On a small lake – Lake Katwe located in Western Uganda, Kasese district-located in the East African rift valley region. The water in this lake is 60% salty. The region is semi-arid and the soil doesn’t favour agricultural activities. Therefore the major economic activity here is salt mining.
Salt has been extracted from this lake since the 13th Century. It’s mined from small plot. When I saw the plots I got surprised. They are not the common plots of land like the ones you will find in central, Eastern or other parts of Western Uganda. These “plots” are ponds 10 by 12 feet or so wide and 3 to 5 feet deep. They are demarcated on the shores of the lake, owned by private individuals or families and inherited. Mining in the center of the lake is only done by licensed individuals. The association for Rock Salt Extraction issues the licenses for extraction of rock salt from the middle of the lake. This type of arrangement was made to ensure that the salt is extracted in an orderly process without causing extinction.
"Plots" on the shores of lake Katwe
There are three major types of salt mined from this lake:
- Crude salt for animal leak
- Edible salt (sodium chloride)
- Unwashed salt
Two types of activities take place in this region and the roles are specified for the women and men.
- Salt winning (winning salt from the plots – done by the women).
- Rock salt extraction is done by the men – 3 days a week.
The women scrap the bottom of the garden to scoop the salt. They use their feet to crash the salt to form small/fine crystals and then wash the crystals forming edible salt (washed salt/ sodium chloride).
Some of the ladies who work in the salt mines.
“In this village mention rain and people will curse you to death! We don’t like rain at all. Last night it rained that’s why people are all relaxed now and not working. Our major source of power is the sun. When it rains the gardens flood and the salt takes longer to form. The sun on the other hand makes the process of salt formation faster”, said Nicholas as he was taking us around the lake.
The smell of hydrogen sulphide is all over the place (smells like rotten eggs).
There are health complications in this job however. For the women when the female reproductive organs get in contact with this salty water more often, they develop uterus complications.
On average one man extructs up to 1,000kgs of salt per day and he earns Ugx3,000 (USD1.50). On the side of the path are the plots (ponds) where the salt is mined.
The men on the other hand are also affected. When the male organs get in contact with this salty water, they itch. This makes them scratch their male organs causing wounds.
The men enter the water at 8am and work up to 5pm. They work for three days a week and each man extracts more than 1000kgs per day.
“We are lucky that in this village we have never had any health complications caused by lack of iodine in the body say goiter”, said Nicholas as he was taking us around the lake.
“At the moment we don’t have a permanent solution to these problems. However we have tried to improvise temporally solutions to both the male and female problems in regard to the health implications”, says Nicholas a tour guide. “The
Stacks of unwashed salt
women have been advised to use pad before they enter the water. This helps to reduce on the amount of “salt water” entering their reproductive organs.”
“For the men, we are using the wrong tool (condom)”. We call it the wrong tool because it’s meant for a totally different purpose. But under the circumstances we have nothing to do about it. The men fit the condom with a rubber-band on the upper end to make it firm” explains Nicholas. This prevents salt water from getting in contact with the male organs.
Apparently a company called International Power Foundation is designing a more permanent solution for them in form of “protective suites”.
I took the liberty of talking to a few locals both men and women. When I asked about the major problems in this area they said that they still have problems accessing medical care. Malaria remains a very big threat to both the adult and children. They have a small health centre which they feel is not
plots - locally known as "ebibanja"
enough. The nearest governmental hospital (Kagando Hospital) is 14 kilometers away and in case of an emergency transport to the hospital is a big challenge. Kilembe hospital (another big hospital) is located 30 or so kilometers away.
The environment is dirty, plus the luck of pit latrines, cholera outbreaks are also very common around the lake/ mines.
The total population in this area is over 20,000 people of whom 10,000 benefit directly or work on the 4,000 plots around the lake in this salt mine.