By Mukoma Ngwena Chakamwe
I paid a visit to the City of Kwekwe in May 2011, to visit a national treasure, the National Mining Museum, located to the west of the city’s central business district on Globe and Phoenix gold mines ground. Mrs Banda, the museum curator, has a degree in mining and is an aspiring author currently writing a book on Zimbabwe’s mining history. The museum was officially opened in 1984 by the then Mayor of Kwekwe, Mr Bruno Mtandwa. It was formed to investigate, interpret and preserve the country’s mining heritage. “You should go through this research paper,” Mrs Banda said smiling broadly and full of enthusiasm. “All the gold mining history of Zimbabwe, here at Globe and Phoenix and everything about the history of gold mining in Kwekwe is in this write-up, read it through.” The research paper titled “A Historical Account of the Globe and Phoenix Gold Mine (1894-1935) and the part it played in the Development and Growth of the Town of Que Que” was written in 1971 by one Heather Heap. It was not a very long piece and I read it in a short time. I found it informative, but intriguing. In its heyday, the Globe and Phoenix Gold Mine in Kwekwe was variously described as ‘jewellers’ shop’, ‘lousy with gold’ or even ‘too rich to be mined’, so the story tells. The mine, which the early Europeans waxed lyrical about its gold, was founded in 1894 by two prospectors, one Edward Thornton Pearson and another Joseph Schukala. The two gentlemen actually rediscovered a series of ancient mines which had been worked on for centuries by the Shona in Zimbabwe. Legend has it that Pearson and Schukala were shown the ancient mines by a middle-aged Shona man who they gave two blankets before he could lead them where the ancient workings were. Widespread mining mainly for gold, copper and iron was done by the Shona long before contact with the European. The mining was extensive with numerous activities including crushing and smelting. It was said to have been highly organised and the gold extremely well prospected. The majority if not all modern gold mines in Zimbabwe were established on such ancient workings. The country has the largest number of ancient gold workings in the world and no wonder the great Arab historian Masud referred to a thriving trade in gold at Sofala which originated from a place called Ophir in Zimbabwe. Mrs Banda thought the vast ancient gold workings on which the present day Globe and Phoenix mine stands is the ancient mine of Ophir which was famous because the Queen of Sheba got 450 tablets of gold which she took to the Jewish King Solomon to build the Jewish temple as commanded by his father King David. I found that interesting. After being given a historical background to mining at Globe and Phoenix gold mine in particular, Mrs Banda took me on a tour of the museum. Presently the museum is on open ground with old mining equipment. The Government, however, built a massive hall situated at the southern edge of the Central Business District where the old mining museum will soon be translocated. As we moved around the museum, I felt as if I was walking right at the centre of the entire mining history in Zimbabwe. It was interesting to see how creative ancient miners were as well as how much they prioritised mining. They used grinding stones to extract the gold. The grinding stones had dolly holes in the centre which was used to pound the gold ore to fine powder by rock pastels. What is interesting to note is that the ancient Shona miners, for instance, exported upwards of 30 000 ounces of purely refined gold to China, India, Israel from just one of the mines, the Globe. They did not export raw gold. The same goes for iron and copper. Why today Zimbabwe is exporting valuable minerals like platinum and chrome raw beats me. If our ancestors with their limited tools made sure they safeguarded the jobs of their people by processing minerals here, what stops us today with all the technology in the world to process the huge platinum deposits we have in the country? The National Mining Museum is vital in showing people that long before the Europeans arrived in Zimbabwe, indigenous people were processing their own minerals in Zimbabwe and exporting finished products only, something crucial for the country’s economic advancement. Museums can be disappointing sometimes. One or two old broken pots here, two or three stuffed animals there, one reptile and that is it. However, the National Mining Museum is a different kettle of fish. There is so much to see and so much to learn. It is actually a university of mining of its own kind. I also had the opportunity to see the mining equipment that was used in the colonial era and was confronted by the real reasons of the First Chimurenga and why it started mostly around mining areas. The equipment that caused much trouble is called ‘the respirator’ which, however, ended up with the name, ‘the coffin’. In early colonial mining in Zimbabwe, ventilation of mining shafts was non-existent. However, the African labourers brought to work in those mining shafts under the Chibaro, forced labour system, were ordered to go and dig underground regardless of the poor ventilation. Inevitably at some point, the poor labourers would run out of oxygen and faint at which point in order to resuscitate them they were then thrown into the respirator where they were supposed to get plenty of oxygen. However, these respirators in most instances could not start and when they did, the oxygen they generated was barely sufficient to resuscitate anyone. So what happened most of the time if not all the time was that whenever anyone was thrown into the respirator, they ended up dead hence the ‘coffin’ label. The deaths caused by the respirators triggered massive uprisings hence the Anglo-Shona war of 1896 mainly around mining areas such as Hartley Hills, Alice Mine in Mazowe and Abercon Mine in Mutoko among others. I was shocked to see the respirator and hear the horrible stories around it. It was not just the respirator which was one of the old colonial mining equipment that led to the uprisings. At the mining museum there is also on display, the hand-operated stamp mills which were used throughout the gold mining areas in the early days of colonisation. The Chibaro African labourers who operated the equipment with bare hands were literally driven by the whip to work and because they used bare hands for hours on end, their palms developed boils resulting in them not able to shake hands or hold anything with their swollen hands. Inevitably, the torturous work on stamp mills resulted in uprisings too. After the Kwekwe visit, I felt it was crucial for the world to understand that Zimbabweans knew about their God-given resources and exploited them wisely for the benefit of their fellow countrymen. It would therefore be a lie for anyone to say Zimbabweans were never capable miners, yet history has it on record that ancient black miners existed before the whiteman came.