In The Valley Of The Blind

Niekerkshoop is a small villages some 70 kilometers North-East of Prieska in the Northern Cape.  The village is not easy to reach as the dirt roads leading to it are often difficult to negotiate.  Some 2,000 souls live in Niekerkshoop which actually does have a church despite its name.

The town is almost completely given over to artisanal mining for tiger’s eye.  The small clinic that is run by two nursing sisters tends to many different issues of ill-health including alcohol related diseases and various other poverty-linked ailments.

As the only social worker in the area, I would try to visit Niekerkshoop every month.  On one occasion, I recall meeting an old lady who was blind.  She was referred to me because she had recently tried to commit suicide by drinking a concoction made from the bark of the “suidwes” tree.  It’s highly toxic and she must have been in agony.

Upon meeting this old lady, I was surprised to discover that she was actually in her late forties.  She looked haggard and, to my reckoning nearer her eighties than her forties!

We fell into a long conversation and, over the hour or so, she related that she had become blind by working on one of the tiger’s eye pits in the area.  Tiny chips of tiger’s eye had become embedded in her eyes and, over time, she went blind.

She was basically depressed.  She felt that she had nothing to live for except her drink.  That even her family found her unloveable and she just wanted to die.

The incidents of suicide and the clinical depression that drives people to despair, is linked to endemic alcoholism in Niekerkshoop.  The occupational risk of artisanal mining where poor and desperate people feel driven to make their living digging stone in open pits cannot help either.

This is why an initiative such as The Prieska Protocol is important.  Having more income from mining, will not solve the many endemic social and health problems artisanal miners face, but intervening to assist people who are suffering from grinding poverty makes the chances of successfully helping people vanishingly small.

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