Digging for Survival The Gold Slaves of Mozambique

Thousands of fortune hunters are digging for gold in the mountains of Mozambique. Scores have come across the border from bitterly poor Zimbabwe. But for most, the dream of fabulous treasure ends up in endless toil, disease and death.

By in Manica, Mozambique


Nightfall brings welcome cooler temperatures to the foothills of the Chimanimani Mountains in western Mozambique. But it also brings the malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquito from the nearby swamps.

The mosquitoes come in thick swarms. The young men in the mining camps use fire in a vain attempt to protect themselves against the deadly insects. When their firewood is too damp they burn plastic, and soon campfires blaze throughout the camp, filling the air with endless plumes of acrid smoke.

The soft, green hills surrounding the provincial capital Manica have been transformed into giant, squalid camps. Small settlements have sprung up along the Revue River, collections of huts made of plastic tarps, corrugated metal and bamboo. But many people simply sleep on the ground, wrapped in rags and covered with moth-eaten blankets. Their diet consists of roots, grass and insects.

During the day, they crawl across the loamy ground, digging with their bare hands. A few have spades and pickaxes. Many begin work at four in the morning. Some just lose their minds here, others lose their lives.

Last-Ditch Hope

Thousands of desperate people have come to the region to seek their fortune, and their numbers swell by the day. They come across the mountains from neighboring Zimbabwe. They have heard that there is a treasure hidden in the muddy soil here: gold. The word "Chimanimani" has become synonymous with the last-ditch hope of striking it rich.

Alec Pot wipes the sweat from his brow. He is infected with malaria, is little more than skin and bones, and he shakes with fever. He used up the last of his money to buy medicine. Now he huddles under a mango tree, wrapped in his blanket. Pot came here from Zimbabwe a month ago with three friends. At home, they had heard that there was gold -- a lot of gold -- to be found in the Mozambican mountains. Strangers had told fantastic stories about fist-sized nuggets. The men had also heard that the Mozambicans are hospitable.

A few weeks ago, Mozambique even waived the visa requirement for Zimbabweans. It was said that this was the country's way of thanking neighboring Zimbabwe for giving refuge to Mozambican refugees in the 1980s. But the more likely reason is that Mozambique, which is still recovering from the consequences of a long civil war that ended in 1992, had no other way of coping with the influx of Zimbabweans.

Zimbabwe is collapsing at record speed. Unemployment is above 80 percent, and inflation is close to 70,000 percent. More than three million Zimbabweans have fled the country, with up to two million of them believed to have taken refuge in South Africa. Most of Zimbabwe's white farmers were driven out, and their crops are now rotting in the fields. Many people are starving. The bankrupt state is isolated internationally.

Zimbabwe's ruler doesn't seem to care about this decline. The stubborn dictator, Robert Mugabe, resorts to brutal force to cling onto power and suppress his opposition. Pius Ncube, the former archbishop of Bulawayo and a prominent regime critic, recently appealed to the British to intervene and bring down the tyrant. As long as Mugabe remains in power, the exodus of Zimbabweans will continue.

Alec Pot, 34, is one of those who no longer saw a future in Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia and once the breadbasket of southern Africa. He had worked for years in construction in his native city of Murehwa. But no one is building anything in Zimbabwe anymore. Pot has a wife and two young children. Since his father died of AIDS four years ago, he has also had to care for his mother and seven siblings. Pot, an unemployed man, was expected to feed twelve other people.

"Slave Labor"

At some point, when he realized that there was no way out of his predicament, he remembered the stories he had heard of an El Dorado across the border in Mozambique. He packed together a few belongings -- a rusty shovel, an old blanket and a bucket -- and set off over the mountains.

Finding the gold fields was easy. More than 20,000 fortune hunters are already plowing their way through the red Mozambican earth. Three-quarters of them come from across the border.

But instead of the hoped-for riches, Pot encountered a situation that he himself describes as "slave labor." He and his three friends toil away, almost around the clock, digging with their bare hands, rusty shovels and primitive pick-axes.

The gold is said to lie eight meters (26 feet) below the surface, but so far the claim that was allocated to the young men has failed to produce even a puff of gold dust.

We must dig deeper, the men tell themselves, as they keep on burrowing into the earth. To return home would be tantamount to capitulation. Besides, they say, all we need is a little luck and we'll be set for life! They plan to return home to their families the minute they make their first find, or so they say.

There is a long tradition of digging for gold in Mozambique. The gold-mining industry goes back to the days before the Portuguese colonialists arrived. Neighboring South Africa struck it rich with the precious metal. Large international mining companies exploited Mozambique's gold deposits for as long as the Portuguese were in power, but when they left the country in 1975, they left it in chaos.

Mozambique initially became socialist and then slid into a civil war that would drag on for 16 years -- with the active encouragement of apartheid South Africa. Gold production practically came to a standstill during this period. As peace returned to the country, so did the prospectors. Now that the price of gold has skyrocketed, a frenzied mood has descended on the region lining the Revue River.

Despite this apparent chaos, a carefully devised system is in place in the mountains. The land belongs to Mozambicans who, until recently, grew bananas, corn and mango trees here, and have since signed long-term leases with the government. Since the gold rush began, the landowners have been subdividing their land into claims. In return for being allowed to dig to their hearts' content, the claimholders must turn over a share of any gold they unearth to the landowners.

Law of the Jungle

Lawlessness and naked violence prevail along the Revue River. Troublemakers are driven out. Sometimes policemen or soldiers raid the camps, beating the inhabitants and demanding their share.

Alec Pot's partner, Widson Muchehuwa, is bent over with pain. He was recently roughed up during one of these raids. His tormentors screamed that he brought bad luck and should go back to Zimbabwe -- otherwise, they said, they would kill him.

The hunt for gold is, of course, illegal. In theory, the precious metal belongs to the Mozambican government. But the police and military are apparently unable to control the gold rush. "We cannot stop the search for gold with force," Raimundo Diomba, the governor of Manica Province, says resignedly. "After all, these people have no other source of income, and they have to feed their families."

To complicate matters, members of the Shona tribe live on both sides of the border. They speak the same language and share family ties. All that separates them is a border that was once drawn arbitrarily by colonial powers.

A lively business has developed around the gold fields. The prospectors sell whatever they find to Mozambican dealers for the equivalent of about $20 (€13) per gram. The dealers, in turn, collect $27 (€17) in Manica, only 15 kilometers (9 miles) away. The buyers in Manica are Lebanese, Israelis and Europeans -- taciturn individuals who spend their evenings hanging about the city's dimly lit hotel bars, where they do their business.

They export the still slightly soiled gold to other countries, a practice that is also illegal. It eventually ends up in the major markets in London, New York and Zurich: shiny, refined and expensive.

"Business is going very well," says Armando Mouzinho, a dealer, "because the gold price is so high." Mouzinho has thick bundles of cash stuck into his waistband.

When gold prices rise in London, business booms in the foothills of the Chimanimani Mountains.

Prostitutes and Gin

Sylvia Madzikanda, a trader who came here from Zimbabwe three weeks ago, also benefits from the high gold price. She commutes back and forth between Manica and the prospectors' camps, selling bread and corn. She also does a lively trade in a locally distilled rotgut called "Buffalo Dry Gin" and Mozambican beer.

Prostitutes are brought in from Zimbabwe by the truckload every Thursday, because mining is prohibited on Fridays. Sylvia Madzikanda also cashes in on those days.

It is a self-contained world with its own laws, a world that the state ignores for as long as possible. But the Mozambican authorities have mounting reservations about the illegal mining. Because the gold-bearing earth is washed in the rivers, causing them to silt up, drinking water is already becoming scarce in the region.

The barren, pockmarked landscapes that have developed in the Chimanimani Mountains also pose problems. The prospectors sometimes dig shafts that are 10 to 20 meters (33 to 66 feet) deep and are connected by an elaborate tunnel system. Once a mine has been exploited it is simply left open. This leads to recurring mudslides during the rainy season, sometimes burying prospectors. Others freeze to death in the mountains, where temperatures can drop to below freezing at night.

To add to these hardships, violence escalates almost every evening in the camps of the desperados. One camp has become so notorious for the regularity of its bloody quarrels that it has acquired the sinister nickname "Burundi." No one knows how many lives this lunacy has claimed, but the death toll likely runs into the dozens.

A Few Crumbs of Gold Dust

It has been another unlucky day for Alec Pot and his three friends. They glance enviously at a neighboring pit, where a few mud-covered men rejoice over a few crumbs of gold dust. It probably amounts to about a gram, which they can turn into cash when the dealer shows up the next day.

They will have to divide their $20 (€13) into five parts: the four miners each get their share as does the Mozambican owner, who occasionally stops by to make sure that no one walks off with anything without paying him his cut first.

In the end, the men will have earned $4 apiece -- a good day for the prospectors, who will now be able to afford a few bottles of gin and a prostitute on the weekend.

Meanwhile, Alec Pot continues to go hungry. He hasn't eaten any meat in months. His emaciated body is susceptible to disease. There is a rumor that cholera has broken out a few kilometers downriver. Pot doesn't know what will happen next.

At the moment, he doesn't even have enough money for the trip home to the Zimbabwean capital Harare. Besides, how can he explain his failure to his family? "They expect me to bring something home," says Pot, gazing over at the mountains that form the border with Zimbabwe. "They're hungry."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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