Thursday, March 09, 2006

Clearing landmines for nuts, bananas and 30000 dollar in parking fee

"Give me 100 000!"
"100 000? For what?"
"For your luggage…"


I’m standing at the bus station in Maputo, the capitol of Mozambique. I have just paid 180 000 Meticals, about 8 dollars, for a ticket to Inhambane, a costal town further up north. It seems like I have to pay a ticket for my backpack also. My girlfriend has been told, since she is a woman, to find a seat on the bus. Meanwhile the man, who is me, has to store the 20 kilo backpack safely on the bus. Three guys are helping me with this so I should not complain. Not before I learn that all them want 25 000 Meticals each for helping me with this job.

In the end the ticket for my backpack turns out to be nearly as expensive as mine. But I’m luckier than the chicken stored together with my backpack, placed inside of the spare tire, which looks like it has been used more than once. I get to ride in a seat.

The appearance of the bus tells me it should have been trashed thirty years ago. Its yellow colour is faded through years traveling in the sun, and the storeroom door’s locking mechanism is gone long time ago. A simple rope is used too keep the door closed. Unlucky as I am I get the privilege to see the motor before I enter the bus. The rusty engine is not a good sight at all, I only hope it will last the forthcoming eight hour trip.

The station is packed with people. Most of them have been shopping groceries in big quanta in Maputo and are now travelling back to their own villages to trade these groceries.


Even though it’s early morning and the sun still is lurking at the horizon, the air is heating up and carries the smell of sweat and the distinctive sweet oudor of garbage. During the day, when it’s hot, the smell of garbage becomes a plague. It’s like it gets into your clothes and follows you wherever you go. Recycling is an unknown word in this country, everything that could have been reused is slowly falling apart. The paint on old colonial buldings have faded or fallen off and they are left to the forces of nature. Meanwhile gray monsterouse blocks are built besides them. And on the roads there are more holes than asphalt.

Just like the garbage Maputo City seems to be slowly rotting away. I have been in Mozambique for two days. After living in South Africa for three months it feels like coming to another continent. How people survive here is a big question to me.


Mozambique, a battled country

Until 1975 the country was colonized by the Portuguese. They built up some infrastructure in the country, but the colonial buildings and the infrastructure was only ment to be used by the Portuguese themselves. The African population never benefitted from the riches of the country. When the Portuguese left they took with them everything of value and left the country with little.

But for Mozambique the problems were not over. Twenty seven years of civil war over who should rule the country followed between the two parties Renamo and Frelimo. A civil war which left the country ruined, all infrastructure shattered and with approximately between one and two million landmines in the ground, according to numbers from the United Nations. Many of those are still there over ten years after the war.


I’m here to explore the problems Mozambique encounters with the landmines and the people who are working with this particular problem. As long as the mines are still left in the ground, and huge areas of land are left desolated because of them, Mozambique will struggle to develop. The task of cultivating a mined cropfield or to establish a factory in such an area is suicidal. Because of this everything from food to furniture have to be imported from abroad.

Mozambique itself has little to export. Ten years ago Mozambique was a high profile country, both in the media and for the western world when they were handing out their foreign aid money. But what kind of status do the problems Mozambique encounters in our time have?


Working with death

Kassim Mgaza is a young man with short dark hair. His cheekbones are rough and give his round face a peculiar look, as if he is always thinking of something. When I met him he was standing in a deserted field. The field could have been used for cultivating and for buildings. But now some of it was filled up with 50 cm tall wooden sticks poking up from the ground. Most of the sticks were painted white on the tip, but some also had a white square cut from paper attached to it. It indicated that there had been found a landmine at the place where it poked up from the earth.

Where Kassim stood there where none such sticks. The area had not yet been searched and noone knew what kind of sticks which would be placed there in the future. The sun was still below the horizon, but I could feel the air was beginning to heat up. People were walking alongside the road, probably on their way to work, or to the market to get groceries. Kassim had already been up for several hours. The breeze was cooling, but you could see the sweat dribbling down his face.


He was dressed in a blue overall coat. Upon it he had the PPE, the Personal Protection Equipment, devised to protect him against a blast from a mine. The PPE was covering his front and back and also his legs with kevlar filling which altogether added eight kilos to his weight. It’s not designed for moving around graciously as it makes a person’s walk rather clumsy. On his head he had a white helmet with a protectional cover for his face. The helmet is pressing on the head and the plastic straps on the inside of it digs into ones forehead. After wearing it for some time one feels the urge to take it off, but for Kassim this was no time to lose concentration. One fault could be both the first and the last one in his life.

He is 26 years old. This had been his work for two years. He could still remember how scared he was the first time he went out in a field in Tanzania, his homeland, how the adrenaline had jumped in and awakened all his senses. As he now, two years later is standing in a field in Vilanculos, once the great holiday resort in Mozambique, he is no longer afraid, but neither is there space to be fearless. His concentration has to be 100% focused. If it is not, it can later mean a tragedy also for others who come after him.

He was standing between the two green ropes which marked the safe path where one can walk without fearing to step on any explosives. 50 cm in front of him is the red line which marks off the unsafe square, the absolutely no-go area. The area marked off is 100 square meters altogether. Beside him stands his colleague George, dressed in the same equipment as Kassim, with a rope attached to his leg. On the other side of the block stands another colleague; between the two of them runs a string. They are all watching the big brown creature which is running along the line as it is sniffing in the air and on the ground.


When he started two years ago Kassim could almost not believe that such a beast could be useful. As far as he considered it was an enemy to humans, who spread diseases and even ate corpses. But since he saw an advertisement in the newspaper and he needed work he applied for the job. After a short time he had to reconsider his opinion. Today they make up a big part of his life, as his work and his expertise.

The creatures they use are Cricetomys gambianus, African Giant Pouched rats. They are some of the biggest rats one may find. Their body is thirty centimeters long; with the tail they altogether grow up to half a meter. Its size reminds you more of a fat cat, but its tail and its pointy face gives it the distinctive look of a rat. They have got short brown fur and they use their nails to grip onto your arm if you hold it. In many African countries they are used as food since their massive body contains a lot of good meat, but it’s not the kind of creature you want to find in your refrigerator or anywhere else in your house.

In recent years these rats have been trained and used in the mine clearance effort. So far their ability to smell explosives has been proved to be highly successful if it is done in the correct way.


Kassim was watching the rat as it came running towards him over the yellow-green grass, sniffing in the air, stopping for a moment to wash itself. As it reached George, Kassim took a step further down the pathway. George moved his left leg half a meter, dragging the creature with him, and placed his right leg close to his left. He let it go again, back over the field, holding on loosely to the extra line which they used to control its movements.

All eyes were fixed on the rat as it walked down the line. Its small black harness attached around its body assured that it followed a straight path. It stopped for a moment, sniffed the air, tried to move away from the line. It was clearly something in the air, or rather in the ground. George dragged it back again, and let it once again pass over the same area. It stopped; again it was sniffing in the air. It turned its nose to the ground and scratched. Kassim and George looked at each other and nodded, and as the creature turned and came back George bent down to give it a slice of banana and some nuts, Kassim marked off the scratched area by putting clippers onto two sides of the strings surrounding the block.


The rat had marked the area because of the smell of explosive. There’s is a good chance that it may be an old bullet left in the ground during the civil war, but it may also be a mine put there during the same era. If it is a mine, it’s better to let the light rat point it out first than to test it out by stepping on it with one’s leg. In the background you could hear the whistle blow which told the manual mineworkers to take ½ hour rest while the 2nd squad took their turn, but for Kassim and his colleagues there was still work to do.

Can rodents be useful?

"You use rats to find landmines? How did you come up with such an idea?" I’m talking with Bart Weetjens, a shorthaired blond Belgium with a skeptical looking, egg shaped head and with a big grin which covers his face happily when he laughs. He has heard the question many times before and he becomes a bit rough in the edges if you ask him about his rats with a strange intonation in your voice. For him it is the most obvious idea in the world.

For Bart the thought of not coming up with the idea is even stranger.


Bart Weetjens had always had an interest for rodents. When he was young he had pouch rats and other animals. He studied to be an engineer, but he also wanted to use his knowledge in a more creative way. As he knew the rodents well it was quite clear to him that a smart animal as a rat could be trained. And with their superior sense of smelling they could probably be trained to smell explosives just as the dogs do in the minefield. From there it took little effort to see how rats could be used as resources in the de-mining work.

Bart started experimenting with the idea. He brought some rats of the species African Giant Pouched rats over from Africa. A normal rat lives for two or three years. The African species lives for seven or eight years, and they are already resistant to tropical diseases which often occur when you are working in the fields of Africa.

The rats may look big and scary for many, but Bart did not have the same problem as others. He started to domesticate the rats. For a couple of months he carried the rats around with him to get them used to the smell of humans. In a little pouch which hung around his neck he was walking around with the rats head poking up. When the rats were domesticated, the real training began. As a Pavlov experiment he started to train the rats to react to a ‘clicker’, a 1 cent toy which can be bought almost anywhere.

A rat is a simple animal. Meanwhile dogs which had been used for de-mining for a long time, works for attention, a rat is simply working for food. “A dog works for affection, while a rat is more mechanical”, says Bart. If you throw a stick to a dog 10 times it gets bored after a while.

If you give a rat food it keeps on going and going. So Bart used the clicker as a signal for the rats. When the rats smelled explosives it also heard a 'click' and with the click came food. Bart already knew the simple mind of the rats; he knew that even though they are smart they act on instinct. When the thought of ‘food’ appears in their minds, nothing else matters. And if they have to scratch the ground when they smell the scent of explosives to get food they do it without complaint.


They didn’t begin with serious experiments before 1998 when they, after two years of hard work, finally got funding’s from the Belgium government for their project called APOPO. For Bart the rats have a lot of features which prove them just as good as or better suited, for mine detection than dogs. A dog would take two years to train, a rat needs six months. And a dog is much more expensive to train than a rat. "A dog trained in Africa would cost 20000 dollars. A rat costs less than 5000", explaines Bart. They are also easier to move and handle.

All this was quite clear for Bart, but it had taken him two years to convince others and seven years more to get licensed and certified rats into a real minefield. But in his job he had to be just as patient as the people working in the fields. It had been a long walk with many odd looks.




At 3/09/2006 04:46:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Prince has answered our cry for help!
to bad they haven`t got a really god answer to my question. Anyway, they give us their moral support in our guerrilla-fight against the norwegian apartheid regime!

At 3/09/2006 04:54:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember... I can't believe I actually held one of those rats! good English by the way;) 

Posted by MIss M


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