Porter’s plight

Visitors have started returning to Nepal since King Gyanendra’s violent, and unsuccessful, crackdown on his political opponents at the beginning of 2006. Forced to restore parliament and quit as head of government, the King was stripped of legal immunity. The climbdown has all but ended the country’s ‘eternal’ Shah dynasty. With the Maoists also recently signing a peace deal and bringing to an end a 10-year civil war that claimed 15,000 lives and displaced a further 100,000, multiparty elections are being planned for the early part of 2007. The future is looking a little brighter for the Nepali people.

One of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, with a third of its population living below the poverty line and dependent on subsistence agriculture, tourism has long been a key source of foreign exchange. In 1998 tourism contributed 15 per cent of the country’s total foreign exchange earnings, directly or indirectly employing 257,000 people.

At 4,000 metres, Alowa Sherpa and Mingha Sherpa watched fellow porters approaching. Two of the porters carried baskets weighing 40 kilos. In the third porter’s basket was a fourth porter. The sick and listless body of the young porter was being carried back to the hospital at Lukla, some three days’ walk away. ‘Altitude sickness.’ Mingha shook his head. ‘Some companies don’t look after their porters,’ he continued. ‘They don’t provide them with any training or the right clothing. If they fall sick they stop paying them and just leave them behind, because they don’t pay insurance.’

Alowa, a father of four, is in his late thirties. ‘I have been a porter for many years now, and things are better than they used to be, but this still happens.’ In a good year Alowa will work on six to seven treks that are ten days or more in duration. ‘Some of the trekking companies are good, others not so good,’ he continues.

‘The Sherpa organizations [International Porter Protection Group and Porters Progress] say that we should be paid around ten dollars a day. I normally get five. Sometimes less.’

Social issues abound too. Many porters complain to the NGO organizations about the discrimination they face as a result of their race or religious caste. Other problems include poor health and safety training, and lack of education on environmental issues. It is also not uncommon for porters to experience bouts of homesickness. ‘It can be difficult,’ agreed Alowa. ‘I can be away from my family for up to 30 days.’

‘We often have to wait around Lukla for work, so even after a trek has finished we don’t go home,’ Mingha added. It is easy to see how some porters become prone to gambling and binge drinking, and why the occurrence of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS is high. However, a teetotal and ambitious Mingha will not be wasting his money. ‘I am saving to become a guide. Then no more carrying heavy loads for me!’

Richard Human

Tanzanite trouble

All images from a tanzanite mine in Mererani: James Lazier amidst the rubble

Richard Human

It was the New York jeweller Tiffany’s that christened the stone ‘Tanzanite’ when it appeared on the world market in 1962 from the hills around the town of Mererani, 50 kilometres south of Kilimanjaro. ‘We were always discouraged by our parents from picking up the blue stones,’ says James Lazier, a 26-year-old Maasai from this part of Tanzania. ‘They worried that if we were looking for stones, we wouldn’t be looking after the cattle.’

For a number of years now Tanzanian farmers have craned their necks to scan the clear blue skies in the vain hope that they would miraculously fill with rain clouds. Meanwhile, over at the empty auction houses, the bottom has fallen out of their coffee and sisal markets. Along the coast and in the game parks, tourism is experiencing a slowdown; in the towns cautious foreign investors have shelved expansion plans. The current international political climate has resulted in Western intelligence agencies taking an interest in the mining of the stones.

A miner descends into the shaft via a wooden ladder – the tunnels below are unlit and unsupported

Richard Human

James spent a year in the mines of Mererani. Unpaid and unfed, the only way to earn money from this punishing drudgery is to smuggle unearthed gems out of the mine and past the mine owner, before selling the raw stone to one of the many dealers in the town. James never managed it. ‘If you get a stone out you can make eight million Tanzanian shillings (about $10,000),’ James informs me, without the slightest hint of wistfulness.

A miner with a torch strapped to his head by strips of bicycle tyre inner tube

Richard Human

‘When a mine is dynamited the miners have to stand, one arm hooked around a ladder step, receiving a bag of rock from the miner below before passing it to the miner above. They will stay in this position for the whole day without a break,’ James continues. ‘The only things that keep them going are brandy and marijuana. Both stop the feeling of hunger but make people feel angry.’

Sifting the rock fragments for tanzanite

Richard Human

The lack of central planning causes its own set of problems. Stories abound of mine owners blasting into each others’ tunnels, resulting in fatal brawls breaking out underground between their miners. The trauma of 100 miners killed by floodwater is still fresh in the minds of many. Others fall victim to AIDS, typhoid and malaria. What is clear is that many young Tanzanian males are driven by poverty in their home areas to the hills of Mererani. For most, the grip of grinding poverty only increases its intensity in the dark, dust-filled and oxygen-starved Tanzanite holes. The ad hoc nature of the extraction and dispersal of the stones also helps to perpetuate the poverty of the majority. But, as long as farming remains a precarious existence with changing weather patterns and falling commodity prices, as long as tourism struggles to fill its minibuses and new investors look elsewhere to put their money, the mines will continue to attract those who want a better life for themselves and their families.

Paper profits in The Gambia

Richard Human

‘We wanted to do something for our environment as well as introduce the traditional skill of paper-making to the country,’ Saffie Joof (pictured) explains as she tears, pounds and soaks waste paper. Here, in a five-metre-square room covered with a creaking tin roof, Saffie and five others make paper that profits their entire country. While Saffie works on the waste paper, others in her team will go to the busy streets surrounding the nearby capital, Banjul, in order to collect shredded documents from the various embassies, hotels and businesses that regularly donate waste paper to them. Yet others will visit the city’s tailors to collect their off-cut material. Then they will return to the tiny family compound in the village of Faji Kunda, where the team runs a remarkable charity – The Paper Recycling Skills Project (PRSP). Their small-scale mill produces between 50 to 100 sheets of A3 paper a day, which are then bound in covers made from recycled cardboard and material before being distributed as photo albums and notebooks to the various retail outlets frequented by tourists throughout The Gambia. With the profits made from tourist sales, PRSP supports schools throughout the country. It has donated 60,000 exercise books, as well as extra stationery items including pencils, pens and reading books to schoolchildren during the four years it has been operating.