the photos are not clear it gives you an idea of what it was like at the bottom of the mine, some 30 metres down. With 15 guys working away it was pretty dusty, hot and dark. Luckily I was able to get a good photo of the guys when we re-emerged at the top of the hill, who were all keen to pose for the photo and were interested in the re-search I was doing.
Whilst inside the mine the miners showed me the area they were preparing to blast as well as Tsavorites and indicator rocks like Pyrite and calcite.
Alpha one have been working at this site for around 1 year and have found Tsavorite but all the material has been heavily included or cracked. Other mining claims in the area have found good quality Tsavorite’s so the guys remain confident. All of the miners here welcomed us and were happy to chat about their circumstances and experiences working in mines. A couple of guys spoke a little English but with the help of Styve translating I was able to learn a lot about them and their job. In return for access to the mine and an insight into their lives I was asked for a contribution of 15,000 TSH, about £5, so the guys could buy batteries for their head torches, a contribution I was happy to make.
From our conversation I learned that this company do not provide any equipment for the miners like helmets, torches, batteries, boots nor do the miners receive wages. Food and a limited amount of fresh water is provided as is accommodation in the form of a small hut with sofa’s and cooking facilities. There is no mains electricity at the mines although there are solar chargers for mobile phones and other small electronic devices and there is a generator for the compressor. Miners are typically at the mine for 2-3 months at a time and receive a cut of the value of the stones they find. All of the miners here were aged between 20-28 and have been working in mining for around 5-10 years.
The appeal for young men to work in conditions that seem extreme to us is the opportunity to make a reasonable living without the need for what we would call start-up capitol. In many places the only living is agriculture, however even the smallest of farmers need land and seeds at the very least. These cost money. With mining you can turn up and work, even if it means venturing down a rocky hole with no shoes or protection. Most of the miners we spoke to were doing their best to save money to pursue a career away from mining as well as sending money back to support family. If there were more opportunities for people to do ‘normal’ jobs and earn enough to provide the basics for themselves then they would, however unemployment is very high in Tanzania and much of rural Tanzania remains very under developed.
Our motivation for using Fairtrade and Fairmined gold in our jewellery is to try and help improve conditions for people who have no choice. No such initiatives exist for coloured gemstones and its down to individual mine owners to look after their staff, some do and its by supporting those that do you encourage others to follow suit. While job opportunities remain limited in places like Tanzania small scale mining will attract people willing to put themselves in danger and endure tough conditions. If this puts you off jewellery all together then consider what effect taking this source of income away from impoverished communities will have. To leave the jewellery industry now would feel like abandoning guys like these at Lemshuko and leaving them at the mercy of people unconcerned by the conditions they face, of which there are plenty. When buying jewellery can you choose brands and jewellers who are making genuine efforts to improve conditions, a list of jewellers who are registered to use Fair-trade gold can be found here, and a list of jewellers who use Fairmined gold, here.
After spending the afternoon in Lemshuko we hit the road and headed to Ramma’s village, which turns out not to be as close as promised. After another 4 hours on the road and having had a close encounter with a Giraffe in the dark , we arrived at Ramma’s village, tired, but happy to have arrived. I would like to thank everyone at at the Alpha one for making us feel welcome and for answering all our questions. Special thanks to Festo, our driver for his tireless driving and positive attitude throughout our journey and to Styve for arranging the trip to the mine. Whilst in Tanzania I promised to build Styve a website to help his business, if your interested in visiting mines in Tanzania, you can now contact Styve via www.africaminetours.com