At a gold processing site in the new Tiira Town Council, Sikuda Sub County, a group of youth and minors are huddled over water filled pans trying to extract gold particles. We ask one of them, 16years old, if he shouldn't be at school.
The boy straightens up from his pan, looks at us in amusement and points to an expectant woman, likely in her mid 20s, and proudly says: "That's my wife over there. As you can see I have responsibilities. "
To his satisfaction we're clearly left speechless. In the gold rich Busia district, authorities grapple with a problem for which lasting solutions are unimaginable.
The Tiira Small Scale Miners Association (TSSMA) secretary explains that the gold trade in Busia has been handed down for generations since 1930 when mining started in the district. Children are raised with a mentality that gold mining is the family source of income so it's normal to find minors working in mines or at processing centres.
Hanging on the wall of the tiny office housing TSSMA, is a chart detailing the guidelines of operations for members to adhere to. Much as it's clearly stipulated that minors are not allowed to work, it doesn't deter them neither does there seem to be efforts to stop them. Resultantly the rate of illiteracy in the district and school dropout is alarmingly high.
Local Government, CSOs interventions
Nancy Lillian Akitwi, a parish chief Mawero in Buteba Sub County, notes that the case there is alarmingly worse. Gold mining is in two villages.
"Here you can't even talk of school; they'll laugh at you. They'll ask what you, who has gone to school, have over them. Yet the level of financial illiteracy is equally high. When one gets money they look for another woman to marry. Young girls of course follow the money too. We really need help, " says Ms Akitwi.
Akitwi narrates how, following her deployment as the parish chief seven years ago, it was even more challenging engaging the mining communities on issues of child labour, HIV/AIDS and education.
"We have tried talking to the parents but whereas some are cooperative, others find it okay for the children to contribute to family income."
She says other than World Vision that has made some interventions to get children back to school, and ActionAid Uganda that emphasizes the need to get minors away from these mining pits, not much has been done by local authorities.
Success stories of the gold trade are a big motivator for the young folk. At Tiira stands what is now a landmark testament of the gold proceeds; an open pit just in the compound of a newly built, fairly modern house. A young man made sixty million Uganda shillings (Shs60m) and built himself a house.
Henry Onyango, the district community development officer admits it's a challenge they struggle to find lasting solutions to and hope more interventions by civil society can help to combat the problem.
Charles Olowo, the Sikuda councillor at the district, says they passed an ordinance, the Child Protection Bill 2017, to address the challenge and that they even got some funding to sensitize people in the mines, but results are yet to be seen.
"May be we should have carried out consultations with the people first, " he said at a miners ' meeting.
Busia assistant chief administrative officer however puts the blame on the directorate of geological survey & mines who he blames for issuing too many licenses in the district.
"Every other day a mining license is being issued in Busia. Our children are not studying because of mining," he said at the same meeting.
Tiira is known to have a high prevalence of HIV /AIDs which further exercabates the problem as young people are at high risk. Mr. Olowo pointed this out during the meeting with Action Aid Uganda that was chaired by the Extractives Governance Coordinator Didas Muhumuza
"We have a problem of HIV in Busia. Last year we even marked the World Aids Day twice to bring attention to it. We tested 100 people and found 10 were infected, " he said.
Several officials have pointed out that the lure of quick money from gold has attracted so many youth to mining. Commercial sex workers have as a result 'brought services closer to the community.'
"Most youth spend their hard earned money in the mushrooming bars and entertainment centres as you can see them, " says TSSMA Secretary Josephine Aguttu.
Relatedly, being a border town, Busia youth are at high risk.
Things however are taking a turn with the intervention of the newly formed Mineral Police which started operations following the Mubende mines evictions.
Makoha Christine, the community development officer Sikuda, says the numbers of children in the mines are drastically falling because of the police. "Some are still mining but at a minimal scale because of the Police. Culprits once got are jailed which has put off most miners. But there are cases of illegal mining under the cover of darkness, " she said.
The challenge of minors in working in mines is a global and thorny issue being addressed at the international level under the responsible mineral supply chain management. A prominent case in the Democratic Republic of Congo where children as young as ten were reported working in the cobalt mines sparked widespread outrage. Companies of repute like Apple clarified that they require their suppliers to adhere to responsible sourcing guidelines for their minerals.
Though not implemented yet at the regional level, under the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region initiative towards responsible mineral production and management, gold sourced from such mines would not make it to international markets which conversely have implications on the development of the sector.