In Nigeria’s South East, Rural Women are Making a Living out of Sand Mining
For 30 minutes, Uchechukwu Ugwu has been digging deep into the ground. She does not intend to stop, not until she gets the amount of sand that will be enough to fill an empty bucket that stands right in front of her. The bucket, when filled, is equal to a bag of sand.
Behind her, there are about 10 more empty bags. They must all be filled with sand and some with stones before the sun begins to go down. At one end of the waterway located in Alor Uno, a community in Nsukka Local government of Enugu State, one of her daughters is standing and waiting to carry the bags of sand and stone on a wheelbarrow to the main road where they are displayed for interested buyers who either use them to build houses or block unnecessary water channels. The waterway is surrounded by tall palm trees and other fruit trees.
On Monday morning.
When I got to Ugwu and asked to be given some time, she stood up immediately while still holding on to the material she has been using to work. Soon, sweat balls begin to trickle down her chicks and she tried to wipe them off her face.
“I have been working here since 10 am. Other days, I come out as early as 6 am to begin this work. But today, I came out a little bit late because I went to do my something else.” She switched between English and her traditional Igbo language.
Any day Ugwu does not come to work, she goes out to preach to people and to get them back to God. She says it gives her joy each time she does that, not minding the challenges she faces.
She is now the breadwinner of her family
Seven years ago, when Uchechukwu Ugwu was 43, she almost lost her husband to a car accident. After the accident which left him badly wounded, she soon realized that fate had thrust on her the responsibility of taking care of the needs of her family. These responsibilities included going out to earn money and paying the children’s school fees as well as making sure that they lived well.
Before the accident in 2011, her husband, who now sits at home, still trying to recover from the accident, was a commercial bus driver who traveled around the country and made just enough money to take care of his family. Sometimes, because of how busy he was, he hardly returned home.
“My husband was working very hard to make us happy. He wanted a good life for me and the children. We were living happily and lacking nothing. But that all ended after the accident,” she said while she bent down again and dug deeper into the ground to fetch more sand and stone.
From 2014, exactly three years after the accident, Uchechukwu began searching for a job she could do to at least take care of her husband and her children.
All she wanted was to keep his dreams alive and strong. She wanted nothing more than to make sure that her 10 children did not stop attending school, could wear good clothes and eat well.
After several searches with nothing forthcoming, life soon became tough for Uchechukwu who was now dependent on family members for help. Some of her children stopped going to school. She was almost giving up on life herself when she met some friends who told her that she could earn some money through sand mining.
“I did not need to think about it. I started following them to this place. That was how I joined the business and that is what I have been doing for some years now. But life is no longer what it used to be,” she said visibly trying to hold back tears.
Sand mining is a booming business but globally, a lot of materials are mined every year of which sand and gravel, known as aggregates, account for both the largest share and the fastest growth in extraction.
Apart from being the largest volume of solid material extracted globally, it is also the highest volume of raw material used on earth after water (about 70-80% of the 50 billion tons material mined a year).
Sand mining which is the extraction of sand usually from an open pit can also be mined from sand dunes, beaches and even dredged from river and ocean beds. The sand is used to make concrete, which – due to the urbanization boom all over the world – is in high demand. Sand can also be used as a mixer with salt to prevent ice on roads or to reshape coastlines that have significantly eroded.
The world’s use of aggregates for concrete was estimated at 25.9 billion to 29.6 billion tonnes in 2012 alone. This production represents enough concrete to build a wall 27 metres high by 27 metres wide around the equator.
As menial as the business might seem, sand mining or dredging is fast becoming a mini-industry, set to take over the construction business in Nigeria. With the increasing number of structures being built daily and the ever increasing demand for the commodity, investors in the business are hardly out of trade, irrespective of change in stock market prices, fall in naira value or rainy or even dry seasons.
But for women like Uchechukwu, the business is not growing fast enough and does not bring in enough money needed to take care of family needs. She explains that the price for one bag of sand only goes for as little as #200 while that of stones cost #300. And most times, they go through a whole week without even selling one bag.
She also explains that the work is tiring and requires a lot of effort because she goes to work every day. “Doing this work is not easy. There are times when I finish work and as soon as I get home, I can’t even stand again. I lay down all day because of body pain,” she said.
Uchechukwu is not the only woman who depends on sand mining for survival. There are others like her who have searched for jobs but could not find any and others who are only trying to combine it with other menial jobs just to provide for the needs of their families.
Sitting by the roadside is Chinenye Ugwuanyi whose little child is crying because he was hungry and the weather was not friendly. Ugwuanyi would not do anything. She needs to be at alert for interested buyers.
“Don’t mind him,” she says, stretching her hand to reach for a tiny stick to whip the crying child, “That is how he disturbs me each time we come here. He only wants us to sit at home and eat. But I just have to come out here and work to earn money.”
Right in front of Ugwuanyi are bags of sand and stone on display.
“Any day it rains, I come out as early as 6 am and enter the gutter to gather sand and stones. After gathering them, I pack them on one side and when I am done selling these ones you can see here, I go inside that place and arrange them in sacks,” she said pointing towards the direction where the waterway crosses.
Ugwuanyi has been collecting and selling stones and sand for three years. When asked why she went into sand mining, Ugwuanyi who had returned not long ago from checking the sand and stones she had gathered, said that it was the only business she does presently to support her husband who struggles to put food on the table
“I began the work because I had nothing else to do after I stopped selling palm kernel because it was not lucrative again. I needed something I can be doing to provide food for my children and also help my husband who is not doing any serious business. I have seven children,” she said while peeling palm fronds she had gathered for making brooms.
She also said that the business has helped her to save some money so she can send some of her children to school.
She needed something more
For 60-year-old Ijeh Onah, sand mining business is what she uses to supplement another job. Onah works in a community hospital as a cleaner.
She explains that the pay at the hospital is not enough to take care of the many needs of her family.
Onah was busy conversing with other women in her traditional Igbo when I approached her. At first, she refused to say anything. She was only minding her business. But after some time, she agreed to talk.
Explaining how she juggles the business she began since 2011 and her hospital job, she said “I come out here every day as early six and when it is 12 noon, I pack my things and go home to rest and get prepared for the hospital.”
On the challenges she faces, she said “the work is stressful because it requires you to bend down for minutes and for me who is not getting any younger, it is a big problem. Most times when I return home after working here I become very tired and can only get myself when I take some drugs and rest for some time.”
She said that no one will give her food if she does not work. She also believes that the time will come when she will not need to feel so stressed just to put food on her table.