By Paul Ndiho
For centuries people near Lake Katwe, in Western Uganda have mined salt by hand. And salt mining remains their only means of livelihood.
Salt mining is one of Uganda’s oldest industries still surviving. Mining has played a significant political and economic role in the history of the Katwe area in western, Uganda.
Today Uganda spends billions of dollars importing salt from other countries — following the collapse of the salt factory built in the late 1970’s. Critics of the government say the country needs to revive the Katwe salt factory to boost local salt production and reduce its import bill.
Salt traders come from nearby markets in Uganda and from other countries. In good times, salt miners make a reasonable income, earning over 150 dollars a week, a decent wage by any Ugandan standards. But salt production has rapidly turned from boom to bust with the seasons, leaving the workers struggling to make ends meet. Joshi kimulya is a tour guide, affiliated with the Katwe tourism information center.
“We don’t manufacture salt here neither do we process it but we depend on the natural salt which naturally forms within our pans and lake.”
Extraction of the salt from Lake Katwe is done by hand, by both men and women and it involves standing in toxic, chest deep water for hours at a time. To extract salt, the miners have constructed large semi-permanent pools around the edges of the lake to intensify the evaporation. Joshi kimulya explains.
“These are the man-made features around Lake Katwe and they’re called salt-pans and within the pans that’s where salt forms naturally. And Ugandans own pans individually, you own a pan like you own land at home – it’s your property.”
The work is back-breaking, but this is the only trade in Katwe. The village is surrounded by Queen Elizabeth national park and it takes a full day to drive here from Uganda’s capital, Kampala.
Notwithstanding, salt extraction has been a source of prosperity for decades, but today’s miners work in appalling conditions.
“Only men mine rock salt from the main lake. Women are not allowed to stand in deeper brine because they can develop some problems.”
Despite the challenges, salt miners are able to make some good money and live comfortable lives outside of the salt lake. Chrispus Magonza is one of the miners and he has spent all of his life here at the lake. He says that in a good month he makes about 500 dollars and uses that money to support his family.
“We do mine salt when in the dry season and every week, we produce salt and I’m able to make enough money to feed my family.”
Birungi Powell, has been working as a professional salt loader for years, he says that on average, he loads about four trucks full of salt a day.
“I load whatever vehicle comes in – we’re a group of 100 people and licensed by the government. We load the salt from the miners. So that’s the kind of work that we do here that earns us a living.”
The salt yield from Katwe has dwindled in recent years and become more unpredictable because of Uganda’s increasingly uncertain climate. Climate scientists are predicting that weather patterns in Uganda will shift as a result of global warming – Hence resulting in too much rain and not enough evaporation to produce salt.
“We depend on high temperature. It fast forms on top of the brine and it’s called scam, then the scam has to be segmented. We segment for about three or ten days – after 10 days you remove it and wash the crystals. After washing the crystals we directly take it to the market for sale.”
Analysts say that Lake Katwe can sustain salt production for decades to come, as it has supported many generations in the past. But in its present form, it will continue to be challenging and hazardous work for the thousands of people who have no other work options, until Uganda’s government steps in with regional development employment opportunities.
Paul Ndiho is a Ugandan – American video journalist/ executive producer, Africa Innovations & Technology based in Washington D.C with interests in innovation, technology and entrepreneurship in Africa. He is passionate about mentorship and developing the next generation of Africa’s young leaders. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook: Paul Ndiho and Twitter: @pndiho