November 28, 2012

Smashing Rocks for Pennies in Tanzania

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Mama Jane raises the makeshift mallet and brings it down on a slate-colored stone, shattering it into countless bits. Then she does it again. And again. A methodical rhythm, the clinks and clanks of hammer striking rock ringing out over a trash-strewn field in the midst of a shantytown.

Two other women pound rocks beside Mama Jane. Several toddlers hop about, playing atop the rock heaps and even mimicking their mothers’ hammering movements.

It is midday, and the equatorial sun beats down mercilessly on the low-lying neighborhood.

On the way to my research office in Arusha, Tanzania, I have probably passed Mama Jane more than 100 times in recent months. She is one of more than 20 women in the immediate area who make their living breaking up such rocks, which are a type of iron ore, at a quarry called Elerai Majengo.

“We usually start working at 6:00 or 7:00 am and do not finish until after 6:00 pm,” explains Mama Jane, as translated from Swahili. “Even on Sundays we work, some of us coming after early church services.”

Used primarily in the foundations of homes and buildings, the hulking rocks are mined out of the quarry by men and carried out in dump trucks. The women form small cooperatives and purchase a truck-full of rocks for around $65 or so. Then the women go to work gradually smashing each stone into smaller and smaller pieces until each can fit into the palm of a hand.

One woman usually can fill 10-15 large buckets full of the iron ore per day and sell each bucket for around $1.25. This post’s headline, however, is somewhat misleading as 20 dollars would be an absolute banner month for a rock smasher. Most make 10 to 16 dollars monthly profit, after accounting for all purchasing costs and all earnings are shared among the cooperative.

Mama Jane (women in Tanzania often use the name of their firstborn child as a second name) has worked near Elerai Majengo for more than five years. Unmarried with four children, she says that she is still grateful that she at least has some income, enabling her to send half of her children to school.

“Life is a struggle,” she says. “We often eat only one meal a day. We breathe in the dust from the rocks and get coughs. But we still thank God. Others have it worse.”

The iron rock quarry belongs to a world far removed from the surrounding city and slums. In its depths, hundreds of women sat among their own piles of ore pounding away. A crew of muscular young men, glistening with sweat, wielded pickaxes, digging into the earth for more rocks. Above them, a cliff towering some 200 feet high seemed to be on the verge of collapsing upon itself.

Mama Jane estimates that, far beyond my first impressions from Elerai Majengo’s outskirts, up to 500 women in the neighborhood do drudge work at the quarry. Day after day. Rock after rock.

You do not have to travel to Africa to encounter poverty, where it all too often falls underneath the skewed lens of the West. Over this past Thanksgiving weekend, some people in Ithaca still went hungry. During Black Friday’s shopping madness, millions of Americans continued to wonder how they will ever climb out of the unemployment pit.

Just remember that Mama Jane still considers herself to be one of the fortunate ones.

J.D. O’Kasick is a Cornell graduate student currently in Tanzania conducting research through a fellowship with The Nature Conservancy. For more of his photos, videos, and blog posts, follow

Original Author: J.D. O’Kasick