The discovery of garnet, a precious stone, in Salima is diverting communities from their different preoccupations, in the process breeding an apparent social chaos in the district. EPHRAIM NYONDO and TITUS LINZE were in the area and now write.
Richard Kawanga from Katawa Village in Senior Chief Kalonga area in Salima left the comforts of his house a week ago and is camping here on the banks of Lilongwe River.
He is not the only one.
Hundreds from distant villages, some as far as 30 kilometres away, such as Sadzu, Chonde, Kaphatenga, Chikuluti and Ntonga are also here camped on the banks of this river.
Of course not all of them have are camping. There are hundreds others who, everyday, defy distances by cycling to and from this river. These are the energetic that can manage.
The picture here is of a congress of people—both women and men, young and old—spread on the banks of the river as swarm of bees and some are meshed in the stream visibly busy perching into the drying waters.
Even when the distance between the two is minimal, they barely talk to each other. Everyone is busy digging and searching the newfound fortune: garnet.
Since garnet’s discovery two months ago—a precious stone just like rubies—locals in Salima have all trooped to the river to mine and sell it.
The mineral, according to experts, is valuable as it is mostly used for producing ornaments and jewels such as necklaces, chains, earrings, finger rings, wrist watches and cell-phones.
Fast money, fast riches
Kawanga praises the discovery of gannet, arguing it has solved his age old
He says after earning K120 000 (US$233) after selling four stones each weighing four grammes, he bought iron sheets which he has used in roofing his house and also bought some household items.
“I dug out four stones weighing about 4 grammes each and after selling them to the vendors, I got K120 000. I have used that money to buy iron sheets and my house is now roofed,” he says.
Asked what they do with garnet after buying it from communities, Blessings Phiri from Zomba—who has come to Salima just for that business—says it is a hot business than any other one may think of.
“We are buying a stone weighing 10 grammes from the communities at K100 000 but take it or leave it, we are selling the same stone at K500 000 in Lilongwe and we are praying that government remains silent as it is the case because once they realise how much money we are making, I am sure they will stop us from doing it,” says Phiri.
Phiri could not, however, disclose the identities of their buyers, but only said that they are Asian nationals who later export the garnet to South Africa, China, India and the United Kingdom.
“I will not tell you exactly where we are selling them. It is an indoor business. But I can tell you that we have readily available markets from our friends from China and Asia who are giving us a very good price,” he explains.
Another buyer from Lilongwe—who opted from anonymity—told Weekend Nation at the site that garnet has available market in the capital city and the demand is high.
Asked at how much they are buying the mineral, he agreed with Kawanga, saying any stone weighing less than two gramme is being bought at a maximum price of K1 000 depending on demand on that particular day.
He went on to say that for any stone weighing two grammes, they are buying it at a higher price of K6000 while a four- gramme stone is being bought at K40 000. At the same time, a stone weighing 10 grammes is fetching a cool K100 000, said the buyer who later complained that the communities are now failing to get more stones something putting their business at risk.
However despite being lucrative the garnet mining is disturbing the social order of Salima.
Fear of food insecurity
In Salima, most people grow maize as their staple. This being the growing season, hundreds have recoiled from their farms and are here camping at the banks.
Rachael Mbilimtengerenji, one of the miners at site, says she does not have time to go and farm.
“For every stone weighing less than 2gramms, the vendors who are our buyers give us K700, K800 and sometimes K1000 depending on how many of them have come for buying. We are not farming this year, gannet will provide us what we need this year,” she says while smiling.
School running empty
Senior Chief Salima told Weekend Nation that he is greatly worried about increased concern over absenteeism by pupils who are opting to dig garnet in Lilongwe River.
He adds that initially he was excited with the alleged discovery, but admitted to being stressed with school going children camping at the river.
“I was shocked the other day to see scores of people, including children, digging for stones at the river. The presence of minors was most depressing,” he says.
Our spot checks in some schools proved the case of desertion. For instance, Makande Primary School has 900 children, but only 300 were in school during our visit.
Salima district education manager (DEM) Christopher Kamikundi confirmed receiving reports of children who have stooped going to school for mining.
Fear of HIV and Aids
With men and women, of reproductive age, camping at the river for more than a month, fears of casual sex are growing.
According to one of the miners at the site, the police had to intervene in a case where a certain man torched a house of a friend, accusing him of sleeping with his wife at the site.
The miner also testified to Weekend Nation that due to camping, a market is booming at the river where alcohol is being sold.
“There are night parties here and I have witnessed many instances of casual sex, especially among the youth. There are no control measures. It is as if we have been given the freedom to do whatever we have always been denied. I fear for our Salima,” he says.
Salima district commissioner (DC) Reverend Moses Chimphepo says he understands the health fears associated with people camping at the site.
“As a district, we have just advised the people to leave the site because what they are doing is illegal. Their continued stay there has a number of disadvantages, especially on their health,” he says.
Chimphepo, however, was short on specific measures arguing mining is not yet decentralised as such the ministry is better placed to comment.
Principal Secretary for Energy and Mining Ben Botolo told Weekend Nation that his ministry is aware of garnet discovery in Salima.
“It is one of the precious stones that we have across the country. Actually, garnet is mostly found in Lilongwe, especially in Nathenje area.
“Due to heavy rains in the past years, these stones might have been carried by the river to as far as Salima. I think the discovery in Salima is because the river in question has almost dried up,” he says.
However, Botolo—who admitted to have toured the area—expressed surprise as to why the garnet-rush among the communities.
“I don’t think this is an expensive stone that is highly demanded on the market. Perhaps there might be a market that we are not aware. That is why as a ministry we have instituted an investigation into the matter to find out the dynamics of it all,” he says.