Children as young as 10 used to cool themselves from the sweltering heat in the Odzi River on their way back from school in mineral-rich Marange, a village 90km south of Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe.
Now, with the public education system collapsing and the pandemic taking a wrecking ball to their parents’ economic opportunities, children are spending whole days at the river, panning for gold or fishing for an evening meal.
“I come here because we barely have anything to eat at home,” says 17-year-old Tanaka Chikwaka. In tattered, muddy clothing, Tanaka carries a bucket full of river sand, offloads it into a homemade mill which separates any precious grits of gold from the sand, and stops to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
Nearby, hordes of other children work in deep, filthy pits, digging for gold in an area also known for rich diamond deposits.
According to the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (Zela), thousands of children have been driven into artisanal – and dangerous – gold mining as families struggle to put food on the table.
Since the Covid-19 lockdown, which closed schools, the number of children involved in small-scale gold mining has soared, according to Zela.
Every morning dozens of young boys and girls cross the Odzi River, risking their safety, sometimes their young lives, for the yellow precious metal which is mined on the riverbeds and open pits in the surrounding areas.
After last season’s failed crops, this community is hungry. And school-age children have shouldered the burden of providing for their families.
Panning for gold along the riverbanks is illegal. The practice was banned in lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and the police are continually raiding the area looking for amateur prospectors. Environmental watchdogs say children have been arrested during the raids.
“This work I do here is tough but I do not have a choice. I just have to persevere. I can go for three months without getting anything meaningful. The highest amount I have ever earned for a single sale of gold is $10 (£7.60),” says Tanaka, who dropped out of school last year and hopes to raise enough money to return.
“I started last year, took a break and only resumed when Covid-19 started,” he says.
“It is my responsibility to look for school fees. I also need books and uniforms. I can only raise the money if I come here every day,” he says. He often goes home empty handed.
Young, inexperienced miners are often exploited by buyers who deliberately under-weigh the gold, says 15-year-old Munesu Makoni*, who dropped out of primary school.
Older miners, known as amakorokoza, also take gold by force from the younger ones.
“This place is not safe at all. The bigger guys come to take the little we have,” he says. In the blistering heat, Makoni becomes distressed talking about the hardships he faces, crying as he explains how he wanted to become a teacher.
Anopa Munzara* is also drenched in sweat as she carries a bucket of water from the clogged pit.
Since the lockdown, the teenager’s family has been toiling along the riverbed but the rewards of their labour are paltry.
“My mother is a vendor and also runs a huge garden but since lockdown, she cannot sell her vegetables. Hunger is our major problem, my mother can only afford one meal per day.” Munzara says she sees education as her only way out of poverty.
“I just want to pass my examinations and enrol for a nursing course. But for now I have to work,” she says.
Her mother and sister are also working the riverbed.
“If you come here during the week, you will find parents and their children mining for gold,” says Judith Betera, 43.
“I used to survive through vending and I would sell before the lockdown but now I have nothing. So I cannot just sit and watch my children starve. I was driven into mining by hunger because we failed to get anything from the field.”
Zimbabwe has ratified all key conventions concerning labour, among them the International Labour Organization (ILO) convention 138 which stipulates 18 as the minimum age for workers doing hazardous jobs. But families here have little choice.
In Zimbabwe, where children often share the responsibility of fending for the family with their parents, child labour has become widespread due to mounting economic problems. In 2019, of 50,000 under-16s surveyed, 71% were working in agriculture, forestry and fishing and 5.4% were in the mining and quarrying sectors, according to the findings of the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency.
The minister of labour and social welfare, Paul Mavima, says he’s unaware of a rise in child labour in the mining sector, adding that the government has provided funding to 13 districts to help.
“I have gone around the country and I have not seen anyone under 18 working in gold panning. The aspects of children in labour is within a family setup. Remember the work that is done by children is part of their socialisation. It should not however affect their school work,” he says.
Mavima says Zimbabwe’s government does not condone child labour but poor families in need of additional income involve their children in various forms of work.
“There are some instances where families would take their children along. It is not supposed to happen but they will be looking for additional income. When it becomes excessive, then we have a problem,” he says.
According to the ILO, 218 million children between 5 and 17 are in employment worldwide. Africa accounts for 72.1 million children working as labourers.
A spokesman for Zela says: “Government and other development partners should put in place economic safety nets to counter the economic hardships occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic and its response mechanisms to discourage the involvement of children in life-threatening economic activities.”
Near Marange, Moses Mhlanga, 49, rests under a tree with his five-year-old son.
“This is our new field. We all have to participate in order to survive. It is a desperate situation,” he says.
They join the young labourers making their way home, muddy, hungry and tired, with little to show for a day’s work.
*The names of the children who are 16 and below have been changed to protect their identity