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Poor Suffer to Make Living from Salt


KATWE, Uganda - Julius Mutwalhughuma's job is eating him alive.

Three times a week for the past 20 years, Mutwalhughuma has waded into Uganda's Lake Katwe in search of rock salt, which he sells to traders from Uganda, Congo and Rwanda.

He keeps at it even though the lake's highly concentrated, corrosive salt water has eaten away at his skin, leaving scars and open sores. After a spell in the water, his pockmarked legs sparkle with salt granules.

The scars heal but they itch, and when he scratches, the wounds reopen, Mutwalhughuma, 64, told The Associated Press. "It is very painful."

On a continent where more than 300 million live in extreme poverty, the poorest have little choice about how they make their living _ whether in the lake, or toiling deep in gold mines despite the risk of rock falls, or breathing poisonous pesticides on flower farms and rubber plantations.

The chemicals in Lake Katwe are clearly unhealthy, experts say. The government has not acted on requests to study the risks.

"No studies have been done because these people are voiceless," says Dr. Assay Ndizihiwe, a senior government health official who has worked in Katwe. "These chemicals are clearly corrosive to skin, causing scarring and nerve damage, and it's very likely they have other effects we don't yet know about."

Mutwalhughuma is among 3,000 people who work at Lake Katwe, earning around $2 per 220-pound haul of rock salt. In an average week, each might harvest 15 sacks _ meaning about four times the dollar-a-day average earned by 39 percent of Ugandans.

But the physical price is high, and the protection is primitive.

The miners glue paper over open wounds. They wade into the water wearing condoms and with their legs wrapped in tire tubes.

Health experts say these offer little protection.

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