Monday, October 29, 2007

Flesh eaten away

On a continent where more than 300 million live in extreme poverty, the poorest have little choice about how they make their living — whether in the lake, or toiling deep in gold mines despite the risk of rock falls, or breathing poisonous pesticides on flower farms and rubber plantations.

Chemicals in Lake Katwe are clearly unhealthy, experts say. The government has not acted on requests to study the risks.

"No studies have been done because these people are voiceless," says Dr. Assay Ndizihiwe, a senior government health official who has worked in Katwe. "These chemicals are clearly corrosive to skin, causing scarring and nerve damage, and it's very likely they have other effects we don't yet know about."

3,000 people work at Lake Katwe, earn around $2 per 220-pound haul of rock salt. In an average week, each might harvest 15 sacks — meaning about four times the dollar-a-day average earned by 39 percent of Ugandans.

But the physical price is high, and the protection is primitive. The miners glue paper over open wounds. They wade into the water wearing condoms and with their legs wrapped in tire tubes.
Health experts say these offer little protection.

While the men collect the rock salt, women work knee-deep in manmade pools on the shores. These salt pans, carved into neat squares, produce granular salt harvested once every four days from the bottom of the pools. A day's labor pays $0.60.

The women also suffer lesions, and coat themselves in cassava paste, believing that the water causes infertility.

But there aren't many alternatives for the 10,000 people living by the lake. The earth yields few crops. Nearby is another lake, less salty, but it has few fish.

"The water is poisonous to us but how can anyone refuse to go down there? What will we eat?" said Harriet Birungi. Aged 30, she has worked in the salt pans for half her life to support her five children.

Wage slavery is the true reality for those who do not share in the wealth of the world .

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