Daniel Howden: A golden example for Africa's resources

Lake Victoria Notebook: Mwanza is one of those places that doesn't get written about
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The Independent Online

Ask yourself, where would you be today without gold? For some people, the answer might be several ounces lighter around the neck, ears and fingers. For others, possibly, in search of replacement fillings.

In this case, the question was posed by the director of a gold-mining company coming to the end of an inspection visit to a string of new mines on the Tanzanian shore of Lake Victoria.

Mwanza is one of those places that doesn't get written about, an African boom town of middling size and increasing prosperity. There are no horrifying human rights abuses and the resource is not a curse. Africa's largest lake is ringed by overpopulation and poverty, its ports have no shipping to speak of and most of its towns are in decline.

Not so Mwanza, where the relentless rise in gold prices has seen a mining boom. There's a shiny new conference centre, two new hotels, the once cratered roads are paved and the port's many market places are heaving with small traders.

Frank Roberts of Holdtrade Mining thinks that his industry is given an undeservedly hard time. "The mining industry gets so much negative coverage but you ask people in Mwanza what they think," he says.

The age of digging for nuggets is over and nowadays gold is mined by leaching huge quantities of ore with lethal chemicals in order to collect tiny traces of the precious metal. It's a dirty business that leaves huge ponds of contaminated water. But for now it's an economic mainstay.

"We encourage them to ask themselves every day, where would you be without it?" says Roberts.

For now, the answer is much worse off. Whether that holds in the future depends on how much the mining companies are prepared to spend on cleaning up after the gold rush.

Africa's real beauty is hidden

A vast inland sea, the reservoir of the Nile, Lake Victoria ought to be a fabled destination. It isn't. Most visitors to East Africa make for the Indian Ocean beaches or the safari parks, the greatest of which, the Serengeti, is just 15 kilometres from the lake's shore. Cities like Mwanza, above, don't make the itinerary as the emphasis is on selling fantasy Africa and working hard to ensure that the real thing is kept out of sight.

So the "Rock City" with its incredible circular stones that seem to suggest that one day it rained boulders on the landscape, goes largely unseen. As does the noisy coming together of its modern glass-and-metal towers with the low-rise Indian architecture of the late colonial period. And wildlife watchers miss the onset of dusk over the lake when clouds of fish eagles wheel and dive in their hundreds in a staggering display that is yet to trouble a travel brochure.