Having been employed at Kilembe Mines since in 1968 when the mines were still run by Canadian mining company Falconbridge, John Tinkasiimire, 69, is an unofficial authority of the mine where he has spent all his working life.
“I started working here as a trainee,” he says as he leads us on a tour of the dilapidated building that was formerly used as the workshop for mining equipment.
“Back then this place was a beehive of activity. Falconbridge was doing well until Idi Amin expelled the management in 1977 and nationalised the mine.
“Amin came in a helicopter and told them to leave. They were laughing as they left, indirectly mocking him because they knew Ugandans won’t manage to run the mine sustainably, and that the company would eventually collapse.”
The firm collapsed in 1982 as the Ugandans who were put in charge of the new parastatal, Kilembe Mines Ltd, did not have the required expertise to run it. The exit of Falconbridge was followed by declining international copper ore prices, which made copper mining less lucrative and kept investors away.
Even when in 2013 the government offered a 25-year concession to Chinese mining company, Tibet Himas, the deal lasted for only four years and the 2020 floodwaters that washed away parts of Kilembe Mines buildings seem to have dealt prospects of reviving the mine a mortal blow.
The mine began operations in 1950 and there is an estimated four million tonnes of copper ore beneath the mountains of Kilembe, located about 380 kilometres southwest of Kampala.
In its heyday, Falconbridge employed more than 6,000 people, including expatriates. It enticed other businesses such as banks, insurance companies, schools and accommodation facilities to open shop in Kasese town.
Falconbridge owned schools, a hospital and a power station — the five-megawatt Mubuku I hydroelectric power plant.
Meanwhile, to facilitate easy transportation of copper ore for smelting at the Jinja smelting plant, which is more than 400km east of the country, a railway line was built connecting Kilembe and Jinja.
But now the once vibrant Kilembe Mines has been relegated to just another tourist attraction even though the parastatal has not wound up.
Today, the mine has 30 staff running the hospital, metal fabrication works and maintaining the power plant which sells electricity to the national grid.
Many of the staff, just like Tinkasiimire, also earn a living by taking tourists around the dilapidated premises. Like the structures, the equipment inside is also dilapidated and most have been turned into raw material for fabricating things such as charcoal stoves.
Opposite the workshop building lies the building that used to house the control room, and the radio call equipment is still intact albeit non-functional.
“There is a lot of copper here, but we need an investor to revive the mine,” said Tinkasiimire.