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Women take on alluvial gold panning

Panning for gold is no longer a male preserve in Zimbabwe. Women have now taken up the activity, with amazing results.
Rodrick Mukumbira

Among the dozens of men labouring knee-deep in muddy holes at a gold claim near Mbalabala, 80 kilometres north of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second large city, a handful of women also toil, their torn dresses spattered with dirt.

Among the women working in this claim is Marita Kyere, a landless, widowed grandmother who has been panning for the last six years. Netiwe Makaza, 28, is a divorced mother who supports two school-age children through gold panning. And Eunice Nkala, 26, is shovelling alongside her husband while her mother looks after the children.

However different their circumstances, the three women agree that gold panning, although hard work, provides a needed income. Gold is Zimbabwe's second source of foreign exchange after tobacco. Studies estimate that approximately 10 tonnes of gold are retrieved each year and sold mostly on the black market by small-scale miners -- equivalent to half of the amount legally mined and sold.

In the process, deforestation and river siltation cause severe environmental damage. Yet the government turns a blind eye, given the huge numbers of people involved. In 1991-92, at the height of the worst drought in living memory, there were about 100,000 panners.

David Musabayara, who conducted a study on gold panning for the Institute of Mining Research at the University of Zimbabwe, estimates there may now be 500,000 people mining the country's rich alluvial deposits. At least 30 percent are women.

In many ways, gold panning is well suited to rural women's schedules. They can pan for gold in their spare time, after domestic chores, or between the coffee and cotton picking seasons. Nor does it require specialised techniques or expensive equipment – a pick, shovel, colander, bowl, and mesh cloth will do nicely.

Gold panning needs a minimum team of two – co-wives, mother and older children, sisters, neighbours, and friends can do it. Young children are left in other people's care or taken along to sit by the pits. Women can be found in all phases of gold panning, from carrying buckets of water to digging and sifting, and in the amalgamation and marketing of gold.

They also perform associated economic activities, such as: bringing and selling meat, fruit, vegetables and cooked food; selling clothes; knitting jerseys for sale; managing tuck shops and shebeens (backyard liquor bars); baking bread; brewing beer; and selling sex.

"It is an amazing development," writes Constance Mugedeze, author of a 2001 United Nations study on women in small-scale mining. "An economic sub-culture and system has developed in these places."

Women's newly found income can remain outside the traditional male control of wealth through land and cattle ownership. Mugedeze points out that "single women panned and sold gold as they saw fit, they were their own masters." Even when wives surrender their income to husbands, their breadwinning capacity remains in evidence.

"Now women are recognised in rural areas as family supporters as never before," says Giles Munyoro, president of the Small-scale Miners' Association. He explains that gold-panning earnings buy seeds and fertiliser, oxen and tools, and pay for school fees and uniforms, even for beer and travel money for husbands. "Gold panning provides petty cash for rural livelihoods," says Munyoro.

Since 1994, Musabayara's research has found that women's independent panning income is reshaping intra-family relationships.

"Women panners have told us that now they have more voice in decision making in the household," he says, recalling a favourite quote from a woman gold panner, who said, "Gone are the days when a woman had to quarrel with her husband over money to buy sugar or salt."

One hundred kilometres east of Mbalabala, near the mining town of Zvishavane, Teresa began gold panning during the drought caused by the 2000 Cyclone Eline. After domestic chores, the divorced mother of three walked one kilometre to the Lundi River to pan. Often her children would skip classes or come to help after school. The approximately Z$2000 (US$36.50) she made every month paid for food and school fees.

"Don't you know that men don't care whether a child is well fed and clothed?" she asks dryly.

Although gold panning is illegal, dangerous, and entails spending long hours in the company of male strangers, Katendera didn't hesitate and her elderly parents didn’t complain about her new activity. "It was a matter of money or no money," she explains. "What could they say?"

Munyoro points out that, while men initially objected to their women doing gold panning, now more men are accepting it, or taking their wives to pan along with them, as the Nkalas are doing in Mbalabala. When Simon Nkala finished his "O" level school examinations six years ago and could not find a job, he began panning for a claim owner who pays for the gold retrieved daily.

Eventually, his wife joined him. "It was my idea and she had to agree," says Nkala. "This job is better than cotton picking because there you have a master and are forced to work. In gold panning, you work when you need money, or otherwise you stay at home. It's hard work but it pays more, so you don't see the hardship."

The day before, the couple had earned a paltry Z$300 (US$5.45) but a good day will yield Z$1000 (about US$18.55) or more, while a cotton picker may earn Z$70 (about US$1.27) a day.

Not surprisingly, women continue to join Zimbabwe's gold rush despite the dangers of police repression, collapsing shafts, unhygienic sanitary conditions, crowded squatter settlements, exploitation by middlemen, rape, and AIDS. For tens of thousands of women, gold panning provides a much-needed income they can't find elsewhere.

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