The Abandoned Asbestos Mining Town That Was Turned Into A Haven For Orphans

The African town of Bulembu found a way to revitalize after the collapse of its local industry: by giving back. There just remains the slight problem of all the asbestos still lying around.

The same thing always happens in resource-rich areas: When a town is flush with resources, the population and the economy booms. When the resources (or interest) starts to dwindle, everyone leaves. In the tiny mining town of Bulembu, Swaziland, the population once swelled to over 10,000 people, with multiple schools, stores, entertainment venues, and housing dotting the landscape. In 2001, the company operating the asbestos mine shut everything down, and just like that, Bulembu became a ghost town.


That’s when Swazi charity Bulembu Ministries Swaziland stepped in and took over the town, turning it into a haven for Swazi orphans–306 of them, to be exact. Bulembu provides everything the orphans might need, including placement in a home with a caregiver, a school (The Bulembu Christian Academy), and a health clinic.

The revived town is also building up a number of businesses, with profits all funneled back into the Bulembu Sustainability Fund, created to further the town’s goals. Among the businesses already set up: a sawmill, a dairy, a water bottling plant, a bakery, and a honey production facility. The dairy, for example, provides milk to all the orphans, and excess supply is sold to denizens of Bulembu, the nearby town of Pigg’s Peak, and Parmalat, a Swazi dairy processing company.

The Bulembu website describes the bakery:

“In years gone by Bulembu relied on shipments of bread coming in from Pigg’s Peak–a town 20 km away along a dirt road. Regular inclement weather made the road dangerous to travel and as a consequence bread deliveries were unreliable and increasingly expensive… The Bakery’s employees work to produce quality bread products for the Orphan Care Program as well as a wide selection of bread, doughnuts, sticky buns and dinner rolls for the Bulembu community.”

Despite its successes, not everyone is thrilled with the Bulembu project. Earlier this year, the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC), released a story questioning whether the former mining town is safe. It produced asbestos for decades, after all, and we now know that the substance can cause serious illness. The ABC piece explains that most of the children’s homes still have asbestos roofs, while the mine’s dump sits in the center of the town.

“Any form of asbestos is dangerous. Whether it be crocidolite or chrysotile the fact that somebody breathes in asbestos fibre places them at life-long risk of developing an asbestos-related disease,” explained Tina da Cruz, the project director of South Africa’s Asbestos Relief Trust, in an interview with the ABC.


Representatives from Bulembu were wary about speaking with us because of past negative media coverage, but the ABC report claims that the town has performed air testing. Bulembu is also working on rehabilitating the mine dumps and tailings. It’s hard to say whether that will be enough–or if the entire town should just be picked up and moved. The town has an admirable mission. Hopefully, it can clean up any asbestos problems so that they won’t mar it.

Check out images of Bulembu in the slide show above.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.