Raymond Jaravaza in Mberengwa
AT the crack of dawn, atop a mountain nestled in the heart of Mberengwa District, business deals are struck between buyers and sellers.
It’s a risky yet very profitable business.
There is general mistrust between the two parties, but nevertheless business deals must be concluded because competition is tight and everyone wants to make hay while the sun still shines.
It’s early morning on a wet Friday in an area known as Sandawana and Saturday Chronicle is posing as buyers of lithium.
In a matter of minutes our vehicle, a white pick-up truck, is surrounded by three groups of sellers tussling to strike a deal.
One thing common about the sellers is that they are all youths and their hunger for money is unprecedented. The leader of one of the youths offers us a deal of US$140 per tonne for the lithium.
Lithium is the new gold in Sandawana. It’s the new found treasure and the mountain where the mineral is mined from is feeding the Mberengwa community and outsiders from as far as Mutare.
The top of the mountain is a community on its own, bustling with life as early as 5am.
To the untrained eye, the lithium is nothing, but whitish rocks that the sellers have piled together at the top of the mountain, ready for transportation.
Lithium is a mineral used in the manufacture of batteries and its demand has risen sharply because of the demand for electric cars especially in developed countries, which are forging ahead with plans to phase out fossil fuels such as petrol and diesel in the next coming years.
Zimbabwe has the largest lithium reserves in Africa and the fifth-largest worldwide.
The news crew negotiates for a price of US$120 per tonne and the other competing group takes the bait.
“We have 20 tonnes and it will take us three hours to load the truck. The six of us can load the truck before the police come here and start causing trouble,” a youthful group leader who goes by the name Wiseman tells us.
While other youths negotiate with buyers for better deals, others, covered in white dust, emerge from makeshift mining shafts.
The white dust is caused by blasting the underground rocks with explosives and the lithium is extracted from the belly of the earth with hand drawn buckets filled with smaller rocks that contain the mineral.
To close our deal, we accepted the US$120 offer and asked Wiseman to give us time to fetch a huge truck.
“It’s a cash only deal so bring the money. I have to pay my colleagues after we finish loading the truck,” he reminds us.
The road from the top of the mountain leading to the shops is treacherous, the recent rains have not helped, but that doesn’t stop the huge trucks that travel up and down the mountain from making several trips a day.
At the foot of the mountain lies a police station, a primary school, shops and bars. Several huge trucks are parked at the police station grounds and one young miner tells Saturday Chronicle that the trucks were impounded by the police.
“Two days ago there was a police operation and those trucks were impounded. A lot of my colleagues were arrested for illegal mining and they were taken to Mberengwa Centre and someone was saying they will be taken to court soon,” the youngster says.
National police spokesman Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said he needed to get full details of the police operation that drove out the illegal miners from the Sandawana mountain from the Officer Commanding Midlands Province before issuing a statement.
Midlands Province police spokesman Emmanuel Mahoko’s phone was unreachable.
What is clear though is that a heavy police presence disrupted the mining activities because the locals are suspicious of strangers. Asking for directions is met with apprehension from locals.
As early as it might be, music is playing at full blast in one of the bars and more than 15 youths are dancing away without a care in the world. United States dollars notes exchange hands between customers and the bar lady like confetti at a wedding.
Business is good for the young lithium miners. The spoils of a good working week underground are on display for everyone to see and alcohol is flowing in the bar aptly named “Joy and Happiness Bar”.
By his estimation, another miner named Jonas Vhirimi, there are over a hundred groups with an average of five miners per group who operate at the mountain.
Local Mberengwa men dominate the groups of miners. But lately more outsiders have been flocking the area in search of the precious mineral. As a result, fights over territory often break out, leading to an increase in cases of violence and mayhem.
Since March, Vhirimi has seen people from Masvingo, Mutare and Gwanda flocking the area.
“Guys fight over women and mining shafts and I think that’s one of the reasons why police recently raided the mountain. Riot police came here, arrested a lot of guys and dispersed everyone. We are working but it’s tense and risky but we need the money so we will keep mining,” said Vhirimi.
Vendors in the vicinity have not been left out of the spoils of lithium mining.
A woman selling tea and amagwinya (fat cakes) emerges from a tent next to the bar, it’s evident judging by her confidence that she is comfortable selling her food to the miners. After all, a miner has to eat.
As we drive away from the bar, a group of six miners have bundled their belongings together and are waiting for transport to take them to wherever they are going.
Speaking in an animated fashion, one of the miners tells his friends that working at the mountain is becoming increasingly difficult for outsiders as the local guys are agitating for non-Mberengwa guys to leave the area.
It’s an all too familiar scenario when precious minerals are discovered in a particular area and the locals declare that the gold, lithium or diamond is their “God given gift” and only they should benefit.
Half the time such confrontations always lead to violence and Sandawana – the new home of lithium – is no exception.