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Abandoned towns, abandoned people

Many formerly vibrant mining towns in Zimbabwe are turning into hubs of poverty. Stuck with hundreds of people who used to make a living from mining activity, these towns are now a shadow of their former selves.

45-year-old Tinago Banda, a child to a former Malawian migrant labourer, is one of the many people stuck in Zimbabwe’s abandoned mining towns. His father Andrew Banda worked at Mhangura copper mine until the year 2000 when mining operations stopped. For the next 14 years until his demise in 2014, Andrew Banda lived a destitute life barely scrapping for a living to maintain his wife, eight children and several grandchildren. Like his father, Tinago continues to find shelter in the abandoned mine.

Mhangura is a small mining town in Zimbabwe’s Doma district, north of the country. Here, Tinago and many other former miners’ families live, silently nurturing a hope that someday, their overdue wages will be compensated by their former employers. “Some of us have remained at the mine because we have nowhere to go. When my father died, my family just kept living here,” Tinago says.

These former mining towns are struggling economically. When mining stopped, shopping centres and banks closed too. For almost two decades, remaining residents have struggled to make a living. Many now depend on subsistence farming.

Some inhabitants however still hope that someday, mining may resume. 72-year-old Denis Mwenenguwe from Malawi, a widower, remains stuck at one of the mining apartments, faced with poverty and growing economic hardships. “I’m old, but I hope the mine reopens. When it does, my children or grandchildren will get jobs,” Mwenenguwe says.

Other mining towns like Shackleton in Chinhoyi of Mashonaland west province, have not been spared either. Shackleton mine was established in 1960 following the discovery of copper in the area. In 2000, Shackleton closed as copper mining declined. This has been the fate of other mining towns like Sutton, Vanad and Kildonan too. “None of us here can afford sending children to school because we have no sources of income and that’s why you see the children just playing here,” 66-year-old John Mundazu, a Sutton resident, says.

First discovered in 1925, Sutton was a chromium mine in Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland west province. The mine closed in 2009 after many years of vibrancy. Its formerly modern mine housing apartments at Mundazu are now derelict, with neither water nor electricity.

The void of economic activity has given way to illegal miners who have taken over the abandoned mines. “They live in the former mining towns carrying out illegal mining using rudimentary tools and methods. They are destroying the environment as they dump chemically contaminated effluent into the ecosystem,” Trynos Tahwora, an environmental activist, says.

The Zimbabwean government has failed to come up with a concrete plan to revive these former mining towns. Amidst the rising poverty and economic hardships, the government continues to offer empty promises that investors from China and Russia will soon inject millions of dollars in the mining sector and give new life to these towns.

Jeffrey Moyo is a journalist based in Harare.

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