Joseph Ouma (2nd R) and his father in muddy water filtering gold from soil in the basin. Photo: The Observer
As early as 10am, seven-year-old Joseph Ouma is standing in a muddy stream, filtering gold from the water channels connecting to River Okame in Amonikanine village, Buteba sub-county in Busia district.
As ZURAH NAKABUGO reports, Ouma is just one of many children who have all but abandoned school in favour of more ‘lucrative’ activities.
Asked about Ouma, his father, who is also engaged in small-scale gold mining along the river basins, insists that the seven-year-old regularly attends school, but his neighbours and teachers in his alleged institution of learning, reject these claims. They tell The Observer that almost all boys, teachers and other people in the community prefer working in gold mines to education.
“[In] gold mining, they get quick money unlike at school where teachers want them to pay money for scholastic materials and food,” Annette Nekesa, their neighbor, says. “They mainly prefer gold mining than school.”
She says, there is nothing in Buteba sub-county and other rural areas, which attracts students to go to school since their teachers and parents, who would have encouraged them to seek education, are also involved in gold mining.
Nelson Etaru says he also abandoned school in P7 due to lack of school fees, as his father couldn’t provide for their family. He elected to start gold mining to support his siblings.
“I had no choice but to leave school since my parents were not working and yet there was money in gold mining to help me buy food,” he said through an interpreter. This as he drained the basin to find out if there were any gold specks in the sand he had just mined.
Paul Opakoleni, a pupil of Ajuket primary school, says he admires pupils who work in gold mines as they come to school with money and buy goods yet his parents are very strict and insist he attends school.
The head teacher of Ajuket primary school, Gerald Ogira Olaro, admits as population increases in the district, there are many more pupils like Ouma who dodge school and opt for gold mines, causing a decline in enrolment in the area.
“However, when pupils get money after gold mining, they bring it at school and persuade others to work in these mines also to get money,” he says. “Then you find half of the class missing, especially in the afternoon, which declines school performance since the teachers keep on repeating topics for missing pupils and they delay them from completing the syllabus in time.”
Ogira says gold mining is a big setback for education in Busia and they have tried unsuccessfully to put pressure on parents to stop it.
“Instead, they tell their children to remain home and do domestic work, as parents go for gold mining,” he said. He adds that increased poverty and food shortage fuel preference for gold mining over education.
Ogira says the miners employ school children with the consent of their parents. This, he explains, is why the parents had not reported the cases to police since gold mining is their major source of income. However, he dismissed claims that even teachers miss classes or come late at school, preferring to work in the gold mines.
France Kundu, the teacher on duty at Ajuket primary school, when we visited, admitted that gold mining had affected enrolment.
“The term has started but if you look at the number of pupils reported, there are only 263 out of 769 pupils enrolled in the school. Majority are still at home due to lack of scholastic materials, lunch fee and gold mining,” he said.
Kundu says, many P7 candidates registered to sit exams this year, but many did not return to sit the exams due to gold mining. He says apart from few pupils who are looking after their sick parents, the majority of would-be learners spend their income on buying snacks.
Busia district communication officer Moses Mangeni says they had cautioned the gold miners against using children, but this has left area parents up in arms, on the grounds that there were no jobs for them.
“These children are paid between Shs 1,000 and 2,000 for each basin of gold stones pounded into powder. So, how much money is that compared to the child’s education,” Mangeni said he was asked. “If the situation continues like this, the district will be affected more in the near future.”
In response, Kundu wants some action over the problem, calling on district officials to set up laws against parents allowing their children to work in the gold mines.
Mangeni says the Busia district council is designing a by-law against child labour, which will be tabled for debate on completion. The Busia district inspector of schools, Patrice Lumumba, admitted that gold mining was a major cause of absenteeism at school for both teachers, pupils and parents to visit schools and check on their children’s performance.
“Gold mining has spoilt almost all pupils and some teachers in the districts since they are money-minded and can’t concentrate in class. The dropout has increased to almost 40 per cent and the politicians in the community find it difficult to pass laws against it because they want votes from these people,” he says.
Lumumba says gold mining is also risky, as some mines have been known to collapse on workers, while the children also contract respiratory diseases due to dust. He added that the mercury used in gold mining normally ends up in streams and rivers, which affects people’s health too.
Stella Kigozi, the head of Information and Communications at the National Population Council (NPC), said they are also working on programmes to protect children working in gold mines, which will be disclosed over time.