Gemstone Miners Dream Of Being Millionaires

03 Aug 2015 17:30pm
By Paulus Shiku

NEU SCHWABEN, 03 AUG (NAMPA) - The gemstone miners of Farm Neu Schwaben, situated 10 kilometres south of Karibib, wake up every morning hoping that it is the day they strike it rich and become millionaires.
Despite the hard labour and scorching sun, the men, both young and old, are optimistic that day will come.
With spades, chisels and hammers in hand to break the hard rock which holds the key to their fortunes, they work away in hopes of one day buying their own houses, luxury cars and farms – all in cash.
These are small-scale miners of gemstones and crystals living in temporary shelters at the Neu Schwaben resettlement farm that was bought for them by Government in 2012.
The majority of the men have been living here since 1996. They used to work for the previous farm owners and mine stones at the same time.
Their number increased to more than 200 after the farm was declared a resettlement farm and more people joined the free-for-all mining frenzy.
The small-scale miners manage the farm via the Neu Schwaben Small-Scale Miners’ Association.
Every fall of the hammer or spade is another move closer to their ultimate dream – coming across Jeremejevite, one of the rarest and most expensive gemstones in the world which is also found in Namibia.
“I am here to mine ‘Jeremia’ (Jeremejevite) and Tourmaline. I didn’t pass Grade 12 so I decided to come here and dig for gemstones. I want to be a millionaire and believe me, it can happen anytime,” says 28-year-old Immanuel Nashitye.
With a dusty face, Nashitye explained how he travelled from his home village of Eenhana in the Ohangwena Region in 2013 to find his fortune here.
“It will not take us long to get rich, if only Government can support us in buying equipment. Unemployed young people must join us, it is better than sitting at home,” he said confidently.
Nashitye and five other men work under his cousin, Shapange Namundjebo, who assists them in selling their semi-precious stones.
Despite the miners’ dreams of discovering Jeremejevite, it has not yet been established whether the gemstone is available at Neu Schwaben, because the last time it was discovered in Namibia was at a small pegmatite (type of igneous rock) mine at Mile 72 north of Swakopmund in 1973.
Jeremejevite prices start at about N.dollars 605 per carat.
According to website, depending on its size, a piece of Jeremejevite can fetch up to N.dollars 22 857.21, meaning if a miner hits a pocket with gemstones of that value they are much closer to reaching their goals.
Often they discover Tourmaline, which they then sell for between N.dollars 500 and N.dollars 3 000, depending on its size and colour.
A pocket might contain more than 80 pieces of Jeremejevite, Tourmaline, Quartz, White Crystal, and Aquamarine.
The stones are amongst others used to make jewellery, tombstones, tiles and sculptures.
Unfortunately, the prices of the gems are not fixed, meaning miners can be exploited by buyers.
They sell their stones to individual buyers and dealers such as Desert Gems and Stonetique in Swakopmund.
Mike Thygesen owns Desert Gems, a gem polishing workshop and shop in Swakopmund, where he processes the stones he buys from miners.
An expert in the field, Thygesen has been working in the industry since 1984.
“These prices are not regulated. Your knowledge of stones somehow helps you to determine the price. The first price is set by the man who digs for the stones. He sells it to me and I sell it to an international buyer. All of us bargain to make sure we get the amount we want or think is reasonable,” he explained.
Judging from his rugged hands and the stories he tells, one can easily tell that Thygesen has been around for a long time.
“I ask them how much they want for a stone, and believe me they give ridiculous prices because that is the culture of this industry. I do not buy at high prices because in business you try to buy at a cheap price and sell at a high price,” said the gem cutter.
Thygesen had some advice for the small-scale miners, which is to take good care of their money.
“Some buy cars they cannot maintain and now they are parked because they can’t afford petrol,” he said.
The miners work four to six hours a day. Working longer is difficult as they break hard rocks by hand.
The mining pits are as deep as 12 metres. Those who can afford it use drills powered by electricity generators, while others blast the rocks.
After work they go back to their shelters where they spend most of the time chatting and drinking a local brew called “Tombo” and beer.
Those with cars give their fellow miners a lift to Karibib and Usakos for shopping.
Six months can pass without a miner discovering any gemstones, and yet they do not give up.
As one miner says, “brokeness (poverty) is the motivation”.
“This is our work; just like you wake up every morning to go to the office, we come here to mine. The difference is that unlike us, you are guaranteed a salary at the end of the month,” said Harold Bruwer while fixing a drill.
Another miner is 73-year-old Mathias Penge-Ndjeke, whose build resembles that of American wrestler David Michael Bautista.
Penge-Ndjeke’s big biceps and toned body are the result of more than 20 years of back-breaking small-scale mining.
Other miners are situated at Xoboxobos, Omatjete, Tubusis and Uiba-Oas.
They work under the Erongo Regional Small-Scale Miners’ Association (ERSMA) which advances the interests of small-scale miners in the region.
ERSMA chairperson Etienne Plaatjies says the industry is like a treasure hunt and can be lucrative.
“They are well organised and are supposed to be well-off already, it is only that they do not hit big pockets,” he said.
ERSMA is in discussion with Government so that the miners can diversify into farming.
“We are determining the carrying capacity of the land so that they can farm with animals, grow lucerne and maize just to make sure they have other options,” said Plaatjies.
He added that the miners need proper mining equipment.
“We are also planning to appoint a gemmologist who can advise them on the value of gemstones, and we need funding so ERSMA can buy gemstones from our members as this is will guarantee fair prices,” he said.
Mines and Energy Minister Obeth Kandjoze last month said this year his ministry is preparing to empower the small-scale miners by providing them with equipment and secure a safe market for them.
The //Karas Region also has a number of small-scale miners in the Aus area near Lüderitz.