Taking sips of opaque beer, Gabriel Banda (37) enjoys an intermittent break from digging a new pit a stone’s throw away.
Visibly deep in thought, the gold panner sits on a rock at the summit of a mountain adjacent to the decommissioned Jumbo Mine.
From that vantage point, one can see hordes of young men clothed in reddish-brown dust, torches strapped on their foreheads and some carrying equally dirty bags.
Dusk is fast approaching and Mazowe’s mountainous Jumbo Mine community is a hive of activity as the youthful population hastens to wrap up another scorching day of hard work.
Many are headed home before the sun sets.
“When it gets dark, it becomes scary because gang members usually come on the ground to restock their food and other necessities and if they bump into you milling around, they can capture and rob you,” explains Banda, who came here over four months ago.
Before coming to Mazowe, the father of three from Mvurwi, 62km north west of here, spent years as a chrome miner in the Great Dyke before the mine closed down.
Despite over a decade’s experience in extracting minerals, he said the ruthlessness he has seen exhibited by machete gangs, known to this community as Mabhudhi (big brothers) or the cliché title MaShurugwi, has shaken him to the core.
They commit callous murders even in broad daylight without even pondering about it — perhaps the way one would slaughter a chicken.
“We have decided to dig for the gold belt from this hill near residential areas, where prospects of danger are minimal because working from inside the big mine is more dangerous. The Mabhudhi are harming people with Colombian knives (other name for machetes),” Banda claimed.
These machete gangs’ reign of terror has made artisanal mining in this gold-rich district a very risky enterprise.
“One can spend days working inside Jumbo Mine, but if gangs bump into you, they can take away your ore, torches and other belongings; that is if they decide to leave you alive or do not decide to detain and make you mine more for them,” he said.
It is estimated that there are thousands of unlicensed miners working there every day in a partially descending maze of surface levels that stretch for kilometres underground.
The mere decision to get in is a dice with death and those more cautious about their lives restrict themselves to levels closer to the ground, despite the prospects of reaping greater rewards further down the rickety shafts.
A few days ago, Banda recalls, one unlucky miner nicknamed Dhigo met his fate in cold blood after hitting the jackpot underground.
“They stabbed him, took his stones and, just like that, he was gone,” he said in a distraught tone.
An unclaimed corpse is all that is left to decompose in what has become the norm for those who breathe their last inside the canals of Jumbo Mine.
While falling stones still claim lives, many are said to be victims of increasing gang turf wars. The gangs are usually groups of 15 or more armed men ready to snuff out the life in anyone who dared cross their path.
Shockingly, apart from days of sporadic crackdowns, as is currently the case, law enforcers in the area are said to care less.
“Security is always there, but they do not go underground no matter the circumstances,” says a local miner, who only identified himself as Wonder.
“They only deal with issues on top of the ground and they say they were not trained to go underground.”
Wonder also detailed an account of how a US$10 bribe and a meticulous search is all that is needed for one to gain access into the heavily guarded shaft.
What puzzles him, however, after encountering Mabhudhi two times in the past year, is how the criminals get in with dangerous weapons including machetes, spears and knives.
“With that kind of search, it should not be possible to even enter with a razor blade, so where do those big weapons come from?” he quizzed rhetorically.
“There might be corrupt business going on there and perhaps they pay more money.”
If true, this probably makes the police force complicit to a spate of violence that has gripped the entire country of late.
Mashonaland Central police spokesperson Inspector Milton Mundembe, however, rubbished the corruption allegations, stressing that they were intensifying their crackdown on the gangs in Mazowe.
“We are not aware of that (taking of bribes), but perhaps if we could get tip-offs that such crimes are taking place, then arrests will be made,” he said.
Mundembe admitted that arresting the MaShurugwi was no child’s play.
“We are there to eliminate unruly elements, but arresting these armed gangs is not an easy task, so we are increasing our efforts to end the menace forever,” he said.
In December last year, a police officer was bludgeoned to death while his colleague was injured in an attack by the MaShurugwis who had invaded Good Hope Mine in Kadoma, while others were early this week arrested after storming a Gokwe North police base, sparking a bloody confrontation, as they wanted to rescue their arrested colleagues.
Police Commissioner-General Godwin Matanga had hinted at the possibility of implementing a “shoot-to-kill” policy.
There have also been urgent calls to stiffen the hunt on these criminals by bringing the national army into the fray, but there appears to be reluctance.
Instead, the Mines and Mining Development Parliamentary Committee has set up an inquiry to scrutinise the origins of machete gangs.
“We have discussed this issue and resolved to conduct an inquiry into the matter to identify and trace the foundation and development of the gold panning gang,” the committee chairperson Edward Mukaratigwa was quoted saying.
While reopening of big mines could be a much more sustainable option, it interrogates the current government’s willingness to formalise all mining activities and place a lid on gory gold deals some of them are fingered in.
As more big mines close or scale down in response to a failing economy, artisanal mining now reportedly accounts for over 60% of all the gold delivered to Fidelity Printers and Refineries, the country’s sole legal gold buyer.
Gold panners at Jumbo Mine yearn for protection of their hard-earned livelihoods currently under threat from the marauding machete gangsters.
“All these illegal mining activities you see are a result of high unemployment and if a mine like Jumbo is reopened, it could usher in a much more orderly and safer way of doing things here,” Banda suggested.