Panning: A way of life (and death)

Panners carry a metal coffin bearing the body of one of their colleagues who died on a panning expedition at Lowdale Farm last month

Panners carry a metal coffin bearing the body of one of their colleagues who died on a panning expedition at Lowdale Farm last month

Freeman Razemba Crime Reporter
For many young Zimbabwean illegal gold panners, life is all about striking gold. The work is not only tough, but risky. The joy of finding the gold is usually satisfying although short lived.

One enjoys it while it lasts.

Their continued presence is just evidence that illegal gold mining is a danger many are willing to take.

Illegal miners understand the risks that come with their trade yet they return to work under the same bad conditions the following day, and the day after then the next.

It’s a familiar story that once underground, one might not return to see the light of day again.

Yet, this risky lifestyle has hardened them.

They know too well that they can be trapped underground, can die of hunger, or even be murdered for gold, yet they seem unmoved.

But sometimes, it is hard to elude death.

It recently knocked on the doors of mining community of Lowdale Farm in Mazowe, Mashonaland Central Province, when three illegal gold panners died after being trapped underground.

An unsecure shaft collapsed on them as they mined for gold underneath.

Other illegal gold miners recounted living in the fast lane.

On the afternoon of Friday January 16, three gold panners, who are part of 13-member group that would illegally “mine” gold ore were trapped in an 8-metre shaft.

Aaron Musakambeva, Nickson Kapangura and David Kanyati – all from Banket – died in the accident.

Kanyati’s body was retrieved the following Sunday while Kapangura’s was retrieved a day later.

The trio was trapped when the ground gave way following heavy rains.

However, as the panners assisted police and officials from the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development to recover Musakambeva’s remains, the spirit of defiance continued.

Many carried on with their illegal activities as if nothing had happened.

One of the panners who has operated in the area for a long time is Brighton Smart, also known as Pombi.

He is believed to be the ringleader and says there are riches in the shaft.

Their clique is divided into groups of three, he explains, and they take turns to search for gold at the shaft.

“We would give each other six hours per day in the mine shaft. If one group gets any gold they will sell it and share the proceeds among themselves,” he said.

Pombi said they would pocket US$300 to US$400 each per month from their work.

They sold their gold to buyers who normally frequent the area.

However, the money is spent on an “easy-come-easy-go” style.

“When we are enjoying ourselves, we do so to the fullest because we can always come back to the fields (mine shaft),” Smart said.

Even prostitutes have found a “home” at Lowdale Farm.

Most of these women travel from various parts of the country and they have since built shacks on the farm.

It is these activities that have also broken some of the panners’ families.

Kanyati’s uncle, Mr Cosmas Chisare, confirmed this sad development.

“David had a wife and two children at Rukoba Farm in Banket.

“They have a habit of marrying and divorcing, then marrying again and divorcing.

“Marriages are breaking up as a result of men staying far away from their families.

“The guys really enjoyed themselves, especially the three deceased men, ” he said.

Mr Chisare was, however, worried that the three did not plan for their future.

He said the money they got was quickly spent.

Smart, a father of five with four different women, said once they sold gold, they would spent $100 on groceries for their families while the rest was for the proverbial “wine, women and song”.

“We would normally go to areas in Hatcliffe, Domboshava and the city centre. No one can match our spending patterns or getting prostitutes. Sometimes we would sleep with three prostitutes per day.

“If a prostitute charges $5 for short time, we give her $10 or $20,” he said.

A gram of gold sells for $25 and in most cases the illegal gold panners only get about three to five grammes a week or fortnight.

Beer and various banned substances like dagga are readily available at some of the mine shafts.

Most of these illegal gold panners work while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

One of the panners who preferred anonymity said the dangers associated with their work forced them spend their money the moment they get it.

“This is the reason why I spend all my money because you really do not know what tomorrow holds.

“Whoever thought that these three would die just like that? Our activities are a risk.”

In some parts of Zimbabwe, especially Kwekwe, panners are known to drive expensive cars.

Although gold panners are identified with tattered overalls in some mining towns they have a penchant for buying expensive clothes.

Such is their life, which however worries authorities.

Chief police spokesperson Senior Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba recently urged Zimbabweans to desist from such activities as they risked their lives.

“They should also regularise their operations and desist from conducting unlawful operations,” she said.

Snr Asst Comm Charamba warned illegal gold panners that they faced arrest.

Police addressed some of the gold panners urging them to desist from such dangerous activities.

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