Ruth Butaumocho Gender Editor
Miriam Mbambo (40) wakes up at 3am daily to prepare food for her three school-going children before she leaves for work at the nearby Pickstone Mine in Chegutu.
An hour later, donning a worn-out pair of trousers paired with a black T-shirt, she begins her journey of two kilometres uphill to the mine, where she will join several other women to search for gold.
Sweating profusely from the long walk up the mountain, Miriam arrives in time to see her colleagues getting buckets and already going uphill to fetch water for use by the gold panners, who are already using the makeshift “cranes” to go underground.
She gazes in awe and admiration as the last makorokoza gets into the last makeshift conveyor belt and slides slowly underground.
Although she has been patronising the gold mining area of Pickstone, 30 kilometres outside Chegutu, for more than five years, Miriam knows her dream of becoming a miner will remain as such – a dream – because women are not allowed to go underground.
“There are no women miners here or anywhere. Not in the actual mining of gold. “Women are not allowed to go underground, it’s taboo,” she volunteered the information, sensing my unannounced inquisitiveness on why women were milling around open pits instead of joining the men underground.
Miriam added that while mining is deemed to be hard and arduous, making it less amenable to women, cultural factors were actually inhibiting women from working underground as miners. “There are a lot of long-held superstitions surrounding women in mining. “It is said that allowing women to work underground will bring death, disaster and a series of misfortunes to everyone working in that mine. “Hanzi bhande rinokata, vakadzi vakapinda mumigodhi,” (The gold belt will immediately disappear, once women are engaged in mining operations),” she said.
Even male miners strongly hold to these notions, making it impossible for women to even weigh their options of going underground to mine.
Mr Ken Chinhondo, from Sanyati, who has been a miner for eight years at different mining concerns around Zimbabwe, said it was still considered taboo to allow women to work underground. “Women are not allowed to work underground as miners because it is believed they will bring a lot of misfortunes to the men they would be working with. “And save for a few, the majority of women that I have worked with have no qualms with it and they are happy to do other menial jobs around, instead of defying the norm,” he said. Mr Chinhondo, currently domiciled at Pickstone Mine, said apart from cultural dictates that discourage women’s participation in mining, the work was arduous, physically taxing and very risky. “Mining is one area that women cannot lobby for gender equality. It is not their area, the spirit mediums do not allow it and they simply will not make it,” warned Mr Chinhondo.
Sadly, Zimbabwean mining communities, women included, have since epitomised these stereotypes, completely shutting the female populace out of the game.
And for fear of defying nature, women who work at these mines have dared not challenge the status quo and often find themselves settling for less, for fear of reprisal. Instead of getting cherry pickings and all the riches that are found in mining, they have to rely on the benevolence of male miners, who usually donate a 20-litre bucket of ore to the women as payment for the general errands they undertake.
“Women here work as assistants for the miners. We provide them (makorokoza) with water, food and other accessories in return for a bucket of ore at the end of the day,” said 36-year-old Patience Muperi, gazing down at her calloused, worn-out hands, thick from years of scrapping around for ore, which is hard to come by. Others who fail to get menial jobs end up sweeping off scraps of ore from the ground, which they pile up for days before they can send it for milling.
The situation was the same at most of the informal mining concerns visited that included Gadzema Mine along Chegutu-Chinhoyi Road, small-scale mines around Patchway Mine, Atiner and Kwayedza in Sanyati.
While the benefits may not be much, the majority of the women interviewed who survive on “vending for ore” said they are able to send their children to school, buy food and maintain a stable lifestyle despite the prevailing harsh economic environment. In a good month, the women can make about $300 after going to the mill with donated and scrap ore, while their male counterparts pocket as much as $2 000 over the same period.
Naturally, the women would want more. “We would want to mine and get more ore than we are getting, but it is simply not possible, because it a male-dominated industry,” said Mrs Tandiwe Mututu (40) known as Mbuya Tambaoga, who together with other women, spends the day waiting for scrap ore at Pickstone Mine.
President of the Zimbabwe Women in Mining Ms Evelyn Musharu said her organisation was trying to demystify the involvement of women in mining by encouraging them to apply for their own gold claims so that they can actively participate in mining.
“We do have more than 50 000 female small-scale miners in our database, but the majority of our members are not involved in underground mining. “Those who have been daring enough work in open-cast mining, where the pits are not more than 10 metres deep. But we would want more women to get involved in the actual mining because the benefits are awesome,” said Ms Musharu. She said that it was sad to note that the majority of her members had been relegated to bystanders in an initiative they should be actively involved in.
The mining industry in Zimbabwe contributes about 8 percent to the country’s gross domestic product. Due to the general small-scale nature of mining activities in Zimbabwe, there are an estimated 300 000 informal miners active around the country.