Forgotten story of child mining in gold-rich TZ

Sunday March 19 2017

A child miner. Child labour in the mining

A child miner. Child labour in the mining industry in Tanzania remains a big problem. PHOTO | FILE 

By Tony Spence

In Tanzania, gold is a billion dollar industry representing 21.5 per cent of total exports with a worth of approximately $1.37 billion. The industry is characterized by large-scale mines run by multinational corporations and smaller independent ‘artisanal’ miners.

Many communities are dependent on artisanal mining as a source of income, but dangerous working conditions, chronic health problems, and unfair pay is an ongoing problem. Children are often attracted to mining due to a lack of regulation and the promise of easy money.

Child labour is a recurrent problem in Tanzania. Child miners are also most at risk of physical and psychological abuse than any other industry that employs children.

Although efforts have been made to fight child labour in Tanzania, the practice still exists, mainly in agriculture, mining and construction sectors as evidenced by the Human Rights Watch 2013 report entitled ‘Life of Child Gold Miners’. Children are still heavily involved in this dangerous industry in which their rights are exploited.

As the sun rises casting long shadows across the African plain, 16-year-old David strolls calmly across the arid landscape making his daily journey from the village to the local mine where he works. With a bucket in one hand and a rusty machete in the other, he explains what attracted him to the mine from such a young age: “I started mining when I was 12. I started because I was looking for money. My parents are not aware that I go there, but I sneak there to work”.

Motivated by the lure of money, David’s story is very typical for young men living in rural mining communities in central Tanzania where employment opportunities are scarce. For young and old alike, the dangers of working in independent mines are many, including a lack of health and safety regulation, the absence of proper tools and equipment, disease and very low financial reward.

Michael is a local teacher working in a rural Tanzanian school who explains the impact mining has on education as children in pristine blue and white uniforms sweep the dust off the courtyard around him: “Most of the young people in this village have been married with the environment. Most of them claim that there is not any other opportunity to find money other than to go and work in the gold mine.”

This is a common problem in areas of low economic status, where poverty is the norm and young men are understandably drawn towards any promise of money as there are not many other sources of employment.

For the young and old alike the dangers of working in a mine are many, including the lack of health and safety regulations and proper tools.

David completes his two mile walk to work and reaches the mine, a sprawling metropolis of tin roofed shacks and tarpaulins springing out of the dusty plain. A constant hum of generators can be heard in the background, and in a community with zero access to water, a thick rubber pipe spurts an unlimited supply into the work area.

Women in bright colourful dress kneel down next to bubbling pots as they roll chapattis, a thick cylindrical grinder chews up rocks noisily nearby as metal slides lead into a pool of murky brown water as part of the gold screening process. A group of shirtless men shout in Swahili as they remove a tray of wet material, and a two children no older than eight pass by weighed down by the pick axes in their hands.

The shafts themselves fall out of nowhere, crude gaps in the earth that plunge deep into darkness, a basic wooden structure overhead allows for buckets and people to be lowered by rope into the mine.

The shafts are dug by hand with basic tools such as pick axes, the work is slow and tough, with the dust and chemicals found in water pumping machinery known to cause sickness. The mines are often unstable and sudden collapses are not uncommon.

David explains that the miners sometimes use children to get through the small holes in the shaft to help dig or find more gold. “I am sometimes a little bit scared, as the chambers are very deep. My parents are aware and allow me to go, although they are still unsure,” he adds.

Another problem is the effect that working in the mines has on young people’s education. In some cases children end up dropping out of school altogether. “The gold mine can have a negative influence on the attitude of children here. They do not see the long-term importance of education.

They see their peers with money from the mine, which influences them to stop attending and go and work there to find money”, Michael explains how the industry has affected education. The lure of money is an easy choice for young men from poor rural families even at the expense of education. Joachim, 14, explains his situation: “I am always working in the mine. I started working when I was 10 years old.”

Tony is a Humanitarian professional who has worked on multiple responses across Africa, Southern Europe and the Balkans. He holds a degree in International Relations and Philosophy. The article first appeared in