Sunday, February 28, 2010

Notes On The Underground - My Life As A Miner

The town of Tsumeb in northern Namibia owes it's existence to a spectacular ore body which led to the establishment of a mine in 1905.

The De Wet Shaft headgear, shown in the image above, is situated on the main road and dominates the town's landscape.

Above is the 'Bank', or shaft entrance. For twelve years this is where I descended into the depths every day.

Sadly, the ore body has been depleted and the mine has been closed since the late 1990s.

The sign board at the shaft entrance showing the different communication signals used by the 'Banksman' and the 'Ontsetter' (the person in charge of the cage which transported men and materials).

Communications were by means of an electric buzzer system, (using a special key), installed on the bank and at each level where the cage stopped.

There was even an unlisted signal to express the sentiment 'F-you'.

One of the 'Gangs' who worked in a specific working place or 'Stope'. At times I was required to supervise three or four gangs at the same time.

The guy with yellow hard hat in the pic above was named Daniel.

Daniel and I were alone in particularly dangerous working place where razor sharp rocks were hanging in the roof above us - we were installing wooden supports when some rocks came down, narrowly missing my back but felling Daniel who was behind me.

While he was lying stunned on the ground another rock fell and amputated the two middle fingers on his right hand.

At times the environmental working conditions were really horrific, the ground was dangerous, ventilation was poor and the heat energy-sapping. In this pic you can see miners hand-lashing high-grade ore into a scraper gully - sometimes this ore was solid metal and very heavy.

Whenever anyone complains to me how hard they work I always think back to these guys - I've never seen anyone work as hard as they did.

Drilling shot-holes.

The holes would be charged with explosives and detonated at the end of the shift.

I only took my camera underground once and today I could kick myself - there are very few pictures around of the workings of this historical mine.

Me with one of the crews in 1979 - it was customary to throw a Christmas party every year at my home, where the guys would arrive in their finest gear and we'd have a barbecue and a few - or more than a few - drinks.

Members of my crews were mostly Owambo-speaking and they loved to give nicknames - I had two: 'Ondudu' (Witchdoctor) and 'Gambishi' (The Cat).

Even today, so many years later, I'll be walking in some town in Namibia and hear the call "Hey Ondudu!" - and turn around to find an old familiar face smiling at me ...

Later I moved into Training and one of my duties was to escort visitors on tours. Here I am in 1995 about to take some visitors underground.

On one occasion I was preparing to take a group from one of the 'sexually-liberated' Nordic countries down into the mine.

In the group was a young lady who spoke no English and I indicated that she should wait while I found a suitable place for her to change into overalls - when I returned she had disappeared - I found her blithely changing in the miners' change house, with a group of shocked men desperately trying to conceal their nakedness ...

... I had a bit of explaining to do afterwards ...

Further reading:
Tsumeb Mine - The Most Diverse Ore Body Ever Mined



  1. Wow! This is a fascinating piece and a documentation of historical significance. The photos are amazing and I can't imagine myself ever lasting down in the mine for a day in the conditions you describe. I find it overly hot inside my apartment and that's with fans blowing. The crew you worked with are a dapper looking bunch of fellas. I hope they all (you too) ended up with a satisfying life and enough to eat after the closure of the mine after working so hard all their lives.

  2. Thanks for your visit and comment Joyful ...

    Yeah, working conditions were tough and they were a great bunch of guys to work with ...

    Towards the end of the life of the mine mismanagement and labour unrest led to a bitter taste in many peoples' mouths - even today, there is ongoing legal action regarding the disappearance of millions from the company pension fund ...

  3. I was still chuckling about your post as I whistled to feed my "birds".

    On a serious note, thank you for sharing your story and showing us the faces of the miners. Offhand, I couldn't think of what people do with ore or the value of it to humans lives and existence. Is it really worth the sacrifices some had to go through. What an overstatement when we say hard work.

    Your gang was really fond of you. You are their witchdoctor huh:)

    Thank you again for sharing this post.

  4. Hey Fazliza, thanks for your comment ...

    Yeah, I don't know why they chose the name 'witchdoctor' for me ...

    ... as to your question 'Is it really worth the sacrifices some had to go through?' - this is something I think about often and something I can never full resolve in my mind - without the minerals we would not have any of our modern conveniences - so for us who benefit from their sacrifices, yes, I would say it is worth it ... for those who died and the people who loved them, no, it was not worth it ...

    ... the same question may be asked of those who go to war ...

  5. Oh wow, thanks for sharing these wonderful pictures with us ... and a little bit of African history. I have the greatest respect for mineworkers & the daily dangers and working conditions which they face/faced - not many people could do a job like that.

    Can I just say, how very much I am enjoying your blog. I love the way that you promote your country in such a positive & interesting light (& your photography is brilliant, too !) I have found few (good) African bloggers out there so it's super to have found your blog ! I am trying to read back through it from the very beginning, as and when I have time ... and am enjoying every bit of it !

    Keep on blogging :)

  6. Thank you for your complimentary comments Lynda, I appreciate them and I'm chuffed that you keep on returning to read more about Namibia ...

    Yes, there are enough blogs which stress the negative side of African life but, sadly, not many of my blog visitors are from African countries.

    I also enjoy reading your blog about a part of Africa which I have never been too - you keep on Blogging too, or, as in the drawings of Robert Crumb - "Keep On Trucking"

  7. Superb post with documented social history that will otherwise be lost for ever. Make sure you take your camera EVERWHERE in the future, you never know...

  8. Thanks Dave, yes, lately I've become somewhat obsessive about taking my camera with me everywhere I go and snapping at everything I see ...

  9. Interesting, a Witch doctor aye?
    yet another fascinating glimpse into South Africa.So different from the life I know

    The witch doctor apart from "Shaman " is known as the "cunning one"
    like a cat..

    I can only offer you my reverence for your courage and that of your men.

  10. I am really enjoying your daily blogs. Having lived in Johannesburg and heard so many mining stories I appreciate what life must have been like for you. Tough! The photos are excellent and bring back daily memories for me.
    Keep blogging please.

  11. Heya Monica - I like your witchdoctor/cat linkage ... perhaps I'm more cunning than I realize ...

    Thank you for your kind comments - I am not at all courageous - I do have the ability though, when the sh*t hits the fan, to switch off all emotion, to be cold and clinical and take the required action ... perhaps it could be called 'transcending myself' ... otherwise I'm just an ordinary scaredy-cat ... :)

  12. Thanks for your kind comments Diane - I'm so glad that you can relate to my posts and that they remind you of life here in Africa ...

    ... I'll be taking a break from this cyberworld soon and won't post much for a few weeks ... I trust though that you'll keep checking-in from time-to-time ...

  13. very interesting thanks for posting. I followed one of the links and found one answer - copper ore. I guess I could do more research but being lazy I'll just ask you. Was this area a colony back when you started at the mine?
    And are there major racial issues in the country now?

  14. Thanks for the comment lisleman ...

    Yes, Namibia, or South West Africa as it was known then, was a German colony until 1920 when it was mandated to South Africa by the League Of Nations after the First World War ...

    Namibia gained independence in 1990 and we celebrate or 20th anniversary on the 21st of March this year.

    Yes, there are racial and tribal issues here (if a distinction can be made between the two) - but I guess that's the case in every country in the world ...

  15. Am so sorry to hear about mismanagement and pension fund problems. Unfortunately, pension issues and shortfalls seem to be leading headlines in the north american news these days too, though for different reasons. I hope that you and the other fellas you worked with were able to move on to other gainful employment.

  16. Thanks Joyful ... yes, I hope that something comes of this court case, but I'm not holding my breath ...