We are on ‘’off-days’’ so have taken the opportunity to go a little further north in the country for some exploring. We’ve had a wonderful few days of seeing wildlife in planned and unexpected ways, listening to hippos grunting at night, and walking in the forest. But today was an altogether different experience which I am still trying to understand and reflect on.
In this area (Kasese), we are in the heart of the Rift valley, full of extinct volcanoes. The area is studded with crater lakes, and one of these, at the village of Katwe, is an open cast salt mine. We went to visit. It was an un-preposessing, drizzly and chilly morning as the rainy season is about to start. We weren’t sure if we wanted to go, but we are so glad we did. The town of Katwe has a run-down, forgotten air about it. There are lots of buildings slowly crumbling into the surrounding dust and being invaded by plants. The town is on the lake shore. Hippos meander across the scrub-land adjacent to the village. No-one reacts much. It is as if not much disturbs this town.
In this area the soil is very alkaline, with abundant salt rock containing sodium chloride and sodium sulphide. This means that crops can’t grow, (and if they did, the many elephants and hippos would destroy the crops) so instead they ‘farm’ salt from the lake. The process of salt mining is all done by hand. 70% of the population of about 9000 in Katwe makes its living from salt. It is a seasonal activity, of the dry season, so they need to make enough money from half the year to last the whole year around. Salt is sold, and vegetables and carbohydrates are bought in the market. Some of the population turn their hand to fishing in the wet season on the adjacent Lake Edward. Each family has a salt pond which is the equivalent to an allotment plot in other parts of the country. These can be inherited or passed on but remain in local hands. Each pond must be about 20 metres by ten and shallow – maybe 50cm. When the sun shines on the water of the ponds it evaporates and the salt precipitates forming a scum on top of the water. This grows over 24 hours, and then the salt farmer uses the water from the salt pond to splash over the salt scum and make it sink to the bottom of the pond, by sedimentation. This forms a first layer. The process is repeated every day for 10 days or so until there is a thick layer of layers at the bottom of the pond. Then the owner of the pond uses a curved piece of metal called a peg to ‘’sweep’’ the salt into a pile and then heap them out onto the edge of the pond. It can take a single person the whole day of back-breaking bending and scooping in the hot sun to move the salt into a pile. The piles have to be covered in plastic and then in grasses to protect from the rain otherwise all that hard-gained salt will dissolve away.
Various grades of salt are produced – ‘’animal salt’’ – which is dirty and lumpy and which is given as a supplement to herd animals. Then there is grade 2 unwashed salt used for curing hides, then grade 2 washed salt which is used for human consumption. There used to be grade 1 salt (the most refined) but this was overexploited and has all been used up. And then there is rock salt – extracting it is high risk, high gain work and only open to men. The men walk out into the main body of the lake which isn’t deep; less than a metre. They reach into the water, being careful to avoid getting the salty water into eyes or lips and lift out slabs of rock salt as large as they can handle from under the water. They use metal rods that have been planted in the lake to break up the slabs, and simple rafts to float the rock salt to shore. The rock salt is sold to Rwanda and Congo where there is no local salt mining. It is high in iodine so very much in demand in those areas which are low in naturally occuring iodine.
The salt miners work as individuals or families. Apparently there are no problems with stealing. The work is ‘co-operatised’- there is a collective that sets the price for the salt and does the bargaining with the buyers. When a lorry comes to pick rock salt, it takes, for example, two sacks from each salt miner until the lorry is filled, so that revenue is shared equitably. The cooperative oversees other activities such as a savings scheme. Apparently Idi Amin set up a salt factory in the town in the 70s, sucking up the salt water in metal pipes, heating the water and extracting the salt. It didn’t last long – the pipes were made of metal that corroded with the exposure to salt. It’s probably a good thing. I can only imagine that the income from salt mining in those days went to line the pockets of the elite, rather that generating wealth for the local community. The remains of the factory sit on the lake shore like some out-of-place white elephant, reminding the town of the country’s complex past.
It is quite something to watch this gruelling work of salt-extraction. It feels like being a spectator somewhere on the border between purgatory and hell, with the heavenly peaks of the Ruwenzori mountains just emerging through the clouds on the horizon. People are lifting and carrying on an empty stomach, sack after sack of 100 kg of rock salt. Bare foot, over tiny narrow paths between the ponds. Miners sustain injuries from the slabs of rock salt and the metal poles as they work without protective gear other than gum-boots. The sulphur in the water causes skin rashes and long term damage.
Around the mine ponds, there is a lot of noise and banter and back-chat. Miss A and Little Roo were the sources of much fascination. Even more curiosity was evoked when they were able to make greetings and simple statements in the local language. Are they twins? Is little Roo a boy or a girl? Our guide, Henry, was a very interesting young man. Orphaned in early childhood, he was excelling at school, working in the salt mine in all his spare hours. But he started to develop strange and medically unexplained symptoms in his final A level year, and didn’t finish is exams. His illness was eventually diagnosed as depression. He didn’t receive any explanation about it, only pills which he took once then abandoned as they made him feel so bad. He has had no counselling or talking therapy. Instead he has read on the internet and in newspapers finding things out about depression and slowly working his way back to good health. His depression was triggered by the dislocation between his ambition for his future, and the actual prospects of a future mining salt in the lake. Slowly he is emerging, working as a guide for visitors like ourselves, earning his way out of the salt-saturated future that faces so many of his community.