With four children, Emma Masola and her husband last year left Seule Village in Blantyre in search of food.
The subsistent farmers’ exodus from hunger caused by prolonged drought that had scorched their crop left them on a journey of no return to their remote village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Kuntaja.
Masola remembers the bad patch characterised by crop failures, rising food scarcity and rising grain prices.
She says: “It was a third consecutive year of hunger and we were surviving on wild tubers and seasonal fruits, which soon disappeared due to high demand.”
The Masolas used to survive on piecework in crop fields of well-off neighbours, which could not buy two meals a day.
Desperation prompted them to flee to Chitimbe Hills, T/A Phalula in Balaka, where locals mine alluvial gold using hand-held tools such as hoes, picks and shovels.
“When we heard that there is gold here, we came to try our luck. We arrived on September 23 this year hoping to hit gold,” Masola narrates.
A gram of gold in the area sells at K25 000, an ample motivation for the family to join the locals in excavating and panning the glittering metal.
The family needed just five grams to start a new lease of life, but they had to sweat hard and shed blood to dig out gold nuggets just enough to be felt between the tips of the buyer’s index finger and a thumb.
Masola explains: “It’s hard labour. Since September, I have never extracted a gram in a day. I get meager amounts worth K200 to K2 500.
“Even to get those small amounts, it is a back-breaking task.”
But Masola is only happy that she can afford two meals a day, but life keeps getting tough every day.
For the artisanal miners, digging gold involves a lot of wear and tear on their sweaty body.
During the visit, the 35-year-old was seen carrying10 bags of sand down a 500-metre trip to pan gold in Chisimbwiti River and get a few grains of gold.
She has to do this daily as she cares for all children singlehandedly as her husband left for an unknown destination just after a month of digging gold.
Mentions of gold create an impression that the artisanal miners are minting money, but Masola and her competitors remain stuck in poverty.
Dyson Sungamoyo, 57, has been digging gold for 10 years.
He says: “The precious metal has not improved lives of locals in the area, but big buyers and their go-betweens. Our grandparents started mining gold in 1940s, when we were being told that Malawi’s wealth is in farming, not mining.
However, they have nothing to show for it. The minerals are going and the pits are getting deeper, so is poverty.” Most gold miners live in leaky grass-thatched houses and can hardly afford three meals a day.
“I have been mining gold for a decade, I live hand-to-mouth because of slavish proceeds,” he says.
Frequent drought and rocky soils make the semi-arid area unsuitable for crop production.
The gold deposits are the informal miners’ hope for a better life.
But their productivity is suppressed by lack of requisite technologies, geological information, poor environmental management and opportunistic buyers.
Sungamoyo explains: “Without information and necessary machines for locating minerals, we just dig anywhere, degrading our land.
“Besides, there are no established markets, so we are vulnerable to accept oppressive prices set by vendors.”
The gold diggers, who mostly operate as individuals amid rising demands to form a cooperative, find it hard to access capital for improved technology and markets to maximise profits. As a result, the rural setting is severely degraded, rivers buried in silt and poverty rising.
“It’s a raw deal. Old methods cannot bring new results. We need change,” says Sungamoyo.
Now the gold diggers can afford a smile as Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa) has rolled out a project to address their economic and environmental challenges, including child labour and gender inequalities.
Cepa, with funding from IM Swedish Development Partner, is working with the locals in the Sustainable Artisanal Mining Applied for Livelihood Advancement (Samala) Project.
The initiative also empowers women such as Masola to take their future in their own hands and improve their livelihoods.
Cepa executive director Hebert Mwalukomo envisions the project empowering the artisanal miners to engage in sustainable and profitable mining, processing and marketing.
He explains: “The government adopted the Artisanal Small Scale Mining Policy in 2018 to facilitate its growth, but locals face numerous challenges.
“Our baseline survey revealed the need to formalise the miners to benefit from their efforts. We have intervened to accelerate their economic growth and poverty reduction while offsetting environmental impacts,” he says.
The gold miners have established Umodzi and Chisimbwiti mining investment cooperatives to ease access to mining licences, reliable markets, financial injections and technology.
Umodzi chairperson Raphael Kwiitumbi says the future looks bright in their struggle to reap enough from the labour.
“By operating in an organised manner, we will easily negotiate financial support for the equipment we need to work smart,” he says.
IM Swedish Development Partner country director Steve Tahuna says the organisation is committed to bankrolling projects that empower communities, especially women and the youth to fully benefit from resources in their localities.