By Alick Ponje:
It is over a year since he lost his younger brother in an unregulated mine in a Mozambican village just across Mwanza Border, but Besil Elias still shudders with remorse every time he imagines the circumstances that led to the supple life’s end.
Images of blood and death, his brother gasping for breath under a mound of earth and rocks, haunt him whenever he gazes at the deceased’s photographs.
“I curse the day he went to Mozambique. Above all, I curse the poverty that drove him there,” Elias, 38, says wretchedly.
Once in a while, he forces himself to seek solace in the conviction that his brother’s death was prearranged by providence and that no human being could have delayed it.
But even that thought does not last long.
“My brother, MacPherson, had a big dream which was nipped in the bud. He went to Mozambique to work in the mines so that he could earn some money for processing a driving licence. He came back home in a coffin,” Elias laments.
At the time of the interview, in the western border district’s Chiwembu Village, the unemployed man, who relies on piece works and small-scale agriculture, failed to hold his tears back.
Sitting on a mud veranda of an old grass-thatched house, Elias says events of one of the saddest days of his life come alive every moment he hears of a funeral elsewhere.
“It was on my sister’s funeral when I received a message that McPherson had died in Mozambique. A mine’s wall had collapsed on him and that is how his life ended,” he said.
The tragedy refreshed his memory about many other young men and children that have died in the unfettered mines which mostly attract school leavers and dropouts seeking to make a living amid grating levels of poverty.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that more than five million people die each year as a result or injuries, accounting for nine percent of deaths globally. Deaths occasioned by collapsed mines make part of the statistics.
Muhammad Irfan Khan of International Islamic University, Islamabad, says people in developing countries are exposed to more than 80 percent of global occupational hazards.
“These hazards are associated with risks that are likely to cause diseases, injuries, even as much as fatalities to workers. The concept of occupational hazard and risk is universal but mitigation to keep these risks as low as realistically possible is different…,” Khan notes in his journal entry on ‘Issues, opportunities and challenges in developing nations’.
He further argues that developing countries do not take safety seriously or have insufficient legislation to minimise these risks.
“One problem with developing nations is bad data keeping. Poor data keeping culture makes the extent of the effects of the hazards hard to measure,” he says.
In Malawi, in the past five years, at least 10 people have been killed while dozens have been injured in illegal mining activities which have continued to thrive without any intervention from authorities.
It is only recently when government officials seem to have woken up to the hazards that the illegal mines continue to pose on the lives of those that work there.
And Elias wishes government developed particular interest in protecting young men and women who sneak out of the country to work in dangerous illegal mines where some of them end up being killed.
“When my brother got killed in a mine in Mozambique, the owner of the mine brought his body home. This means these people can be tracked down, especially through coordination between Malawi and Mozambique,” he says.
However, his wishes could just be in vain as other stakeholders have voiced their concerns on the dangers that Malawians who seek livelihoods in Mozambican mines face with authorities not acting.
Labour Commissioner in the Ministry of Labour, Youth, Sports and Manpower Development, Hlalerwayo Nyangulu, argues that if young people who travel to Mozambique to work in places like mines followed legal channels, that country would easily protect them using its legal frameworks.
“These are illegal activities. So the first thing we have to do is sensitise our people to the dangers of going to work in an illegal mine which they also don’t know anything about,” Nyangulu says.
But with high levels of poverty in their homes, most young people seem to still look up to anything that can bring them money irrespective of related risks.
Noel Msiska, Executive Director of Association of Progressive Women, an organisation that advances women’s and children’s rights, bewails the deception that young people get trapped in in search of ways of making a living.
“Most of them drop out of school and go to Mozambique where they face many challenges. Children are forced to do some very disturbing jobs like quarrying and ferrying stones for construction projects,” Msiska says.
He adds that sometimes men from Mozambique delude women who have children into marriage with the aim of using the children in activities like mining.
“There was a case where a man from Mozambique married a woman who had three children. In less than a year, the man divorced the woman but held on to the children. It had to take the intervention of traditional leaders from both Malawi and Mozambique for him to release the children,” he says.
Lucy Chumbu, 27, corroborates such sentiments, saying her elder sister had a similar experience with her 12-year-old son after marrying a Mozambican man.
Chumbu states: “The man later forced the son to work in a mine which collapsed one day. He was injured and spent a few days in hospital before dying.”