Zimbabwe: Hwange Coal Ashes Ruin Lives

One fateful afternoon, then 13-year-old Obedient Dube from Hwange town went bird-hunting with three other boys as they enjoyed the last days of the 2016 August school holiday.

The adventure took the youngsters from Madumabisa compound to the coal ash dump sites near the Area A residential area.

At the time of the incident, the ash dump site wasn't marked "Danger".

The boys' adventure turned tragic when the top surface suddenly gave in partly, swallowing young Dube to knee level and exposing him to burning coal ash.

Dube was burnt on both feet as he frantically moved them up and down hoping to escape from the red-hot coal ash.

When he eventually escaped, his left foot had been seriously burnt and he had to spend more than three months admitted at Hwange Colliery Hospital.

"I wrote my Grade 7 examinations from the hospital bed," the 17-year-old Wankie Secondary School pupil said as he recounted the traumatic encounter.

Four years later, Dube is still feeling some pain on the left foot and the hallux has been moving backward as the muscle tightens, presumably to heal the internal injuries.

The shift in his hallux, he says, is making it increasingly difficult for him to walk.

"I cannot walk long distances anymore. It takes me about 40 minutes to walk to school [a distance of less than 2km]," he said, adding that he now finds it difficult to wear shoes.

Dube's mother, Zondiwe Dube, said life has been difficult for her son ever since he got injured.

"He is visibly in pain, but I do not have any money to take him to specialist doctors for attention. I now buy him oversized shoes because of his deformed leg," she said on the sidelines of the commemoration of women's struggles against destructive mining, which was organised by the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) in conjunction with Greater Hwange Residents Trust.

"We tried to seek help, but we were told that Hwange Colliery Company cannot pay for specialist treatment."

Zondiwe said the company only put a danger warning sign at the dump site after her son had been burnt.

The place where Dube was injured is not the only coal ash dump site in Hwange. There are several others in the Cinderella and Lwendulu villages.

In 2016, the CNRG documented a horrific case of yet another boy, Simba Mulezu, who was permanently handicapped after falling into the raging Hwange underground fires.

Mulezu was driving away cattle from his mother's field when the ground gave in under his feet, sinking him into the burning coal underground. He was 10 years old.

The underground fires left the now 17-year-old Mulezu with deformed limbs.

Simba still suffers from the effects of the accident and can't spend much time outdoors because his cannot cope with the region's severe weather conditions.

His widowed mother, Susan Mulezu, was seething with anger when she recounted her son's ordeal.

"For me, my son's catastrophe shows that coal is a curse to humankind," she said.

"Since their father passed away, I have been struggling to get my son and his three younger siblings to go to school.

"I want to secure a better future for them, but since my son fell into the coal pit, he cannot do much of what children of his age do."

These sites are not protected and are prone to fire. The oxidation process of coal, which is the main burning by-product material of the mining operation, leads to spontaneous combustion of coal waste dump sites, often triggering fires that can burn for decades.

CNRG director Farai Maguwu accused Hwange Colliery Company of being careless when dumping coal, which exposed residents to serious risks.

"This is negligence on the part of Hwange Colliery Company," he said.

"Since these ashes are highly flammable as residents say, there are safety measures to be put in place to protect Hwange residents.

"However, the level of impunity enjoyed by the company is shocking.

"No corporation must be allowed to act irresponsibly, maim people and continue as if nothing has happened.

"I wonder where the Environmental Management Agency is when all of this is happening."

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