KAMPALA – Katikekile, in Moroto district looks a camp for internally displaced people.
It is a crowded village scattered with temporary structures; a collection of grass-thatched huts with wooden walls or mosquito nets with a few mud-and-wattle structures.
At Katikekile lays units of wide caved-out walls hanging precariously over their creators. From the bottom of these formidable burrows, echoes of crashing rocks are abound, while just adjacent to the dens, there are heaps of soil, only poured after removing Gold.
Although the scene is of more of a deathtrap, hundreds of Karamojong; men unaccompanied easily descend into the pits to get the soil and later bring it out for the women and children to sieve and find some Gold- they mine artisanal to earn a living.
The place is devoid of the basic necessities. There are no pit latrines; heaps of smelly garbage and heaps of soil dot the area and there is no safe drinking water but people come here to struggle to earn a living through artisanal mining.
Although it is a rainy season and many families around the country and busy in their gardens planting artisanal mining is a key source of income for many communities in Karamoja and this has become the main lucrative activity in Karamoja besides cattle rearing that not only brings enough food on the table.
Whereas during this time of Covid 19, the government emphasises social distancing and masking, there is nobody with a mask here and people mingle together closely as though there is no Covid 19.
In Katikekire, dozens of men go down about 15 feet through a risky looking hole have dug for themselves out of the dusty hillside to look for gold every morning.
They disappear for hours deep in the darkness below and then emerge from time to time with a plastic container filled with soils that are bright, slightly reddish yellow or orange.
They then deliver the container to their women and children who put water in the container, scour the water for glistering flakes on empty stomachs.
Some women also burrow deep in the rocks while young girls use local containers filled with water to sieve out Gold from the soils brought from the deep by their fathers.
This Gold will be bought by European, Indian and African agents who are all over the area trying to make a kill out of this area.
In one of the shallow pits, Ms Margaret Auma, 44, is unrelentingly for Gold using her hands and a stick as her four children of school-going age sit around to wait for what their mother and father bring to them.
Although they enrolled under Universal Primary Education, they eventually dropped out to support their mother and father at this Gold mine in Katikekire.
“We are always here by 6am and we only return home at night to prepare supper but sometimes we sleep here,” Ms Auma says,
“We are here seven days a week. We don’t have Sundays or holidays,” she adds. Asked why her children were not attending school, she hastens to say it is a means of increasing the amount of money they make as a household.
“What do you expect us to eat when they all go to school?” she asks.
On average, the family needs the entire week to make one gram of gold from the soils, which is commonly referred to here as a trip.
The one grams of Gold will go for at least Shs50, 000 or a carton of Waragi.
Although mining is their only means of survival, Auma says the physically grueling work is too heavy for them.
She says they suffer from chest and back pains and they can’t dig in their gardens to grow food.
The mood at Katikekire is somber because none of them has made any sale in the last two weeks due to impassable flooded.
“No one comes to buy. Our husbands go down deep, come out, we do the sieving, but the entire business is now stuck,” says Ms Anna Alongole.
Like many in this place of mining, Ms Alongole is a mother of four and has all her children here at Katikekire.
In the neighbouring villages, Lotonyiri and Lamariyo, where gold is also mined, it’s a beehive of activities.
More people have dumped all other activities for the beckoning hills. At the site, gold goes for Shs50, 000 to Shs70, 000 per gram or a carton of Waragi or two jerrycan of the local potent gin ‘Malwa’.
According to a new report; The Mining and Mineral Sector in Karamoja region: Development Opportunities and Constraints, compiled by Ecological Christian Organisation with support from Irish Aid, 90 percent of the miners are women.
But, interestingly, the report says women seem to be yielding far fewer benefits from artisanal and small scale mining than men.
Ms Jennifer Hinton, a small scale mining consultant, says threats to this traditional livelihood have attracted thousands of Karimojong to formal, artisanal mining as a means of survival.
It is estimated that 18,000 people in Karamoja are engaged in artisanal and small scale mining.
The report adds that when production is small, based on seasonal variations in production, each miner is estimated to earn between Shs2,000 to Shs6,000 per day during dry season but can earn up to Shs6,000 to Shs70,000 (or much more) per day in rainy season.
Although some miners say they are yet to realise any impact from mining, Ms Hinton claims that some artisans can earn up to Shs600, 000 to Shs1m.
“Despite comparative high incomes, the culture of savings by miners seems to be pervasively poor,” says the consultant.
She explains that majority, including women, spend their money on buying alcohol sold at sites.
“Consuming alcohol at some sites is a significant concern. It also puts some people at ‘high risk’ of getting HIV/Aids,” Ms Hinton adds.
Mr Simon Nangiro, the chairman of the Karamoja Miners Association argues that it’s not people’s will to take excessive alcohol, but they lack food.
Mr Nangiro says the majority of families in the region can only afford one meal a day.
While findings suggest that both ASM and large scale mining have provided an alternative livelihood that has contributed to peace and security, issues related to land tenure and mining rights -if not addressed –suggests potential for increased conflict risks.
Dr Mary Gorette Kitutu, the minister of Energy and mineral development says within the unique cultural and geo-climatic environment of Karamoja, transforming the minerals sector as a platform for development is far from simple.
“If critical issues related to land tenure and mining rights, particularly for those most marginalised (artisanal miners), protection of environmental integrity and promotion of good governance among others are not worked upon, developing the sector in the region will be difficult,” Dr Kitutu says.
Reports on the ground indicate that many women are barred from fully utilising the region’s resources because they don’t have licenses and they don’t know how to get them.
Karamoja is endowed with enormous natural wealth. It hosts the occurrence of over 50 different economic minerals, including gold, silver, copper, iron, gemstones and limestone and marble among others.
Despite hosting all those minerals, over 1.1 million people endure significant hardship due to factors ranging from extreme climate change variations and food security to environmental degradation and insecurity to deficits in social service and infrastructure, among others.
As a consequence, a significant proportion of Karamojong has been unable to effectively engage in their traditional agro-pastoral livelihood.
Mr Andrew Keem Napaja says although the region has over 50 minerals, local people only know about gold, limestone and marble.
He says people don’t know that they need to acquire different operational licenses like exploration, large scale mining, small-scale mining and artisanal licenses.