By Charles Wendo
One of the most widespread myths is that Ugandaâ€™s copper deposit at Kilembe, near Kasese, got exhausted.
Then the men at Kilembe dug a tunnel through which they siphoned copper from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the myth goes on. From this myth, a rumour emerged that DRC would take Uganda to court for stealing copper.
Bob Makoma,the General Manager of Kilembe Mines Ltd laughed it off when The New Vision put the question to him.
â€œThat issue of going into Congo is just an imagination. Our tunnels are not anywhere near the border.
From the opening of the mine it covers a distance of just 3km yet we are more than 40km from the border,â€ he said.
The myth appears to arise from the fact that the copper belt in Uganda is continuous with that of Congo and even Zambia.
â€œMinerals donâ€™t obey our borders. We seem to be on the periphery so there should be more copper in Congo than here,â€ Makoma says.
The truth, says Makoma, is that Uganda still has huge reserves of copper in Kilembe. Between 1956 and 1977, Kilembe Mines Ltd had dug out 16 million tons of copper.
By the time mining stopped, four million tonnes that had been explored were not yet touched.
Another two million tonnes was suspected nearby.
â€œYou would even discover more reserves if you did exploration,â€ Makoma said.
Until the mid 1970s copper was one of the leading foreign exchange earners for Uganda.
Copper is used for making telephone wires, electrical generators and motors, for electrical wiring, and in electronic goods, such as radio and TV sets.
Copper is also used in motor vehicle radiators, air-conditioners and home heating systems.
However, in the late 1970s copper prices began to slump due to increased global supply and reduced demand.
And the operations at Kilembe were no longer economically viable. In 1982, the copper mill closed. Gradually the staffing was scaled down from 6,000 to the present 170.
Today, the machines that used to grind copper ore, and giant silos, are rusty. Ground-up copper ore trickles through gaping silos.
A stout, fierce-looking guard keeps watch with an AK47 slung over his shoulder. He tries to keep off thieves who occasionally steal motors and other machine fittings.
Between the mills and the mine tunnels, junk rail engines and a trolley-like skip stand idly. So is the chair lift, a cable transport system that ferried workers to the mines.
Staff houses are in bad shape. The main road in Kilembe has more bare soil than patches of tarmac.
Vincent Kaliisa, a miner who has lived and worked in Kilembe for 32 years, recalls the good days. â€œWe used to be the best people,â€ he says.
Women who were willing to exchange sex for money took note of this. They pitched camp around Kilembe, bringing pleasure and sorrow to the well-paid workers. They are gone.
The main mine tunnel looks like an organised cave. It is darker than a rural moonless night. Its railway line still exists.
Thick, cool air strikes your face as you enter. â€œOur fans underground are still working,â€ says Kaliisa.
The tunnel is slippery because the floor is always wet, a result of water trickling through the rocks around and above.
This is the reason people are employed to go into the mines without mining, daily for the last 23 years. Their job is to continually pump out water so that the mines do not flood.
â€œWe pump out water on a 24-hour basis. Water comes from the earth and collects in the mines. If you donâ€™t pump it out it will flood,â€ Makoma said.
His hope is that some day an investor will come and re-open the mine. So if they keep the mine dry, it will be more attractive for a new investor.
These hopes are not far-fetched. World copper prices have begun rising again. As a result two companies from Canada and USA have expressed interest in re-opening Kilembe. In the meantime, the company survives on back-up industries. A small hydro-electric power station that was built to serve the mine is now the main source of income.
The station produces 5MW of electricity. Two thirds of this is sold to the national grid, fetching more than sh60m a month. Other sources of income include a giant workshop, a wood treatment plant, lime production and letting out houses formerly occupied by the 6,000-strong labour force.
Lime was initially used to neutralise the acidic stuff in copper ore while the workshop was for servicing and producing spare parts for the copper mill.
But this income does not match the companyâ€™s expenditure. The company has made accumulated losses amounting to sh12b.
Makoma thinks losses can be minimised by partially closing the mines until an investor rescues it. â€œI believe one day Kilembe will be revived,â€ he says.