Leaving a young child to go to work isn’t easy. But for 29-year-old mother Rita Kassova Kachiponde Vambi, being away from her son for three weeks at a time increases his chances of growing up free from the threat of landmines.
Rita is a minefield supervisor for the HALO Trust in her home country of Angola, where, almost 20 years after its long-running civil war ended, landmines remain an ever-present danger.
Rita says: “I will feel very, very happy when Angola is clear of mines because people will be able to move around freely, and my child will feel much safer than now.”
Digging up landmines is tough and dangerous work usually done by men. But, since 2017, the HALO Trust’s 100 Women in Deming project has created jobs and skills training for rural Angolan women who tend to be disproportionately affected by poverty and unemployment.
Rita briefs her team at the start of the day. As minefield supervisor, she is in charge of up to four teams of eight deminers
Rita Kassova Kachiponde Vambi
In total, BP has pledged $6.1 million over the next four years to fund the project. The money will go towards clearing more than half of the 48 remaining minefields in the province of Benguela, where Rita works – and ultimately contribute to rendering the area mine-free by 2023. An additional $4.9 million of funding has been agreed to bolster the $1.2 million grant announced in May 2019, as HALO and BP widen their ambitions for the region. This will support 130 staff, including 85 female deminers.
While living hours away from her family home is tough, for Rita, and women like her, these roles can be life changing – earning respect from the community and Rita now earns a good wage with which she has been able to buy land to eventually build a family home.
An anti-tank mine found near a former military base on the outskirts of Huambo, Angola
“This job is a huge responsibility,” she explains. “People respect me. When a deminer clears one landmine, she saves a life. The difference our job makes to our community is huge because people can now go about their lives. They are much happier because they feel safe.”
The work isn’t easy, though. Many of south-western Angola’s minefields are located on remote, arid, rocky ground. Deminers wear protective body armour and face visors and carry metal detectors and excavation tools, often up steep hillsides, making this physically demanding work. Every signal a detector picks up is treated as if it’s a mine and the delicate excavation process is a blend of archaeology and intensive gardening.
Only minefield supervisors, like Rita, can lay the explosives to detonate a mine once one is found; the rest of the team is moved to a safe distance. Unsurprisingly, HALO follows stringent safety procedures to protect its deminers, including two embedded paramedics in each demining team of eight staff, and regular emergency response drills.
And no one knows the scale of the job at hand. Exactly how many mines were laid during Angola’s 27-year conflict or where to find them is unknown, but, since 1994, HALO has cleared 880 minefields. It’s thought these weapons still cover around 23,000 acres of land – land needed to develop farming and build homes, schools and clinics.
Rita returns her metal detector and excavation tools to the camp at the end of the demining day
Back at camp, Rita unpacks her detector after a morning supervising the field and charges is ready for the next day's work
Watch the Halo Trust's film about the project