Reflections on Gender and Fieldwork in Artisanal Mining in East Africa

Published: 25/08/2015

Posted by on Jul 20, 2015 in Africa, International Development.

From June 29th to July 3rd I participated in a training workshop in Kampala, Uganda, that was organized by Carleton University’s Institute of African Studies; Partnership Africa Canada, a Canadian NGO; and DRASPAC, a Ugandan research institute. The workshop was a key part of an overarching project bringing together partners in a number of different countries, under the heading of two different projects to research and better understand women’s different roles and positioning in the artisanal mining sectors in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC.

The purpose of the workshop was to provide training on a range of areas for the research teams in the different countries and the locally-based “gender focal points”, including on key issues such as gender, ethics, methodology, and sampling. Artisanal mining is characterized by great variation and is often closer to small-scale mining. Generally, it is distinguishable from large-scale mining by its comparatively lesser use of technology, its often rudimentary nature, and the fact that there are few barriers to entry.

It is also frequently and popularly associated with a range of problems such as mercury usage, child labour, environmental destruction, and high levels of risk for miners who go into the pit – but once again, this varies from site to site.

As we wrapped up our workshop for the research project on women and artisanal mining, I thought a lot about “voice” – what it is and who has it. During the workshop, the participants were asked to participate in an exercise. The facilitator asked who, in school, had been the type of person to always speak up in class. A few people – not many – raised their hands. She then instructed the people who had put up their hands to remain silent throughout that particular session. The objective of the exercise – though it was subtle rather than explicit – was to lead the participants to reflect on what it means to have a voice and to think about those who are voiceless.

The next day, at the closing session of the workshop, one of the organizers referred to the exercise of the day before. She described how difficult it had been for the participants to stay quiet, particularly given how vocal some of them have been and how much they have to contribute. The researchers working on this project, she stressed, have to ensure that they hear a variety of voices. This includes the voices of those who may have little to no opportunity to be heard on a daily basis – such as women working in artisanal mining, whose varied contributions to the artisanal mining sector have too often been overlooked by researchers and policymakers.

For example, women are often involved in panning for minerals, which is a less lucrative activity than the actual digging. Yet often well-meaning but poorly informed policy efforts targeting women have actually made it harder for them to engage in the better-paid parts of mining, by contributing to beliefs about the need to limit women’s involvement in heavy work.

“Voice” is a concept that is more complex than it may seem. For example, another colleague, who was also helping to run the workshop and who knows the artisanal mining industry in Uganda very well, described to me how she’s seen elderly men working in the artisanal mines, crushing ore, having lost family members to HIV/AIDS as well as their farms and possessions due to poverty. They are men – a privileged group in the stratified society of artisanal mining – but they have little voice for all that. Some men and women who possess capital and provide credit for artisanal mining investments can do very well in this sector, while others – based on their social positioning and opportunity – will struggle even to survive.

The determination to survive and to feed their families, and the strength of those who are at the bottom of the chain, is one of the most moving things I can think of. There are many people who would break, and not bend, in these circumstances.

Yet it seems to me that voice can be exercised differently in different situations. A woman may have voice within her family but not within the economic order within which she operates in artisanal mining. People are many things and they play many different roles. Women and men who mine artisanally navigate a complex web of relationships, skills, authority structures, permissions, and geographical challenges. They may in some cases have limited voice, but a great many assets – particularly intangible ones – to offer.

No continent, country, or community can be reduced to a simple narrative of voice and voicelessness. How different people interact in sectors like artisanal mining – and why some people are able to do well, and some barely to scrape by – helps us understand how ordinary people live in the most challenging of circumstances. After the workshop, we headed to Kenya to see how these political, social, and economic dynamics play out in practice – particularly for women – in the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sites around Migori Town in western Kenya.

Stay tuned for Sarah’s next dispatch from Kenya…

Sarah Katz-Lavigne is entering her third year as a PhD candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. Sarah’s research focuses on large-scale mining and property rights enforcement in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Sarah is also a research assistant at Carleton’s Institute of African Studies. She is currently conducting research in Migori, Kenya, on gender dynamics in artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

Featured Photo Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

See it online