Xmas for Small Miners is Just Like Any Other Day

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By Surihe Gaomas UIS Sweat drips from his brow. He hacks his small chisel and hammer into the hard rock. As the midday sun scorches him, more sweat stings his brow. He wipes it away with his hard-textured, cracked hands and continues hitting the stone relentlessly. “This is my survival,” said the man whose dry, parched lips clearly showed that he’s been without water for almost two days. For the past ten years, digging out tourmaline semi-precious stones from the dry mountains around Uis, has been the harsh way of life for 40-year-old Ephraim Swartbooi. At Gobobos, some 70 kilometres west of Uis in the Erongo region, Swartbooi and 50-odd small miners dig out rocks and semi-precious stones for their survival. Gobobos is the name of this place. The name comes from the sound of the stones as they are dug out from the mountainous terrace. Quite remarkably, it is also called the “Place Without Water,” electricity or even houses. There are just rocks, mountains, and plastic sheets as shelter for the night. Even though the festive season is here, for these small miners there won’t be any celebrating. Hitting rocks deep in the mountains is their only way of life. They’re a group of men entirely dependent on the rocks they mine in that area on the road to Brandberg West. From listening to their stories, one gathers that life for them is not a bed of roses. “It takes a long time to find a good stone. If you’re lucky – you’ll find one in a day, but on other days you can dig big holes for a long time before you get anything. It’s hard labour, and you have to sweat for it,” added Peter !Oaemse who was standing in a four-metre-deep hole with just sand and rocks around him. He looked desolate in that big hole, but didn’t seem to mind being swallowed by the size of it either. All that’s on his mind is to find that crystal-like tourmaline stone, which he can go and sell in the nearest town the following day. These range from the Amadas Finster stone, the Smokey or the well-known Quartz stone. Situated in the middle of nowhere in the desert, the small miners find it an uphill battle to even get a clean drop of water for their own survival. Every day seems much tougher to endure. “Look at this, my dear. Is this what you call water?” asked Dade Kamendu, holding a mug of muckish-brown and rather foul-smelling water. One could even see flies settling on the rim of the mug. “This is the water we have to collect eight kilometres from here by foot. Birds, insects and small animals spoil in that waterhole and we have no choice but to drink it,” he added, placing the mug on the pile of stones around his makeshift plastic shack. About five men are said to have died here from thirst. There is no vehicle to take sick people to Uis, some 70 kilometres away. “What can we do! People have forgotten about us and we are struggling to survive on these rocks,” added another concerned small miner. As poor labourers, bringing a 15ÃÆ’Æ‘ÀÃ…ÃÆ”šÃ‚ 000-litre drum of water to their place is a costly exercise, and they were all too eager to grab any water they could get from tourists who visited their place that day. “Our biggest problem is water; then there’s no clinic; and thirdly, no good buyers for our stones,” noted Peter, climbing out of his man-made hole. He is covered in dust and has severely chapped hands that feel like a brick. “Look at my hands. I feel shy even to shake your hand and, oh my goodness, I smell bad too,” said the man lifting his sweaty arms to allow some air to cool his armpits. The miners of Gobobos feel that government has neglected them despite their cries for help regarding water, a proper clinic and possible electricity. By four o clock in the afternoon, the harsh sunrays begin to soften up and the small miners start igniting their fires as they continue with their tales of hardship. “We were promised development and training, but to this day nothing. Some of us come from as far away as the north to make a living here and we have not even seen our wives and children for a very long time. Why are we thrown away by government?” asked Dade Kamendu, cooking some pap (porridge) on the fire. The men were also disgruntled over the fact that they are short-changed for their hard work. “Sometimes buyers come and buy our stones for N$200, but then they go and make a much bigger profit of N$10ÃÆ’Æ‘ÀÃ…ÃÆ”šÃ‚ 000 in the curio shops for tourists,” added another. It turns out that small miners want to sell the raw materials to a processor at a price, after which they go back to the mining pits for further prospecting. Presently, the miners have to look for a buyer, and that task consumes most of their time. They also sell their products at a price that does not match input. That is why training is of vital importance. Well, for now, life for the small miners of Gobobos goes on without any positive change, and this festive season surely will be one of more digging and sweating for survival.