One of the world’s largest dredges capsized last week at the site of the world’s largest deposit of Rutile or black sand. The mineral is used to build air and space craft. Rutile or titanium dioxide is also used in surgery such as in heart valves, artificial joints, hip replacement, and colour pigments. It is strong, but light and resists corrosion better than most other metals do, including stainless steel. Many of us are probably learning of these for the first time. Blame it on successive governments who went into the agreements leaving the people ignorant if only to thrive on that ignorance.
While the cause of the accident at the Rutile mines remains unknown, a government official has referred to it as “a big loss” which will reduce by half the export level of the mineral. But some others have celebrated the dragging of the dredge into part-submergence. While mourning the apparent deaths of two miners, Leslie Mboka of Campaign for Just Mining believes it is the best thing to happen to the people of the area. This is a sentiment many indigenes of the chiefdom have expressed to me. They cite the “unfair deal” they say has benefited little if anything, the community people.
The accident brings to the fore the deprived conditions under which mineral-rich areas live; something akin to the proverbial living on the beach and washing your hands with urine. A classic illustration of this travesty is Kono district which everybody knows about. One area few know much about is Tongo Fields, in Kenema district.
Tongo Fields is rich in diamonds, but poor in almost everything else. Tongo at its present state is a scar on the conscience of successive governments, if they have conscience that is. What was a vast field of vegetation some years ago is now a massive stretch of lakes created by pits dug in search of the precious mineral. From Sandeima to Buima, from Kpandebu to Tokpombu, areas have been laid waste. The road leading to the town from either Kono or Kenema is almost impassable. One of the worst I have seen in recent times. This has meant motor bikes are the mainstay of the traffic especially on the Kenema end. It takes about two hours on these bikes leaving passengers climbing up and down on the way with some carrying up to three passengers. And the police see them pass their checkpoints.
“While mansions have been built in Lebanon, Gambia, Mali, Senegal, et al with money from Tongo”, a native of the town lamentably said to me, adding “but here we are in squalor”. In Tongo, the basics are anything but basic.
Even though it neighbours the country’s only functional hydroelectric dam at Dodo which for decades has been supplying towns far away like Bo in another district, Tongo lies in pitch darkness. Tongo, the town which wears the deadly disease Lassa fever belt has what is believed to be the most undrinkable water in the country. Growing up, I remember vividly, they would tell to “go drink Tongo water” or “go to hell!”
Despite this, there is no functional health centre in the town or its outlying villages. A make-believe one I saw is in a private residence with hardly any medication. A civil society activist, Mary Bah says drugs sold in the town are fake, leaving them to pulverise at the slightest squeeze. This, she continues, has meant death sentence for many pregnant women, while those who have cheated “the end” end up giving birth on motor bikes while being taken to the nearest hospital at Panguma or Kenema town.
Tongo with 30,000 inhabitants does not have a senior secondary school. Primary education is said to lack many qualified teachers. Rhetorically asks an anonymous untrained and unqualified teacher “who will blame teachers for not coming to live in a town where poverty is the rule rather than the exception?”
Tongo’s predicament is not new. It’s been like this for years even if it has got worse in the last decade. Artisanal miners say they live in a slave yard and no-one listens to them. This is probably one of the most heartless trades of our time. Apparently hoodwinked by some diamond businessmen, the unsuspecting young men are brought to the mines, mostly from the north, with promises of getting rich overnight in the mines. Mohamed Sheriff, who told me that he had been in the town for seven years and only having visited his home town twice, said it had been the toughest in his life.
In a rainy season such as now, many miners I saw in the town sleep on bare floor crammed in rooms that qualify only as cubicles. Their sponsors fleece them. They give them Le 1,500 (50 US cents) as a daily wage. Some even less. When they are sick, they told me, they are not assured of treatment.
After a hard toil in the sun or rain, and fortune smiles with a diamond, it is bought like it is not bought. For example, almost all of them told me, a Le 1 million gem stone is bought for as cheaply as Le 200,000. Refusal by the diggers to accept the amount means going with the sponsor to sell it elsewhere with the certainty of it being undersold and the amount divided into three with the diggers getting only one-third of the disclosed amount.
People in Tongo, not least the indigenes, are waiting with bated breath for the Le 30 million they say Koidu Holdings Limited has donated for the building of a health centre. A source at the company confirms to me that the amount has been doled out to the traditional authorities. The Lower Bambara Chiefdom Mining Committee chairman James Bockarie Farmar confirmed to me that the money has been paid. The district medical officer, Dr Bah, who is resident in Kenema, denies any knowledge of money. So who has collected the money and for what?
It begs the question again as to what is done with monies doled out to communities as part of the Diamond Area Community Development Fund. And this is perhaps one area KHL must pay attention to. It apparently lost the public relations battle in Kono because it concentrated on the traditional leaders who do not always seek the welfare of their subjects. Also, they must also learn from the experience of Vijay Mining Company which was chased out of Tongo recently chiefly by youth of the Lower Bambara Youth Development Association. The young men felt aggrieved that the company had not attended to their basic needs. Rightly or wrongly, the fact that they agitated to the point of attacking them and vandalising their property, is a foreboding for any company venturing to the area. By Umaru Fofana