How do you make money in Africa when you have no trade or skill set? When jobs are hard to come by? You get yourself a metal-detector and go to the bush. Zimbabweans have taken a 1st world country hobby and turned it into a profession. Zimbabwe is rich in Gold, nuggets are found almost everywhere. They range from sub-grammes to kilogrammes. Almost every month there is a new 'Spot' found that causes a modern day Gold Rush. Many people have made their fortunes 'Detecting' with stories of nuggets as big as 50kg's being found. Those who have not been so lucky still manage to make a decent living off smaller nuggets that are found in abundance all over the country.
The law regarding such small scale mining activities is 'Grey', prospecting licenses can be purchased from the Mines Department that give the detectorist some legitimacy. All Gold must be recorded in a 'Gold Registry' and either sold to the bank or a registered buyer within a certain period of time. Most of the people with detectors don't bother to abide by the laws. They are rarely, if ever required to produce Prospecting Licences so view them as a waste of money. Illegal Gold buyers offer a slightly higher price than the Bank and registered buyers. Registered buyers usually operate from towns, when only a small quantity of Gold is found in a remote area it will be sold to a local buyer, supplies bought and the detectorists will stay in the bush looking for a bigger find. Gold buyers can be found almost anywhere, small villages, bottle stores, grocery stores even in the bush! Before the Zimbabwe Dollar was discontinued Gold could be swapped for provisions such as food and fuel. The shop keeper would weigh the Gold and let you take goods for it's worth.
The metal-detectors used are not your average hobbyist variety. The 'machines' as they are known locally cost around USD $6500. At first they would be imported from neighbouring South Africa, usually smuggled to avoid import tax. Eventually Minelabs, the company that makes the machines opened a branch in Zimbabwe.
Despite the high cost of the machines, there are hundreds if not thousands scanning the Zimbabwean bush as you read this. How is this so in such a poor country?
The first people to use the machines hired locals to dig up the nuggets they found. The machines pick up every type of metal as well as the dreaded 'Iron Stone'. There is a surprising amount of 'scrap' even in the most unlikely places. You can dig hundreds of holes just to find one nugget, when you rely on finding that nugget to make a profit there is no way of avoiding all that digging. Paying someone to dig for you makes sense. Finding Gold is never a sure thing, so instead of paying a fixed wage people offer a percentage of what is found, usually 10%. With finds often over 2kgs and at the price of Gold in those days that meant a digger could make as much as USD $8000. Enough to buy a machine of his own. With his first big find his digger earns enough to purchase his own machine, and so slowly more machines appeared.
Word soon spread about this new lucrative venture and people with money to spare saw this as a quick money opportunity. They bought machines and gave them to people to use, paying them a percentage of what they found. I've heard of some people buying up to 15 machines for other people to use on their behalf. The people using these machines made their money and instead of working for someone else they got their own. More and more machines were in the bush.
People who could not raise the funds to buy a machine pooled money together and formed syndicates, working together and sharing the profits.
The bush is now full of people looking to make their fortunes.
The local newspapers refer to them as 'Gold Panners' or 'Makorokoza'. Makorokoza is a local word meaning 'Termite', used to describe the detectorist because of the holes they leave behind. They have a reputation for heavy drinking, violence and unruly behaviour. There may be some truth in this as mercury is often used to purify fine Gold. Gloves are never worn and neither are masks. One of the first symptoms of mercury poisoning is madness.
With the ever increasing amount of machines on the ground Gold is becoming harder and harder to find. Disputes over new found areas are common, 'poachers' sneak onto registered claims and a new trend to metal detecting has emerged 'ripping'.
With new spots becoming harder to find old spots are being re-worked. The machines will only pick up Gold to a certain depth, so even when an area where nuggets are found has been entirely covered by a machine there are still nuggets left behind. This is where ripping comes in. Locals a recruited to dig up the ground and machines then go through the piles of sand and rubble, picking up nuggets that have been unearthed from depths to great for the machine to have picked up from the surface. When a nugget is found, the person who dug the hole it came out of (known as a ripper) receives a percentage. Some ripping operations draw rippers in numbers well over a thousand. Vendors spring up selling clothes, food and alcohol. Prostitution and gambling are common.
Another method of getting the most out of a spot is 'cut and carry'. Grass is slashed, brush cut and stones carried away in order to clear ground to be worked by machines. Dry grass is sometimes set on fire to make it easier to work. Fires out of control cause massive damage. During the dry season in Gold rich areas smoke from distant fires dot the horizon.
Detecting in Zimbabwe cannot be stopped, Gold Fever has infected the population like a plague. I remember the awe of witnessing Gold come out the ground for the first time. For years I couldn't shake the fever but as Gold grew more scarce and the methods being used by the majority to find the precious metal I became disgusted at what a metal found in the ground can do to people. Friends turning against each other, destruction of our beautiful country and even murder all for something found in the ground. I don't regret the years I spent in the bush,it has left me with wonderful memories and stories to tell. I scraped through it all without losing my dignity, something not many can say.
My personal experience of being a Makorokoza to follow!