ZHOMBE communal land in Kwekwe district in the Midlands province, like many other areas in the province, is endowed with generous deposits of gold. Before independence, the area boasted one of the biggest gold mining companies in the province and beyond, Empress Mine.
The closure of Empress Mine around 1982 spelled doom for the area as its economy took an acute downturn and development in the area suffered a huge knock.
Zibagwe Rural District Council, under whose jurisdiction Zhombe lies, caught a cold, inevitably so, when Zhombe sneezed at the closure of Empress Mine, as the local authority’s revenue base was significantly thinned.
Empress Mine Business Centre, one of the biggest service centres in Zhombe, which used to harbour the potential of growing into a town suffered stunted growth after the closure of the mine.
The Empress Mine compound now resembles an abandoned town with dilapidated infrastructure and vandalised houses are a common feature, although the local authority is now making efforts to refurbish the housing units and other infrastructure in the compound.
Mining activities which were the toehold of Zhombe’s economy are now largely in the hands of illegal gold panners who trudge from one spot to the other leaving a trail of land degradation as they rummage for the precious mineral. That is the only contribution the gold panners can make to Zhombe’s development agenda, as they do not remit anything to the local authority to spur development.
Farmers, on the other hand, most of whom heavily rely on cotton farming, have been singing the blues, with depressed cotton prices and erratic rains due to climate change the chief cause.
The story of Zhombe may seem gloomy and hopeless. But as the old adage English maxim supposes, there is a shining silver lining on the dark cloud hovering above Zhombe. The silver lining could, however, be shining from a direction less expected.
Zhombe is not only endowed with vast gold deposits, but is also blessed with enormous deposits of a unique mineral which if exploited commercially could drive massive growth in the area and restore its yesteryear sparkle. The area is blessed with huge deposits of an organic fertiliser, guano, which is said to be rich in phosphate and nitrate and can be used as alternative to compound D fertiliser.
Guano, is excrement from cave-dwelling bats and is found in huge abundance in Mabura Caves situated near Somapani Primary School in the North-western end of Zhombe under Chief Samabwa’s area.
Mabura is the local name for bat excrement.
Experts also suggest that the bat dung can also be used to manufacture gunpowder.
According to scientists at the University of Guelph in Canada, there were over two million tonnes of guano deposits at Mabura Caves in 1991. The deposits are however, estimated to have increased over the years as no serious exploitation has taken place. Only villagers are reported to be extracting the excreta which they apply in their fields in place of compound D.
Although the immediate value of guano on the world market could not be immediately established, Zibagwe RDC chief executive officer Mr Farayi Machaya said the amount of interest the resource has attracted from potential investors, both local and foreign, over the years was evidence it was worth “an encouraging amount of money”.
Mr Machaya said the local authority was working on securing an investor to extract the bat dung on a commercial basis, a development he said would hugely benefit the local community in numerous ways.
He expressed optimism that an investor for the Mabura guano project would soon be secured.
“We have had a number of investors coming to inquire about guano. Some have taken samples for testing in South Africa. Three weeks ago we had a meeting with an organisation that called itself the Zimbabwe Guano Extractors who also expressed interest in mining the fertiliser.
“Our hope is that those inquiries turn into something concrete and we are optimistic that will happen. The amount of interest our guano has attracted in recent years is encouraging and we just keep our fingers crossed.
“Of course if we get an investor we will reap huge benefits and that could change the face of Zhombe. We can talk of employment creation, revenue to the local authority and then corporate social responsibility programmes that the company will engage in. The prospects are quite bright. The caves are a mine of bat guano, or bat dung. Local people extract small amounts of this guano and use it as rich fertiliser during good rainy seasons.
“The Government has been talking about possible mining of the precious mineral for years now but nothing concrete has yet taken place. This would be one of the income generating projects in the ward were it to be effected soon.”
Mr Machaya added that council was in talks with the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe to turn Mabura Caves into a tourist attraction, another way he said could also create revenue for the local authority and spur development in the area.
He, however, expressed concern at the continued illegal extraction of guano by locals, warning that the substance contained dangerous elements that could cause fungal infection.
“Villagers mine guano and they do so in the afternoon which might disturb the bats and push them deeper into the cave to areas that may not be accessible. There are also health concerns as guano is said to have components that cause fungal infection. Villagers need to be careful,” he said.
Mr Benson Mhungu, a farmer in Zhombe confirmed that he and fellow villagers use guano from Mabura Caves as fertiliser testifying that the bat excreta had worked much better than compound D fertiliser.
He, however, said villagers had to dilute the guano before applying it onto their fields because of its high chemical concentrate.
“Every farming season people go to Mabura to get guano which they apply as compound D fertiliser. It actually works much better although one needs to mix it with sand to dilute it before applying it, otherwise it can damage the crops.
“The amount of heat that is in caves is so much that you cannot go further than 10 metres. It’s so dark inside the caves we have to burn rubber from old car tyres and use that as light. Electronic torches don’t work, somehow they just switch off. Maybe it’s because of the high temperatures inside the caves,” he said.
Mabura caves is reported to be sacred with numerous mysterious stories told of caves, and villagers believe that one needs to conduct rituals before entering to extract guano.
Tales of a mysterious leopard which used to guard Mabura Caves are told, with claims that if one attempted to take a picture of the predator, nothing would come out.
Chief Samambwa confirmed the mysterious happenings.
“It’s true. The leopard was last seen in the early 1990. A lot of people can testify to this. There are some parts in the cave which if you enter with a torch it will switch off. The cave is sacred and one has to perform rituals before going in. If you go in without conducting the ritual and something happens to you, I will not be held accountable,” he warned this reporter. The traditional leader said that extraction of guano by locals who used it as fertiliser started as way back as in the 1950s, adding that a number of white owned companies had also exploited the resource on a commercial basis which they exported to South Africa.
“I remember in 1964 when I was still my father’s secretary, who was the chief then a white man called Mr Ellen came to my father in the company of Kwekwe distric administrator and asked to mine guano. We did all the rituals necessary and they did not have any problems mining. That company is the one which constructed the road that leads to the caves.
“Others that came later on bypassing the chief and did not conduct the rituals met a lot of mysterious happenings. Their machines would either break down or they would not find the guano,” he said.
Chief Samambwa expressed hope that an investor would be secured, who would come through the local leadership to get permission to mine guano, adding that securing of the investor would also drive development in his area.
“If the investor comes through our traditional structure they will not have any problems. But if they bypass us then they will be doomed like the other investors. We want them to follow the proper channels, and that will also help our community to start deriving real benefits from the resource,” said the traditional leader.
Mabura caves are believed to stretch for more than 60km to Copper Queen area in Gokwe, passing underneath Ngondoma River. No one has ever travelled the length of caves as there are areas further inside that are said to be impassable.