Mining for Hope: Zimbabweans Make a Living Repurposing Trash

As Zimbabwe’s economy continues to falter, people flock to the Ngozi Mine, an above-ground dumpsite to scour for trash they can repurpose or use in art. Recyclers and artists alike have unearthed a living from the place, which has also inspired them to aim higher.

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Mining for Hope: Zimbabweans Make  a Living Repurposing Trash

Lindelwe Mgodla, GPJ Zimbabwe

Discarded shoes and plastic sit in separate piles at Ngozi Mine in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Collectors buy the garbage in piles or bales to sell to recyclers, and locals use them to create various art.

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BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Moses Moyo is wearing his worn, sky-blue work suit with the cutoff sleeves as he digs through piles of trash.

When he finds what he is looking for — a wire inside of an old tire — he uses a pair of pliers to remove the wire. Soon he will have gathered enough wires to make a fence.

When the fence is finished, he will sell it along the main road leading to the central business district of Zimbabwe’s second largest city.

Moyo calls himself a recycler. His main source of income comes from goods he recovers and repurposes from a place known as the Ngozi Mine. Ngozi is not a mine at all, but a large, above-ground dumpsite that is home to hundreds of people and miles of trash. Every day, people like Moyo, scour the dumpsite, mining worthy goods from the rubbish.

Moyo says he finds materials to make fences, sandals, and even soap bars that he sells for profit.

“Usually, I sell the fences for $2 a meter, but people are always negotiating the price, so at times I sell them for $1.50 per meter,” he says.

Moyo hopes his recycling efforts bring him a better life. But he says he knows the chances of that happening are slim.

In Zimbabwe, unemployment rates are skyrocketing thanks to an unstable economy made worse by an unstable political system.

Ngozi Mine is located 12 kilometers (7 miles) from Bulawayo’s central business district and sits next to Cowdray Park, one of Bulawayo’s most populated suburbs. People have been moving to the Ngozi Mine, which is owned by the city, since 1994.

Today, more than 300 makeshift homes, surround the dumpsite. Most are occupied by people who eke out their livings as recyclers.

As part of Zimbabwe’s large informal economy, recyclers collect plastic bottles, newspapers, old clothes and metals, to repurpose into saleable goods, says Sinqobile Ndlovu, chairwoman of the Above Ground Mining Project, an initiative that seeks to create awareness about the area’s informal recycling projects.

Then, they work to find customers who appreciate their products.

Most live on less than $1.25 a day, she says.

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Lindelwe Mgodla, GPJ Zimbabwe

Animal sculptures, made from a mixture of newspaper and plastic, sit on display in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. These sculptures were made by local artist Bongani Nyoni from items found at Ngozi Mine and take an average of two weeks to create. The bigger animals can fetch more than $100 from tourists.

The economic structure that exists within the Ngozi Mine is complex and includes many layers of business, says Bongani Nyoni, an artist who uses recycled plastic in his work.

Nyoni lives near the mine, but isn’t a recycler. He says he buys the plastic bottles and containers he uses for his art pieces from collectors at the site.

“I melt the plastic bottles in a furnace and mold it into whatever shape I want, like a chicken, a goat or even jewelry,” he says of his artistic process.

He sells life-size animal sculptures — cows and buffalos are popular — for $140. Tourists are some of his most common buyers.

For Moyo, the customers for his fences often come from rural areas. The country’s cash shortage means they often haggle for prices and barter for trade, since they are less likely to carry cash, he says. He typically accepts maize meal as payment.

“So, for example I can trade three bars of soap for one bucket of maize, which makes it easier when it comes to buying food,” he says.

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Lindelwe Mgodla, GPJ Zimbabwe

Stephen Kamele searches the dumpsite for old shoes, bags and belts that he can repurpose. On a good month, he says he can earn $20.

Stephen Kamele says it has taken time to figure out which products are worthwhile to hunt for and make. He settled in Ngozi Mine two decades ago when he became an orphan at age 17. He says he decided to support himself with recycling instead of criminal activities.

“I used to make soccer balls from rubber, but that didn’t have a market. So I started refurbishing old shoes, bags and leather belts that I found at the dumpsite and sell them,” Kamele says.

Kamele sells the refurbished shoes for $5. Bags and belts usually sell for around $3. In a good month, he says can make up to $20, but says he still cannot afford the school fees for his two daughters, ages 6 and 9.

He says he hopes to save up enough money to take his refurbishing skills to the next level with a course at the Bulawayo Polytechnic College, where he wants to learn how to fix heavy machinery.

Artists working in and around the dumpsite have higher aspirations too.

They formed the Ngozi Mine Arts and Crafts Association in 2011 to help artists identify and access potential markets for their work. They host peer critiques and help each other pursue funding opportunities.

“We hope to one day build our own Ngozi Mine Arts and Craft Center, which will be a tourist attraction, where we will be able to sell our own pieces and build a coffee shop and restaurant,” says Leonard Dube, who has been living around Ngozi Mine since 2006.