Sri Lankans cover Zimbabwean engineer helping Mongolians in sustainable Ninja-Mining, while Estonians document Eastern Ukrainian kids digging for coal

If you were the Mongolian government how would you keep track of nomadic population that you are to serve? One option would be to come up with something called  baghs. Most of these administrative units are of an entirely virtual nature. Their purpose is to sort the families of nomads in the sum (district) into groups, without a permanent human settlement. The 21 aimags (provinces) of Mongolia are divided into 329 sums.

Map of Mongolia by the United Movement of Mongolian Rivers and Lakes
Map of Mongolia by the United Movement of Mongolian Rivers and Lakes

Mongolia’s capital city of  Ulaanbaatar is located roughly at the center of an aimag called Töv. We are heading towards Zaamar sum, located 180 km northwest of Ulaanbaatar. Zaamar is bordered by the Tuul River on its west side. According to the Wikipedia community, the river is being polluted by Ulaanbaatar’s central sewage treatment facility as well as by gold mining in the Zaamar area.

Pit #8, an Estonian-Ukrainian documentary about youth small-scale miners in Eastern Ukraine
Pit #8, an Estonian-Ukrainian documentary about youth small-scale miners in Eastern Ukraine

As a consequence, the Tuul, Orkhon and Selenge rivers have become more and more polluted because of the use of antiquated technologies by mining companies. As these rivers are the main tributaries of Lake Baikal in the Russian Federation, the world’s largest and oldest lake (at 25 million years) has faced a significant increase in its level of pollution.

His name is Patience Singo. He is a mining engineer from Zimbabwe. Just the right guy to be covered by Steppes in Sync because it is Mongolia where Mr Singo settled down.

Thanks to Deutsche Welle, we now know that the Zimbabwean had worked in various development projects across Africa before joining the Swiss Development Council and the government of Mongolia in a sustainability project for small-scale miners.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Stjepan Šejić of Croatia
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Stjepan Šejić of Croatia

Thanks to the Colombo-based The Sunday Times of Sri Lanka, we now know that these miners are known locally as “ninja miners”  because of the green tubs strapped to their backs. Remeber the 1980’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

The idea that foreign aid workers can only come from developed countries is  not exclusive to Mongolia. “How can an African guy possibly help us?” some had asked there confused by Patience Singo’s presence.

“I think the development challenges that Mongolia has, identify with the challenges that exist in Africa,” Singo responds with patience. He believes someone from the West who has never experienced such challenges himself may not be able to pass on solutions in an inclusive manner.

Singo also 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 other majority world nations.

About 100,000 Mongolians have joined mining industry  in the past five years. Many lost their jobs during the country's transition from Communism and initially became traditional herders. But two devastating winters, known as dzuds, wiped out a third of Mongolia's livestock in 2001 and 2002, and thousands of families joined the gold rush, scouring sites rejected by large mining companies for quartz or crumbs of gold. Ninjas earn between 5$ and 10$ a day, often more than teachers, doctors and government officials. (Photo courtesy of An Hua, Fnac Murcia and quehacerenmurcia.com)
About 100,000 Mongolians have joined mining industry in the past five years. Many lost their jobs during the country’s transition from communism and initially became traditional herders. But two devastating winters, known as dzuds, wiped out a third of Mongolia’s livestock in 2001 and 2002, and thousands of families joined the gold rush, scouring sites rejected by large mining companies for quartz or crumbs of gold. Ninjas earn between 5$ and 10$ a day, often more than teachers, doctors and government officials. (Photo courtesy of An Hua, Fnac Murcia and quehacerenmurcia.com)

Any other notes to take about South-South cooperation from this Zimbabwean roaming the vast steppes of Central Asia? “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.”

The project’s accountant Otgonsuren Gombosuren appreciates that.

“They are very formal,”she says about the Swiss people she meets working with the SDC. “They only say ‘Guten Tag’ and ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ and give me some papers to sign.”

Speaking of her Zimbabwean colleague, Gombosuren gets excited, “We are doing all the planning and finance together. I learned a lot of English vocabulary from him.”

Back to the West by way of Ukraine where Estonian filmmaker Marianna Kaat recently produced Pit #8, documentary about young coal miners in Snizhne, Donetsk oblast.

In Spain, Álvaro Laiz (his Facebook) and David Rengel of An Hua association have partnered with Fnac for a series of  photoexbits around the country to feature their work inspired by the miners of Mongolia.

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