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Marks of horror

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Deep and long trenches which are the remnants of mining activities that once took place—and might return another day—at Kanyika in Senior Chief Mabilabo in Mzimba are not the only horrifying things to those in the mine’s marked zone.

There are deep marks of horror which transcend physical feelings and that is where the biggest trouble seems to lie.

Picture this: government officials visit your area and inform you that some precious item has been detected and that a mining company would like to extract it.

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Like is often the case with such activities, particularly where the minerals being sought are radioactive, you are told to move to distant areas. With everything sufficiently taken care of, the bustle would not hurt much.

Of course, memories will be disturbed; and a new process of acclimatising to a new area will have to be endured.

Five years after you were told to move but you could not because you were never given anything to facilitate the process, you are told to stay and let life flow like it used to before the mining activities.

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The story of residents of Kanyika is a perfect template of how mining—regulated with a weak legal framework or left unregulated altogether—can ruin lives of communities concerned.

At 81, Dryson Chirwa, of Kawale George Kalua Village, was supposed to enjoy moments of peace of mind, devoid of any fear.

But now, he and his brother’s son, Owen are haunted every night by the X marks pasted on the walls of their houses. They are marks of horror; marks which remind them every night that their stay in their houses could be temporary.

“Every night is a night of horror,” laments Owen as his uncle sitting beside him on a windblown earth veranda of a falling-apart house nods in agreement. “Imagine sleeping in a house with marks on its walls which show that it will be destroyed any time.”

Such is the situation people of Kanyika have been forced to experience for the past five years.

When Global Metals and Mining came to extract niobium, communities in the marked zone were told not to undertake any development activities—literally nothing.

They were supposed to be sufficiently compensated and move elsewhere to build new houses, open few crop fields and make new friends.

“But we were never given anything. They told us to stop building houses; to stop planting trees, to stop growing crops that would take a considerable amount of time to mature. Life almost came to a standstill.

“We have to grow our crops in rented pieces of land very far away. What used to be our crop fields are no longer giving us the good yields which they used to. We now live in shacks even when we had plans to build better houses. But we were told we would move and that we would be given money,” Owen whinges helplessly.

His uncle, who mostly relies on farming, has had his life disturbed for the past five years and the pain seems far from being over.

Shackled by the manacles of poverty, hunger bites him even harder. His fertile piece of land which used to give him a good harvest has now sulked. He does not know why but still tries to advance a theory which geologists may uphold scientifically.

“There is something with the mining that has resulted in my piece of land becoming barren. Farming is now difficult and hunger is here to stay,” Dryson says, his raspy voice breaking before trailing off to nothing.

Communities within and around the mine’s marked zone agree that mining has brought them untold suffering which time itself may not sufficiently heal.

Apart from hunger and fear of the mining company’s return, the quality and status of their water has also been compromised. It is usually there for a short time due to holes which were drilled which swallow it.

Even if it is there, it is contaminated and results in strange sicknesses.

And in a society where women still shoulder the responsibility of fetching water and where functioning water taps are like gold dust, the mining activities have serious gender implications.

Forty-two-year-old Monica Moyo of Shadreck Mphaka Village, which is within the mine, attests to this: “We have to cover more than five kilometres to fetch water. The wells no longer stay for a long time. The water itself is contaminated.”

Like the rest of Kanyika residents, she rues the gone days when life was so basic and natural with no frills. It was a moment which they are sure will never be retained.

“When they started collecting what they called samples, they were draining contaminated water into wells; they were doing that even in graveyards and crop fields. A lot of people caught strange coughs. They disturbed our lives and it was only proper that they should compensate us,” Moyo opines.

But her agony is mild compared with that of Joanna Banda who should be justified, in any case, to curse the day the miners first came to Kanyika.

She was told to halt all development projects. Her dilapidated grass-thatched house bears witness.

The mining company destroyed her field of cassava from where she could make an average of K60,000 which she says would keep her family going for a couple of months.

To make matters worse, her husband left for Nkhotakota, some K200 kilometres away, because the mining activities put things in disarray and he could not undertake any serious development at his own home.

“He is looking for piecework in Nkhotakota. The marriage is still there because we have children,” 51-year-old Banda says, with some cautious optimism. “Of course, he does not send money but that does not mean we silently divorced.”

In such hopelessness, she has to remain optimistic that what she has lost already is enough and that her husband will return home one day.

Earlier this year, Kanyika communities marched to M’mbelwa District Council to protest against what they called injustices perpetuated by the mining activities.

They were promised that the mistakes would be rectified and that proper procedures of assisting them would be formulated.

Kanyika Mine Native Forum (Kamnaf), a group that links the affected communities with the mining company and other relevant authorities, agrees with those that say they are still living in trepidation because they do not know that will happen next.

“We will continue engaging the company and the government so that the people’s concerns are finally addressed. It has been too long,” Kamnaf chairperson, John Nkhata, says.

The Church and Society Programme of the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia, which also continues to fight for locals that have been adversely affected by mining activities, is worried with the slow pace in addressing their concerns.

Its manager, Paul Mvula, charges that in Mzimba, mining companies have seriously disturbed locals’ livelihoods and that poverty is hitting them hard.

He says: “Life is no longer the same. The people need to have their livelihoods restored because they did not choose to be disturbed. Their farming has been compromised and they are now living in terrible poverty.”

Mvula adds: “Women, children and the elderly are the most affected. It is painful but we hope that things will improve because they now understand that engagements are the way forward in terms of mining governance.”

Mzimba District Commissioner, Thomas Chirwa, admits that the 248 households that were told to halt all developments because they were in the marked zone have suffered severe poverty.

He claims the government decided that they should return to their normal lives because it was not clear when they would be compensated.

“Now Global Metals and Mining came to inform us that they are prepared to resume the mining activities. Compensation will be done for those that were affected. Our only worry is that for those that are going to be affected now, it make take long before they are compensated,” Chirwa admits.

Global Metals and Mining Country Director, Chrispin Ngwena, says at the moment the company is negotiating with the government on the development agreement of the Kanyika Project.

He also claims that the company has never operated a mine in Malawi, despite the damage it has caused to Kanyika locals that have vowed that they will not allow any mining activity to continue taking place in their area unless they are all sufficiently compensated.

The marks of horror that the mining activities—preliminary or otherwise—left continue haunting them and they would rather heal slowly than allow another nightmare to set in.

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