The gold rush is only four months old in Nathenje, Malawi, but already there are thousands of prospectors digging, shoveling and sifting soil in the age-old search for a nugget that will transform their lives.
“Iyi, iyi,” (“Here, Here!”) is the cry when an excited miner spots any speck of the precious metal and others eagerly gather round at the site, 20km south of the capital, Lilongwe.
Traders from neighboring countries have been paying up to US$34 per gram for the gold, one local official said.
However, first you have to find it.
Much of the hard work in scorching temperatures brings only disappointment.
The miners — many of them women — head back down the deep holes dug on the riverbanks of Nathenje River.
They emerge with buckets on their heads and, after the silt has been trucked a short distance to drier ground, carefully pour the wet dirt onto a sieve to wash away sediment and examine the remains for signs of gold.
Tandizeni Natani barely knew what gold was when she and her fellow villagers left their fields to join in the sudden mining boom.
“All I knew was that it was a precious stone,” the mother of five children, the youngest of whom is three, told reporters.
“On the first day, I made 25,000 kwacha [US$34] and I have made about 100,000 kwacha so far, which has enabled me to buy school items for my children,” she said.
Another villager, Fatima Chikalipo, said she bought a plot of land measuring about 5m by 10m for US$7. So far, she had experienced mixed fortunes.
“The first days were good, but now sometimes we dig on days and we don’t find anything. So, I have not seen any tangible benefits yet,” she said.
“And the price of the gold has gone down. We used to sell for 25,000 kwacha per gram. Now the buyers are offering 20,000 kwacha,” she said.
Using rudimentary picks and shovels, villagers from the nearby settlements of Lumwira and Dzondi have been joined by other Malawians from across the country who are more experienced in gold panning.
An informal system of bosses and employees has also sprung up, alongside a makeshift collection of plastic shelters offering basic accommodation.
“It’s a lot of work,” said local man Misheck Chilayison, who bought a plot of land for US$55.
“We pay women who carry the dirt and pay lorries to drive the sand from the riverbanks to the laborers who wash the soil to look for the gold,” Chilayison said.
Chilayison said the gold rush began as news spread that an Indian man living in Lilongwe had arrived in Nathenje and started digging, apparently armed with geological research.
“After a while he ran away because the police were hunting for him, as he did not have a work permit, but he left two of his men here who brought in a couple of their friends,” Chilayison told reporters.
Traditional village head Katondo — who only uses one name — told reporters that the discovery of gold was a blessing for the area.
“This is a huge relief for us, that is why all of are flocking there because this year the harvest was bad,” Katondo said. “There was going to be serious hunger. Now people make money and they can buy maize to feed their families.”
However, illegal gold mining is a dangerous enterprise, and the Malawian government wants to regulate the industry to generate income.
“Government is in the process of formalizing illegal mining,” said Jalf Salima, the government’s director of mining, adding that licensing would be introduced and illegal miners evicted.
Salima said the quality of gold at Nathenje and five other sites in Malawi was not known and more exploration was needed, as the gold in the river silt had been washed downstream from its source.
British colonial rulers undertook a geological survey in 1960, shortly before Nyasaland — as it was then known — became independent Malawi, but little surveying has been done since.
Percy Maleta, chairman of the Nyasa Mining Coop, said the authorities had to end illegal gold mining and develop a long-term strategy to exploit the reserves successfully.
“We have been lobbying government to train local miners so that they can form cooperatives or mining clubs. This will ensure that they are better equipped and able sell the gold on the formal market,” Maleta said. “Buyers smuggle the gold out of the country using illegal routes so Malawi is losing a lot of our gold.”
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