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Society

Zimbabwean helps Mongolians dig for gold

Development workers do not necessarily have to come from the West. A mining expert from Zimbabwe is helping to improve the lives of small-scale miners in Mongolia.

On a small-scale mining site in the vast grasslands of Western Mongolia, around a hundred people are digging for gold. They take the ochre-colored earth and sieve it for tiny particles of the precious metal.

As in other developing, resource-rich, nations many poor people in this Central Asian country have turned to small-scale mining, because they lack alternative means of income. 

The work is tough and often dangerous as well. Many mine shafts are not well secured and severe accidents can occur.

Patience Singo knows this situation from his own country Zimbabwe. The 40-year-old is a mining engineer who has worked in various development projects across Africa aimed at improving the living and working conditions of artisanal miners.

In Mongolia he works for the Swiss Development Council (SDC). It has set up a project for small-scale miners in cooperation with the Mongolian government. Patience greets visitors to his office in the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator with a cup of coffee and a big smile.

"How can an African guy possibly help us?"

When he first came to the country, three years ago, his first assignment was to set up a mercury-free processing plant for the miners, because the Mongolian government had just banned the use of mercury, which is a toxic substance, in small-scale mining.

Handful of tiny gold nuggets Photo: Nicole Graaf

Subsistence mining can be the only way to eke out a living in resource-rich developing countries

"This had affected the lives of about 15,000 people, who up until then had depended on the use of mercury to extract gold," he said.

Within three months Patience and his colleagues had the plant up and running and it became a model for other mercury-free processing plants which were to follow.

Patience likes Mongolia and is now well acclimatized to the country, but it was all a bit challenging at first. Some of the local people he had to deal with while working on the project eyed him with scepticism. They didn't see how someone who himself came from a developing country would be able to help them.

"How can an African guy possibly help us?" some had asked.

The idea that foreign aid workers can only come from highly developed countries is  widespread, not only in Mongolia, but also elsewhere across the developing world.

Winning over the skeptics

With his positive attitude, Patience was quickly able to overcome their reservations. He feels like he has a lot to offer because he comes from a developing country: "I think the development challenges that Mongolia has identify with the challenges that exist in Africa," he said.

Patience believes someone from the West, someone who has never experienced such challenges himself, may not be able to pass on solutions in an inclusive manner.

Zimbabwean development aid worker and mining engineer Patience Singo
Photo: Swiss Development Council (SDC)

Patience Singo: "South to South knowledge transfer"

He also said he had noticed something he found rather funny. In the development sector, it often happens that Western experts are sent for training in one developing country so they can gain experience in such a context and then pass it on to people in another developing country.

Patience chuckles and shakes his head in disbelief: "Why not bring a guy from a developing country and we do a south-to-south knowledge transfer? Isn't it cheaper and better and more effective?" he asked.

His colleague Munkhtuya Buyanjargal agrees. She is the project's communications manager and has been working with Patience for about a year.

"Africans have a lot of experience in the mining sector," Munkhtuya said. "We have lots of things to learn from African people especially for the artisanal small scale mining."

She especially admires how well he gets on with the Mongolian artisanal miners.

"They love him, he is always surrounded by the miners. He tries to speak Mongolian, it's very funny for them," she said smiling.

Patience explains their appreciation by the fact that he tries to speak to them as equals. He even goes down the mine shafts which earns him a lot of respect.

"I was able to demonstrate to them that I'm not like a book engineer coming from an office to point a finger and say do this, do that.  When they see you identifying with them and their problems they start to trust you, he said."

Ubuntu and Swiss formality

In addition to deploying his professional skills, Patience also tries to introduce something of the  African way of doing things.

"Mongolians are used to being nomadic, to living in an individualistic culture, but as Africans we are community-based people, there is a unique African value we call Ubuntu. And I always try to bring that community culture into the team, because of my African background," he said.

Patience Singo and project accountant Otgonsuren Gombosure
Photo: Nicole Graaf

Patience Singo and project accountant Otgonsuren Gombosure

The project's accountant Otgonsuren Gombosuren appreciates that. She said his way of working and communicating is quite different from the Swiss people she meets from the SDC.

"They are very formal,"she explained."They only say 'Guten Tag' and 'Auf Wiedersehen' and give me some papers to sign. But Patience, all day long he is always friendly and easy going." She also likes the fact that she has learned a lot while working with him:

"We are doing all the planning and finance together. I learned a lot of English vocabulary from him," she said. A few years ago she didn't speak any English at all.

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