As the early morning sun smiles over the Rutsiro hills, children as young as seven years and men aged over 60 years, carrying various types of crude mining equipment trek to the hills to look for wolfram in the Shembe Mine concession in Rutsiro district, Western Province.
This has been the routine for generations as the search for wolfram, which is the source of their livelihood that generates faster and more reliable earnings than agriculture produce, continues.
Not anymore, or at least for now. This means of survival was interrupted a few months ago by the government after environmental and other concerns were raised.
The hitherto lucrative and smooth artisanal mining business is now an 'underground' activity, putting the lives of many illegal miners and the region's environment at risk.
The government, in June last year, banned mining activities in the Western Province because of suspected poor operational practices, including environment degradation and terrible working conditions for workers.
It gave the mining companies and co-operatives in the region an ultimatum to improve the situation or have their licences revoked. Most of them have sincechanged the way they were operating before and resumed operations.
However, a few are still struggling to get back their licences, thus, leaving the mine concessions idle and vulnerable to illegal activities by the residents.
The Shembe Mine concession is one of those still suspended and has become a haven for illegal miners.
When The New Times carried out a three-hour survey in Rutsiro district to understand the situation, we found that illegal mining activities were a grave worry, not only to the environment, but to the livelihood of the residents as well.
With no protective gear of any sort, over 60 locals were spread all over the hills of Shembe, doing a variety of mining activities. Some entered smoky drills armed with rusty axes and hoes as mining tools, staying there for hours.
When they eventually came out, they were carrying sackfulls of clay-like earth, which they poured into a nearby stream to wash off the clay, revealing black metal gems. The washing is mainly done by children.
"A kilo of these costs Rwf4,000 so now you understand why we must work so hard," Edward, an illegal miner, told us, as he unfolded a palm full of wolfram.
Edward, a 44-year-old man, has depended on mining for most part of his life.
"The money I get from selling wolfram is more than what I earn from selling bananas. I am able to take care of my wife and three children and also pay for health insurance," he said.
He was one of the only two illegal miners who accepted to talk to The New Times; the rest shunned us, suspecting that we were spying on them.
Indeed, we were told that the police frequent the area and had arrested about 20 illegal miners in the past two months. Just recently, on Heroes' Day, a morning police operation led to the arrest of five miners, while a couple of them were injured in the scuffle and were admitted to the district hospital.
Other than routine run-ins with the police, the miners have to contend with deadly mudslides, debris and rocks that, at times, trap them inside the dark tunnels. With no gas masks, head gear or protective footwear, their lives are at risk every day.
Asked about whether he is not worried about the bad working conditions, Leonard, another illegal miner, opted to look at the situation philosophically.
"Do you fear to travel in a car just because you might get an accident? Do you fear to climb a hill because you might stumble and fall? It is the same with us. We don't look at the dangers involved in mining, but what we will gain at the end of the day," Leonard said.
Edward then chips in with a request: "If the government wants to stop us from mining illegally, they should bring a co-operative or a company which can employ us and also provide us with protective gear."
"When we used to mine and sell wolfram to Natural Resources Development (NRD), the company provided us with protective gear and also paid us Rwf3,000 per kilo. But ever since they were stopped from operating here, we do not have a permanent company to sell to or one to provide us with protective gear," he added.
The Shembe Mine concession in Rutsiro belongs to Natural Resources Development, but their operational licence was suspended in June by the Ministry of Natural Resources over environment degradation concerns.
Their machinery, including a heavy grader, excavator and a mineral processing plant, are rusting away at NRD's offices in Rusebeya sector, a few kilometres from the mine.
Raphael Reberaho, the executive secretary of Rusebeya sector, said efforts to stop illegal mining in the area were futile because the miners sometimes turn violent.
"We have tried to stop them and even sensitised them about the dangers involved in illegal mining, but they don't listen. Every day one of them is taken to hospital because of a broken leg resulting from fallen mine wall but they still don't listen," Reberaho said in an interview.
"When we go there, they attack us. I am hoping that either NRD restarts operations or some other company takes over the mine and employs these people."
Natural Resources Development should begin operations once they have upgraded their environment protection practices, according to the geology and mines department.
"They were given until this month (February) to improve their operations... they should be able to begin operations in Rutsiro after this," Francis Kayumba, the acting director for Mines Regulation and Inspection, said in a phone interview.
He added that the ministry decentralised the fight against illegal mining by involving local leaders countrywide.
"We work with district authorities to sensitise the miners about what is required for one to start mining. Last year, in May and June, we carried out campaigns in all the provinces; we are also preparing a training session next month for the same purpose," he said.
The mining industry's significance to Rwanda's economy increased since the 1930s, but dipped in the 1980s.
The industry gradually picked pace after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi due to increased government support, with the value of mineral exports rising from $3.8m in 1997 to $158m (about Rwf 104.3b) in 2011.
The principle mineral is cassiterite (tin), whose export volume decreased to 3 million tonnes in 2012, from 4 million tonnes the previous year. Other minerals include coltan, wolfram and gold.
The government will, in March, release a detailed report on the potential of new mining areas in the country, covering about 1,700 square kilometres and rich in tin, coltan, wolfram and gold.
Illegal mining, however, continues to be one of the industry's greatest challenges. "We cannot just look on in poverty and do nothing, while mineral wealth is buried in the ground," Edward concluded.