Despite the Covid-19-induced lockdown to curb the spread of the global contagion, Mukaradzi, which is about 10km to the south-east of Mt Darwin centre in Mashonaland Central Province, is a hive of activity with multitudes of people seeking to hit it big through gold panning, and selling whatever can be sold.
Men, women and children are camped in the bowels and all other openings of Mukaradzi — the home of riches — where virtue and vice shake hands laden with gold dust. Sex and drugs, including the brain-numbing crystal meth, commonly known as mutoriro or guka makafela, are commodities in vogue, openly sold and bought like samoosas.
Notwithstanding the surging Covid-19 positive cases in the province, parts of which have since been declared hotspots in the wake of a deadly third wave, from dawn to dusk, and dawn again, the tale of riches implanted in the belly of the earth reels out non-stop.
It has been unwinding since gold-rich deposits were discovered along Mukaradzi River and its environs in the 1980s.
Nothing has changed, except that a new menace has joined the fray to haunt Mankind — the new coronavirus. Nonetheless, at Mukaradzi capitulating to such a pandemic may as well be just one of such issues not to be allowed to water down hope — the fear of the unknown.
No face masks, no sanitisation, no social distancing, no nothing! Practically, no lockdown.
Only one person, a teenage girl, is wearing a face mask. She is donning a blue sweater, navy blue jeans and black slip-ons. She is selling braiding material. She is probably new.
The scene is the confluence of Mukaradzi and Chipokoteke rivers, with the Pfura mountain range a gaze to the south-west, and dazzling rock domes in either direction that takes the eye’s fancy, where a storyteller’s cache of dreams lies.
Refusing to remain harnessed, the story unhooks itself from the foot of Mt Pfura to spread itself on the riverbed and banks of the once roaring Mukaradzi River, in Chief Matope’s domain of Chesa, now only an expanse of sand, pits, hovels and whatnot.
The Mukaradzi community is a mixed lot of people from different corners of Zimbabwe. Some leave for their families on a weekly basis, particularly on Thursdays or Fridays, since as per tradition, Friday is not a working day here.
Others from far afield, leave after a month or two to briefly join their families before trekking back. Those from surrounding villages walk here daily, and scores of others commute from Mt Darwin centre everyday using unregistered pirate taxis that ply the lucrative route. Others drive here.
In response to such wanton disregard of health protocols, the provincial development coordinator Mr Timothy Maregere breathes fire, pointing out that complacency is intolerable as the fight against the pandemic is a collective one.
“Although I have not been to Mukaradzi personally, awareness campaigns have been intensified targeting areas with limited access to social, electronic and print media, including mining areas. There should be no room for complacency in the fight against Covid-19,” he says.
Mr Maregere says he would engage the Police, so that they get on the ground, and continue to strictly monitor movement of people in the province, particularly to and from mining areas, like Mukaradzi, and enforce compliance.
But will the inhabitants of this area take heed?
The story on the ground points elsewhere.
It is a story recalcitrant in humming sounds of tens of hammer mills, generators, compressors and pumps issuing out in a cacophony, as iron crushes stone to paste in a mixture of water, ore and gold to complement the discordant music of both soul and machine.
The combination din reverberates in the vicinity as the ground trembles under the weight of dreams — hundreds, nay thousands of dreams, rising above the noise; attempting to drown it all, even.
It is a Sunday late morning and the wintry July sunshine appears to have borrowed arsenal from summer days to unleash a scorcher on the inhabitants of this area, whom The Herald crew has decided to pay a visit.
“Here everyone has an equal chance to strike gold. What is only required is trust and the will of the ancestors; without that all the toil comes to naught.
“With trust, everyone wins: owners of claims, artisanal miners, those hiring out equipment, the Mt Darwin council, the country; you name it.
“All those sleek cars you see around are products of the largesse of the soil and trust,” says Bonga, The Herald crew’s volunteer tour guide for the day.
Known by his totemic symbol, the civet cat, Bonga, a former secondary school teacher, has been here since 2001; and is among throngs of fortune hunters seeking hope from Mukaradzi’s womb.
Bonga and his brothers, one of whom has been around the gold rich gorge since 1997 and runs hammer mills, are respected here. Everyone cheerfully greets him, and he stops every now and then for a friendly chat.
On the banks, on the riverbed, up the surrounding rock domes, the story remains the same: gold.
Because the riverbed is every man’s land, where none holds claim, hordes of people have set base along it; artisanal miners, gold buyers, informal traders, vendors, barbers, hairdressers and sex workers.
Blaring sounds competing to be music escape from makeshift beerhalls, tuck-shops, salons, restaurants and anything that may be simulated. Wooden, plastics, cardboard, grass, canvas, pole and mud dwellings are scattered everywhere.
The same set-up replicates itself with permanent modifications elsewhere in these spaces.
Lorries, tractors, kombis and other small vehicles are also parked along the riverside and bed.
One wonders how they got here.
Befittingly, this bustling space is known as Musina (a busy town to the north of the Limpopo Province of South Africa).
Further down, to the east, are clusters of banana plants, and beyond that is another patch known as Mahuswa. There is a well-trodden path that branches out from the river from this end to cut through some hillocks to the right.
To the west are large heaps of crushed and partially processed ore. That is where gold cyanidation plants are located. They belong to two of the registered miners here. A beautiful shopping space is also taking shape just before the plants situated on either side of the gravel road at whose head is a well-constructed homestead.
Some of the spaces that make up the Mukaradzi area, and derived from registered miners, are Wasu and Sobby.
To the south-west in the direction of Mt Pfura, and up Chipokoteke River, scores of women and children are strewn on the bed in groups with their buckets lined up, engaged in banter.
They are searching for water trickling out from the shallow wells on the flanks of the banks. It takes forever to fill up a single bucket.
Some are spreading out their washing to dry on the grass and tree branches canopying the riverside, and some are enjoying a meal of bread and avocados as they await their turn.
It is only about three months after a good rainy season that has seen major dams and rivers countrywide bursting their banks, yet Chipokoteke, which is supposed to offload her burdens into Mukaradzi, has long since given up on flowing due to heavy siltation.
Mukaradzi, a tributary to Mazowe River, has also sacrificed her flow to sustain the thousands of dreams that weigh down on her bed, flooding it.
Both rivers are dry. It is eye splitting to tell the banks from the riverbed as everything is now a vast span of sand, shafts and rubble.
Another rivulet that feeds into Mukaradzi from the north, close to where unregistered pirate taxis load and offload passengers, is dry too. Further north, another stream, Tigere, has also lost the battle, and now awaits another good rainy season to sluice through the barricades one more time.
Each season, when the rains come, however, Mukaradzi becomes a battlefield, teeming with alluvial miners, making the battle on the surface as enervating as that underground.
With the pits and shafts having to fill up first, and the mining equipment competing for pumping trophies, the once-upon-a-time prolific river, soon loses its flow, and subsequently dries up.
Most of the artisanal miners around here believe in the spirituality linked to the land and all that lay underneath. They do not take to people leering down their pits, particularly strangers.
“Chief Matope often comes here to be apprised on goings-on. It is forbidden to work on a Friday since it is a sacred day (chisi), and the miners here observe that. Those who defy that tradition often invite ill-luck on themselves,” Bonga articulates.
A product of hasty workmanship, a shopping ‘mall’ under brick and corrugated iron sheets, overlooks the river escapement from the northwest, with different merchandise on display. In the middle are canteens, followed by an entertainment area; also under brick and corrugated iron sheets.
Each bar has a shed, snooker table and a music system, but there are no chairs or benches for patrons.
It is difficult to pick which tune to skank to from the many sounds that assault one’s ears from all angles. Nonetheless, one has to dance all the same.
Clad in mining gear; work suits, overalls with the upper part rolled down and strung around the waist, thirsty T-shirts and gumboots to boot, with torches strapped around their heads, fortune seekers of all ages come and leave in their gangs. They strut towards the river in supposition, or in the opposite direction, for the hills.
Looking around, one sees faces that are masks of deeper travail. There are stories that lie untold deep in the heart, but they reflect in the eyes. The eyes are the culprits. They cannot hide the journeys the soul and body have endured.
“Everyone is represented here; from pupils and teachers to engineers, and other professionals,” Bonga says.
Jimmy MaCrook, the smooth talker, the one who can sell you your totem, if you are not careful, frequents Mukaradzi too.
Chomi is here also, stoned as ever. He doesn’t seem to remember his name. But the community gazette has it that he once hit it big.
Now frail and sick somewhere in the head, he has become a baggard; parodying all the worries of the world in his drunken stupor.
The lockdown-induced hiatus has seen more schoolchildren taking the voyage in pursuit of gold.
“Because of the attraction of abundant greenbacks here, parents from surrounding villages such as Yemurai and Chiunye, send their children, particularly girls to sell their wares.
“No sooner do they set foot on Mukaradzi than they are lured by the glitter of gold. It is not uncommon for artisanal miners to take advantage of them, since they have to walk long distances from and to on a daily basis,” weighs in 25-year-old Prince Dzingirai.
Boys are also not spared by the allure of gold, and the sweet-talking ladies of fortune unashamedly parading their wares.
One sees them all here; Chipo, of the long eyelashes and cascading curves, striding with the fluidity and grace of a Geisha; the 14-year-old Rumbidzayi, who touches your heart with her face telling stories of woe and her body baring the tale of early toil; and Clotilda; yellow bone Clotie, of the dreamy eyes that tell stories of journeys in the dark recesses of life.
And Gilda, of the musical voice with a tinge of iron, that keeps ringing in your ears long after she stops speaking.
“In no time the boys will be ‘catching’,” reveals Dzingirai.
And school is soon abandoned.
Even though dreams may be realised and livelihoods sustained through the benevolence of Mukaradzi’s womb, the damage to the landscape is telling.
According to the Environmental Management Agency, miners should operate within the provisions set out in their licences to protect the land. They should respect regulations, especially on use of machinery, and erecting structures.
“There is a stipulated number of hammer mills, boring mills, compressors, pumps and generators to be used per claim to ensure that the land is not degraded,” says EMA spokesperson for Mashonaland Central Province Mr Maxwell Mupotsa.
He says the Agency is seized with the matter at Mukaradzi as there have been boundary encroachment disputes, some of which spilled into the courts.
“There are seven registered companies in the Mukaradzi area, and the rest are unregistered, and therefore, should be moved. We will engage the police in that regard.
“Of course, there may be issues to do with working partnerships with artisanal miners, which the registered miners should clarify.”
There are ongoing operations in artisanal mining areas around the province, including Mukaradzi, which EMA carries out in collaboration with the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development, Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Resettlement and the Police to ensure compliance to regulations, Mr Mupotsa says.
There are an estimated 500 000 to 1,5 million artisanal miners in Zimbabwe with only 16 percent of them registered.
In spite of efforts by authorities to clear the dance floor in the past, the music blasts on, as the sun refuses to eclipse the ever flowing, though dry confluence.