With all the breathless talk of mineral wealth and Chinese demand and soaring economic growth in resource-rich African countries, it is easy to forget the fact that mines seldom benefit the communities around them. Some unskilled jobs here and there but few of the promised benefits - usually invovling better basic services such as schools, clinics, road, water, sanitation and community-transforming economic growth - ever materialise.
Indeed, often people end up living in greater misery in sight of mines - due to water pollution and toxic fumes, and the depression that follows dashed hopes. The community of Kankoyo is a classic case. A poverty-stricken township in Mufulira in northern Zambia, Kankoyo sits in the shadow of the giant Mopani Copper mine. While copper prices have soared on the back of China's insatiable appetite for minerals, the people of Kankoyo continue to live in poverty - with limited (or no) access to basic services and with very few ways to scrape a living.
And it's not just the poverty that shocks. The mine's huge chimneys belch fumes into the sky, while water sources are polluted by run off from the mines as well as by raw sewage and waste from the community.
Needless to say, life in Kankoyo is hard, and focussed on mere survival - particularly for the many women-headed households. Having watched their husbands die from mine-related illnesses, Kankoyo's widows have few choices when it comes to making a living. Violet, Regina and Jane are typical - resorting to brewing homemade beer, farming on polluted mine land and sex work.
47-year-old Violet Mwansa was widowed three years ago. Her husband was a boiler-maker working at the mine. "He died because of the fumes from the mine," she says. "The same day he was taken to hospital he died. He was supposed to report for work, but he called his supervisor to tell him he was not feeling well and that he would go to the hospital, and he died the same day."
Because Violet's husband was a contractor at the mine, she was not compensated in any way for her loss. Instead she borrowed 300,000 Kwacha from a microfinance institution for a her small brewing and shebeen business at her house. Violet's customers include miners and contractors as well as some unemployed men from the community.
The small amount of money she earns is enough to pay for food and for her teenage daughter and teenage neice to go to high school. But there is never any left over to save - so her dream of acquiring land and becoming a maize farmer remains unachievable.
32-year-old Jane has been struggling to fend for herself and her daughter since her husband died seven years ago. After a few years of battling to survive, she became a sex worker. "I didn't have any way of getting money for food and for my child's school," she says. "I have no other option."
Jane says she has two regular customers but when they are not around, she sells her body on the street.
She hopes that her daughter has a different future, which is why she keeps her in class. "I'd love my daughter to not go through what I'm going through."
Regina Mumba husband worked as an electrician at the mine before he died in 2005. To survive, Regina grows sugar cane - illegally - on the mine's land. Like the other illicit farmers, she waters her crops with sewage from Kankoyo. While the land could be seized at any time, Regina is relatviely lucky since she bought her house when it was sold cheaply in the 1990s during President Chiluba's second term - so she has somewhere to stay and space she can rent out. She also buys wholesale vegetables, charcoal and dried fish to sell on her doorstep in Kankoyo.
"My husband used to work for the mines. Then he got sick. He got TB. Then he was retrenched because he was sick," she says.
Her lastborn son was born prematurely at six months and is slightly mentally disabled. "Because of his slowness, the teacher is always requiring more money for extra tuitions but I can't find that money so he is always behind in his school work."
However, despite the difficulties, Regina says that she thinks that there are better ways to support oneself than on sex work - which many other women here do for a living. "Three-quarters of this community do not work, and their source of livelihood is just selling beer and sex work," says Regina. "Most of them do sex work because they don't have any means of surviving. When I say they, I mean married women, widows and those who are not married...."ShareThis