Working in the diamond fields for two liters of cooking oil

Laurelle Mbaradza


There is a certain nostalgia in the voices of the women of Chiadzwa; a longing for things gone. In the beginning they say, their lives were simple. Chiadzwa was just like any other ward in the Mutare region around Marange: dry, dusty and insignificant. People survived on hunting and fishing in the Save valley and river or from proceeds of basketry and mat making, using bark from the Baobab trees.

The discovery of diamonds on the Marange fields in 2006 had caused a buzz. Trucks, buses and cars brought people in search of the precious minerals. They had money and the locals started to sell everything, from water to bicycles and solar panels. Here and there brick and cement houses took the place of mud and pole huts, and satellite dishes sprouted on rooftops. Women could feed and clothe their children. Life was good.

Big companies

But the euphoria was short lived. All of a sudden, government cordoned off the area and declared it ’ state protected.’  Big diamond mining companies moved in, building structures and bringing big machines. The lists made by village heads of people who would be employed by the mines were suddenly discarded; the names on the final list belonged to people who came from high offices in Harare. Only a few local men were employed, and just a handful of women. Many families were relocated away from the mining area.

The few who remained in the vicinity of the mines kept hoping for benefit, but with the dwindling of the crowds so did the exchange of money and goods. One by one the solar panels and satellite dishes disappeared. Shopping centres that once vibrated with latest music and were filled with people in colourful clothes now looked desolate. Chiadzwa seemed to have gone into slumber again.

But to conclude that there is nothing going on now would be a mistake, however. Things still happen, only now after dark.

STREAMER Sometimes you had to have sex for free just to be allowed in the fields

It starts in the evening, when the men go out to pan. Women also leave their homes, purportedly to work as ‘gwejerines,’ female panners-, but in most cases, they have long stopped doing that. Men didn’t like the competition and sometimes they had to have sex with them for free to even be accepted on the fields. If you were unable to carry the heavy bags you would be mocked.

The men don’t object to what they do now.

The ‘trade,’ they call it.  They don’t like it. There are many risks involved. The clients who offer good money do not want to wear condoms. If you insist, you’ll get as little as  US$ 1 per session (usually thirty minutes), or even just a payment in kind: two liters of cooking oil, two bars of soap or two kg’s of flour.  ‘“Some days or nights you don’t even get a client,” says Chido (27) as she shifts her little boy (4) from one lap to another. The child’s father is back in Shurugwi, a town in Zimbabwe’s midland province from where he and many other people came to try their luck in the first diamond rush.  

Chido met the man from Shurugwi one day when he came to her sadza (porridge, a staple food, ed.) stall. He bought a plate and a few for his friends, and became a regular customer. He soon began to ask for sexual favours to which she gave in, not because of love, but because  he was a big customer and she did not want to disappoint him. He left to go back home, leaving behind the child that came into the world over a few plates of sadza.

Soldiers, guards and police officers

It’s not just the panners who patronise the women: the soldiers, mine guards and police officers do so too, as do some teachers and other individual men who can afford to pay. Only you need to have sex with the guards just to get them to let other clients into the mining area, for the guards hold the keys to the opportunities here: for panning, for servicing the panners and to hook up with the richest clients. If you can’t find ways to operate in the fields you’ll have to withdraw to the second hub in the area: the Hot Springs business centre, located a few kilometres away and not as good.

STREAMER Petronella was raided and has the long black marks to show it

 Sylvia (29) managed to obtain a position in the illegal mining syndicate on this ticket: she “gives the guards a good time” when the illegal miners get into the fields, she says. “At first I would pay the leaders of the syndicates with my body so that they let me into the field with them to pan, but I could not keep up with pace of digging and carrying the sacks out afterwards, so this is what I do now.” She is safer than the others, Sylvia says, because she doesn’t have to go inside the mining area herself. “Sometimes the police and the army come to raid the people inside.”

Petronella (34) was raided and has the long black marks criss-crossing her back to prove it. She was among a group of women who were loitering at the local business centre when they were rounded up and taken to the police base at the Mbada mine. They expected to be kept for the night and released at dawn, like the many previous times this happened, but that night it was different. ‘We were made to sing songs lying on our stomachs (biting dust they called it) and then roll in the mud. They then flogged our backs with whips. “So that you learn not to lie on your back and open your legs,” they said.

STREAMER They even come to your house and demand sex for free

Often, these very soldiers are your customers. They are among the least favourite clients for this very reason. “They start to see you as their property. They impose their rules and hinder you from soliciting (other) clients.  They even come to your house and demand sex for free. If you refuse you just know that when they conduct an operation against illegal panners they will target your house. I was once taken in such an operation and left at Birchenough Bridge (forty-five kilometers to the south of Chiadzwa, ed.) without a cent!’ says a friend of Petronella’s, overhearing our conversation.

The best clients are the diamond buyers. If you hook up with them after a good deal they sometimes pay more than you ask for and even buy you food. A few women have been lucky to eventually settle down: they are mistresses of buyers and panners now. But still, most of those interviewed would not want to recruit their daughters or sisters into the trade. It is ‘vicious’ they say and who would want her daughter to go through that?

No place to bring a child

Beauty (19) who lives in a rented one room close to the business centre in Tsvingwe township, Penhalonga, north east of the regional capital Mutare, finds clients among the men who search for gold. There are no gold mining companies now since the Environmental Management Agency shut down Russian Ozgeo for failing to adhere to environmental regulations. The place is a free for all for the artisanal miners again now, with gwejas coming down daily from their camps in the mountains to search for remnants of the precious metal. Young women, including Beauty, mill around the Tsvingwe business centre all day in search of clients.

She has a child, but he stays in Honde Valley with her mother. “This is no place to bring a child,” she says. Dressed in tight jeans and matching top, wearing bright red lipstick, she is just leaving the house to meet ‘someone’ at the main road that connects Penhalonga to Mutare. As we walk to the road where she boards a mushika shika (the small Japanese cars that provide public transport illegally), she asks me if I am from those NGOs that work with sex workers and whether there is a new program coming.  “Business is a bit slow these days, the gwejas are not getting a lot of gold,” she explains.

An elderly woman, Mai John, recalls how, during the gold rush in 2014, many either dropped out of school to try their fortune in the mountains or got involved with the gwejas and dropped out of school. “It was like Sodom and Gomorra those days. You could not even say to your child don’t do this or that. The voice of the money was louder than ours.” Mai John’s youngest daughter was impregnated by a gweja who later left her. “If I had not been vigilant enough, my Linda would have resorted to sex work too, but I took her to Harare where she is now working as a maid’.

STREAMER Linda was impregnated by a gweja who later left her

Government awareness campaigns warning against HIV and unwanted pregnancy have been conducted in this area repeatedly, but not to much effect. “Without protection they earn more per session,” locals say about the women who do sex work, and the women shrug: how do you do this for less than one US dollar?

Several associations and trusts have advocated for the gold and diamonds to benefit the people of Chiadzwa and Penhalonga. The Penhalonga Rate Payers Association has tried to get the authorities to bring employment projects, but the authorities, in turn, prefer to rely on NGOs to help out. However, most of the NGOs in the district operate in the rural areas and there is very little help coming the way of Tsvingwe.

Workshops in the cities

‘They came and gathered us around and said they are collecting information and evidence to lobby for us,” says a Chiadzwa village head about the community projects that were started when the mines began to operate. “Occasionally people went to workshops in the cities and we hear some have even travelled (to attend meetings) with planes.” Last year there was a disbursement by the mine of US$ five million into a school fees scheme for the children of the region. Divided over thirty-six municipal wards, all wards in Mutare received a budget of US$ 88 000,  and also some computers and refurbishment of schools, but residents complain that implementation is erratic, the funds are difficult to access and no one knows when the next disbursement will come.

“Change is not forthcoming,” said one local traditional leader. He and others in the community indicated that the issue is livelihoods, rather than occasional handouts. Ask the women of Chiadzwa what they want and they’ll tell you that, given a choice, they would like to be employed in the mines for a decent salary.

STREAMER  The mining company may be hiding something

The Centre for Research and Development (CRD), a civil society organisation working on resource rights in the area, has engaged the Zimbabwe Consolidated Mining company (ZCDC) to ask how many locals are employed by the company. “They told us that they employ ninety percent locals,” says CRD director James Mupfumi. “We challenged them to conduct a headcount together with us, to really see how many locals are there, but they did not take up the challenge.” Mupfumi believes they may be “hiding something.”

Unanswered questions

The CRD has also asked the Minister of State for Provincial Affairs, Ellen Gwaradzimba, to look into the issue of employing locals -especially women- but it is yet to get a response. The ZCDC did not comment to any of the questions. The Chief Security Officer at the mine, asked specifically about abuse of gwejerines by guards and soldiers, did not respond to emailed questions even after indicating that he would do so. The mine’s public relations officer advised that questions should be emailed to CEO Morris Mpofu, which was done, but that email too remained without a response.

STREAMER Once investigations are complete you will definitely get the correct information

Only Major Xavier Chibasa, head of the Zimbabwe Defence Force’s Third Brigade in the local Manicaland province, promised an investigation after being made aware of the reports  of his soldiers’ abusive behaviour. “We are very concerned as an organisation on complaints coming from our publics whom we have a mandate to save,” he wrote in an email. “We take every complaint and allegations seriously with opportunity to investigate some circumstances. From the time I received your mail and the time you wanted a reply it is very difficult to furnish you with accurate information on this issue as we need to investigate. Thank you once again for getting in touch and once investigations are complete definitely you will get the correct information.”

More From the Series

More From the Series


CHAPTER 2: THE LAST RESOURCE, KENYA | Fighting for daily life

CHAPTER 3: THE LAST RESOURCE, LIBERIA |Surviving amid predators and hunger


CHAPTER 6: THE LAST RESOURCE, SOUTH AFRICA | Apartheid and the useless men in our lives

CHAPTER 7: THE LAST RESOURCE, UGANDA | A very public secret