THE dead silence in the bush before us was frightening.With each step that we took, the path that we were tracking disappeared under battalions of shivering grass.
A fine wind blew through the branches, suppressing the heat as we carefully trudged forward, impressed by the scenery around us, and terrified by the potentially grave implications of our daring adventure inside one of Africa’s most unpredictable jungles: Matusadonha National Park.
The man eaters had been here the previous night.
That afternoon, they were probably resting under canopies of boundless woodlands as we trudged along, unperturbed by the dangers that came with this delinquent excursion into a far-flung forest.
But my colleague was determined to reach and show me the depression where the two footprints lay.
It was in 1992, four years after a sombre cloud enveloped Chief Mola’s the community with news that innocent children whose imprints lay on the concrete had vanished, possibly after proprietors of a landmark tourism investment in the area had ‘angered ancestors by failing to appease them’.
Tragedy struck during the construction of a bridge over a stream as investors opened up the area to improve access to their project.
The children were playing as their parents moved further into the forest, laying the foundations on which a gravel road would roll over.
But when they returned, all they saw were footsteps on the concrete.
“It is said ancestors were angry because the white man did not pay homage to the chief,” my colleague told me.
“You can’t just walk in and start digging up rivers. These are sacred forests,” he said.
I last visited Mola in 1996, and the footprints still lay on the crumbling concrete – sad reminder of what the community said was a case of an investment gone wrong.
While listening to BBC News around back in 1992, I also learnt that Zimbabwe had discovered potentially viable gas and oil fields in Muzarabani, a district located in the Zambezi Valley, over 200 kilometres north east of Harare.
Fast forward to August 2020, I attended a press conference in Harare about the same gas fields, which had hit the headlines 24 years earlier.
Australian Stock Exchange-listed resources outfit, Invictus Energy revealed at the press conference that it was armed with US$30 million worth of data from a previous exploration by Mobil Oil, which confirmed that either of the resource was available.
But unlike the tourism project in Matusadonha back in 1992, Invictus said it was determined to go through all layers of traditional bureaucracy to pacify the region’s chief’s and, by extension, their ancestors.
Australian mines have gained extensive experience about sensitivities around overlooking cultural factors as they blast away mineral seams to scoop the wealth underneath.
Monday’s update by Invictus demonstrated how it took traditional values seriously, according to cultural experts.
But it is increasingly becoming fashionable for the world’s biggest mining houses to adhere to traditional beliefs as they establish operations in remote outback locations across Africa.
A new campaign, sometimes known as ‘being born of the soil’ is getting so powerful in Africa, where communities have been mobilising forces against investors perceived as “outsiders.”
Overlooking the demands of traditional chiefs has often triggered confrontations between chief and mining houses.
In Mhondoro-Ngezi, where Zimplats has been exploiting platinum for almost two decades, the company had to forge ties with chiefs to avoid conflicts.
“1999 chief Ngezi conducted a traditional ceremony at Mulota Hills to appease the spirits of his ancestors and grant his consent for the commencement of mining operations in his area,” says a paper by leading researchers, Darryl Chanakira and Joseph Mujere.
“Ngezi asserted his autochthonous belonging to the area by claiming that his ancestors were buried in the Mulota Hills. By claiming the presence of ancestral graves at the Mulota hills, Chief Ngezi was making claims to the land and through it the platinum resources beneath it. When it was reported in 2012 that Zimplats’ Bimha Mine was experiencing some structural challenges which rendered it unsafe, local community leaders interpreted it as a sign that their ancestors were not happy. Consequently, when the mine collapsed in June 2014, community leaders felt vindicated and linked the collapse to the anger of their ancestors against mining operations,” the paper says.
Such practices are not limited to Africa as resources giant Rio Tinto’s experience in Australia shows. In January this year, one of the world’s biggest mining firms courted the outrage of local communities after blasting away a cave of cultural importance at an ages-old historical site in Pilbara, Australia.
The cave was considered a sacred site that showed 46 000 years of continual occupation and provided 4 000-year-old genetic link to present day traditional owners.
In September, Rio Tinto announced that CEO, Jean-Sebastien Jacques would leave as the resources outfit reckoned with its decision to bulldoze ancient rock shelters in Australia to gain access iron ore.
Culture expert say the form of ceremonies differ from community to community.
But in Zimbabwe, traditional ceremonies involve the gathering of communities over a beer, with chiefs and headmen leading their subjects in song and dance, kneeling before sacred landmarks and ‘talking to the departed’.
The process can take place overnight.
Invictus is seeking to deliver Zimbabwe’s first oil find since rumours of massive endowment surfaced about 30 years ago, but has been wary of running over important historical cultural and sacred sites on its 250 000 acre claim in the Zambezi Valley, recognizing that cultural preservation and history remains at the heart of every way of life in the communities where it is seeking its fortune.
“Following the approval of the environmental management plan, easing of Covid-19 related restrictions and the completion of the final cultural ceremonies in the Muzarabani and Mbire districts, the company will commence field operations in the Cabora Bassa Basin,” Invictus said on Monday, confirming that it had performed the required traditional rites.
“The reconnaissance programme and baseline survey consist of the traversing of the proposed infill seismic lines for a planned acquisition campaign in the 2021 dry season. The programme will capture details such as topography, existing access roads, drainage, vegetation cover, soil types, rock exposures, sampling of any natural oil and gas seeps, areas of development (constructions and cultivation), plus any sites of cultural, religious or historic importance. The duration of the programme is expected to be approximately 30 days and is in the final stages of planning and will be completed before the wet season,” the update said.
It said it has raised fresh capital for working capital.
The Muzarabani project has held Zimbabwe spellbound.
Mines minister Winston Chitando said last month, as the firm zeroed in on finding the best location for its US$20 million test wells at the heart of a presumed oil field traversing 100 000 hectares, the parties were inching towards a revenue sharing agreement.
This could see government establishing its own infrastructure at the production site to claim its share as it flows out, according to Paul Chimbodza, the local partner in the project.
“We have had key milestones,” Chitando told reporters.
“The Zimbabwe Investment Development Agency licence has been given and the area’s special grant has been extended by three years. A production agreement is being negotiated with government. Government will get a certain percentage of the production. The draft agreement is in place and the final agreement is expected in the next few weeks and drilling of the well will be in the third quarter of 2021,” he said.
It is not clear exactly whether it will be oil or gas that lies in abundance beneath the earth at the claim that lies towards the eastern end of the Zambezi Valley in Muzarabani district.
But Invictus said it was armed with US$30 million worth of data from previous exploration by Mobil Oil, which confirmed that either of the resource was available.
This story was originally published in the Weekly Digest, an AMH publication.