Beneath the country’s emerging mining sector lie a myriad of accidents and other occupational risks which unskilled workers inherited from a predominantly agricultural past.
On a sunny Friday sunset, travelling from Mzuzu City atop the Viphya Highlands to Karonga on the shoreline of Lake Malawi is a sweat-provoking confirmation that the lower you go, the hotter it becomes.
No part of the 220km trek makes the temperature shifts clearer than the winding roads snaking down Chiweta Escarpments. As the M1 Road morphs into accident-prone bends to the lakeshore parts of Rumphi and Karonga, visitors start fanning themselves and remembering the chilly breeze boiling down to searing heat.
But the scorcher that transports busloads of visitors to the stunning sights of Lake Malawi are no bothersome to miners often spotted on the road, the personifications of thousands of locals digging and hauling truckloads of coal underneath the picturesque hilly terrain.
“It’s hotter and sweatier down in the tunnels,” says Jalawe mining captain John Msiska, pointing at inlets to Mchenga Coal Mines in Rumphi where he started his career as a miner 20 years ago.
As a new mine boy, Msiska’s job entailed pushing heavy wheelbarrow-like trolleys carrying coal in the underground pathways almost his height. They are only ventilated by more tunnels that criss-cross the hilly terrain and illumined by the devils eyes, the lights on miners’ crash helmets.
As the journey continues, the miners are spotted entering and exiting the holes like rats. Where old tunnels have been shut down due to safety concerns or depletion of the charcoal-like mineral for both export and powering heavy machines in the country’s manufacturing industry, new ones are opening.
“A lot is changing,” says the miner, for even new mines are emerging in the coalfields in the Northern Region. Using his fingers, he counts Kaziwiziwi and Jalawe in Mchenga’s neighbourhood as well as Nkhayuti and Elland Mining’s Mwabulambo in Karonga.
This—like the extraction of uranium at Paladin Africa’s Kayerekera Mine in Karonga—was undreamt of in 1993, Msiska says. As he recalls, Mchenga was the only mine in the country as founding president Kamuzu Banda always urged Malawians to concentrate on agriculture because ‘farming was our only goldmine’.
The country is waking up to its mineral wealth and mining potential.
However, the man who has seen it grow laments: “Everything is changing fast, except training of workers. Due to the emphasis on farming, the 50 years of independence have been marked with little if anything in training miners and more continue to learn the skills on the job.”
But stagnation is when 1993 resembles 2014. Lack of skilled locals is not just the reason decision-making positions in the mining sector are dominated by expatriates.
Officials at Zalewa Lime Company (Zalco) in Mwanza last year told The Nation that the on-the-job training sessions are expensive and a threat to daily production.
Throughout his career, Msiska says tens of people have lost lives, limbs and other body parts due to avoidable accidents in the line of duty. Some were not aware of the dos and don’ts associated with occupational health in the mining sector. Others have been buried by earth mounds for willingly going into tunnels that were in no doubt about to collapse. Yet others have been crashed by machines that dot the miners’ perilous world of work. Even more are knowingly or unknowingly exposed to breathing problems and other health hazards because they are compelled to work without adequate protection garbs: the crash helmets, devils eye, gloves, nose masks and more.
No wonder, Technical Education, Vocational and Entrepreneurship Training Authority (Teveta) board chair, the Reverend Joda Mbewe, bills the mines “one of the most dangerous places where one can work”, saying: “It is unfortunate that most people get employed without the necessary training and skills which is catalytic of several occupational risks.”
To stop the time bomb, Teveta has embarked on an informal sector skills development programme to train the miners in safety and health measures. Inaugurating the trainings in Karonga on January 24, Joda said on the trot are five trainings aimed at keeping the endangered workforce out of harm’s way.
“We singled out the mining sector as a beneficiary because of its significance to the economy and the dangers resulting from lack of requisite skills among the workforce,” says Mbewe.
Figures from the Ministry of Mining show the economic weight of mining: It contributes K10 to every K100 in government’s coffers amid a strategic plan to ensure the industry becomes a giant industry that accounts for double as much.
According to press cuttings, even Minister of Mining John Bande agrees that closing the staffing and power gaps is central to achieving the lofty dream of doubling up the sector’s returns.
In this regard, government has facilitated the introduction of mining engineering at the University of Malawi’s Polytechnic in Blantyre and scholarship for selected individuals to study in Botswana. However, these are top-level interventions far from the lower labourers with pronounced training needs.
Teveta acting director general Wilson Nkhoma says eliminating accidents, inefficiencies and other side-effects of lack of trained workers is part of the authority’s mandate. “But bridging the gap will not be easy because no technical college and tertiary training institution—apart from the Polytechnic—offers mining courses,” says Nkhoma.
Besides, Teveta is grappling with funding shortfalls and lack of space as existing training centres. The State-run authority only enrols one in two people who qualify for its programmes, he says. To him, the trainings, coming after visits to various mining flashpoints in 2012, exposed deep-seated needs for safety and health drills in the world of work, is part of overcoming the pitfalls.
But they are just a stop-gap. More needs to be done to transform the mining sector from a death-trap for unskilled hands into a giant industry where safety matters as much as productivity.
And Msiska reckons those who have died are not just statistics, but reminders that doing business as usual endangers lives.
“I thank Teveta for reminding us about the ideal of ‘safety first, production later’ whose importance cannot be understated in the mines,” says the old-timer.