Poaching a future  from firewood: Pupils ditch school to poach firewood for a living Some of the boys that allegedly left primary schooling to poach firewood in Nyamandlovu. (Picture by Nkosizile Ndlovu)

Raymond Jaravaza, [email protected] 

LIFE unfolds at its own unhurried pace in the quiet and remote village of Chesa, 20 kilometres from the world-renowned Khami Ruins Monuments. For 85-year-old Inna Nkomo, her moments of joy are rare as she can only meet her teenage grandchildren only once every two weeks. 

Their visits are not just about family reunions, they are a lifeline for Inna as they will be providing her with much-needed water and firewood. There are times when Inna goes through weeks without laying eyes on the boys. In those moments, the compassionate neighbours step in, recognising that the frail octogenarian cannot manage the arduous task of fetching water and collecting firewood on her own. The teens are usually absent from the homestead, engrossed in their own demanding pursuits.

The teens spend all their time in the forest, cutting down trees and shuttling between Chesa Village and Old Pumula suburb selling firewood to residents. Chesa Village, though sparsely populated, is a hive of activity most of the time. Villagers toil in the fields during the planting and harvesting seasons while at the same time looking after their cattle, donkeys and goats, the primary sources of wealth and sustenance.

However, a shadow looms over these idyllic scenes. Firewood poaching, a thriving yet illegal trade, has taken root in villages like Chesa and others on the outskirts of Bulawayo, extending deep into vast forests stretching towards Nyamandlovu and the surrounding farms. Over the years, this illicit source of income has seduced schoolchildren away from their classrooms in pursuit of scarce ‘‘employment’’ opportunities within their villages. Mduduzi Nkomo and Makheleni Nkomo, both 18 years old, couldn’t resist the lure of the firewood poaching business five years ago when they were 13 and doing Grade Seven at nearby Chesa Primary School. Two months before writing Grade Seven examinations, the boys ditched school and joined an older crew already involved in the firewood poaching business.

The poached firewood ends up on sale in Emakhandeni in Bulawayo

It’s not a business for the faint-hearted as the poachers spend days on end cutting down trees in the forest while hiding from the police, Environmental Management Agency (EMA) officials and Forestry Commission rangers. After cutting enough firewood to fill up a donkey-drawn scotch cart, the firewood is transported to Bulawayo in the dead of the night.

Safety in numbers is a cardinal rule that the firewood poachers stick to, thus they normally move in groups consisting of usually three scotch carts at any given time. Laden with firewood, the scotch carts begin the journey to Bulawayo late at night.

“Mduduzi and Makheleni did not leave school because there was no money, their parents are in South Africa so school fees was never an issue. They are not the only ones that stopped going to school to join the firewood business, a lot of boys here in the village are doing it. Almost every homestead has a boy who is into the business or left school because they say education will not help them in any way.

“Two of my donkeys are used by Mduduzi and Makheleni and I hardly see them for days, if not weeks. Whenever I want firewood or water, I have to ask their friends to pass on the message when they meet in the bush. Sometimes they come right away or they stay in the bush and come home when they feel like,” said Gogo Nkomo.

Thembelani Mathe is a hard working mother of four who works for teachers at Chesa Primary School taking care of the educators’ babies and cleaning the houses in addition to her own family back at home. Mathe knows first-hand the pain of helplessly watching a child ditch primary school for a job that can potentially land him in jail. 

Her second born son, 15-year-old Prosper Mathe, turned his back on school in 2021 to join a firewood poaching crew. Young Prosper did not even wait to finish Grade Seven. Half way into the first term in Grade Seven, the lad traded his pen for a whip on a donkey driven scotch cart as he transports firewood from Chesa village to Bulawayo.

“What could I do to stop him? He had made up his mind and forcing him to go to school was not going to work. He was simply going to wake up and pretend he was going to school but spend the day cutting down trees for firewood. It’s painful to watch my son choose this kind of life but what can I do?” asked Mathe.

She says her son tries to come back home at least once a week.

“The man that Prosper works for owns a house in Old Pumula so he buys groceries that side and brings them back home whenever he gets a chance. As a mother I fear for his well-being, he might act tough but he is only 15-years-old and works with boys and men way older than him,” added Mathe.

Another villager, Ndaba Sibanda said water shortages in the area compound the situation, making it difficult for youths to venture into self-sustaining projects such as brick moulding or nutrition gardens.

“There is no hope for these boys. If they don’t go into the firewood poaching business, there is nothing else that they can do to make a living. This place has no water, it’s so dry that we can’t even do projects such as brick moulding or grow vegetables.

“We are not lazy, if the Government can drill boreholes for us and install JoJo tanks, we will grow vegetables all year round and take our produce to Bulawayo markets,” said Sibanda. 

He says as long as job opportunities remain scarce, more school children will stop going to class for an easier way out which is firewood poaching.

The Forestry Commission, in a workshop attended by stakeholders including journalists last year, highlighted that firewood poaching and charcoal production significantly contribute to deforestation in the country. It was noted that a majority of firewood vendors are not licensed and rely on supplies sourced illegally, usually bought for a song from firewood poachers eager to get the commodity off their hands as quickly as possible.

On our drive back to Bulawayo, the Saturday Chronicle ran into a group of boys and men riding three scotch carts and as soon as the car stopped for an interview request, three boys bolted into the bush.

One of the men said the boys might have panicked after mistaking the news crew vehicle for a Forestry Commission car. He, however, refused to divulge if they were coming from Bulawayo to offload firewood in Old Pumula suburb. 

One of the many places where the illegally sourced firewood ends up in the open market is a bustling joint in Emakhandeni suburb. The place is commonly known as ‘enkunini’ in reference to the firewood that is sold there.

“People from EMA come here from time to time to check on our licenses but I can tell you that most of the firewood comes from those boys in Old Pumula. They bring the firewood from the forest at night, we buy it from them early in the morning around 3am and bring it here. That’s how this business has always been for years,” said the vendor who refused to be named.

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