On Friday, it was finally time to travel to the mines. We’d spent all day on Thursday meeting with officials in Kedougou city (Direction of the Environment, Direction of Mines, Water and Forestry Division, Police, Governor in a town 7 km away) to inform them of our activities; they were all glad to be informed and repeated that it’s important that we came to them. This all relates to the Senegalese system of everyone wanting to be a part of a project by being informed, even if they will play no part in it.
Friday morning, we set off with our overnight bags and cooler of empty sample bottles and bags. After a breakfast of a bean sandwich, we went to the garage to find a car going to Saraya, where we’d be based for the next few days as we visited the large mining town of Kharakhenna. Fortunately, the van filled quickly, and we were all set to go. But, the car had to stop first at a few houses to retrieve some baggage. There were some complaints from passengers (particularly from one well-dressed man who insisted he was in a rush to make a meeting in Saraya), but the driver declared he had only one stop left. He then proceeded to enter a tire mechanic shop to fill the rear tire with air. However, after several minutes of failed attempts to fill the tire, it turned out that the tire wasn’t just lacking air – it also had a hole. All 14 of us passengers filed out of the car to wait as the tire was removed, patched, and placed back on the van. During the wait, over the sparks of a nearby metal working and the pounding of three carpenters building a bed, I was able to sit and examine the other passengers. I was particularly struck by one woman (not much older than a teenager) and her 3-year old child. I had noticed them in the car as she stroked his head, an affection not often shown here. I had also noticed large bumps across his scalp earlier, but now I noticed that he was unable to hold his head up, and it kept flopping to the side while the woman tried to help him sit up in her lap. When she went for a walk and swung him onto her back, she had to place his arms around her neck and legs around her waist, while leaning over so that he would not slide off, as he was incapable of these maneuvers himself. She then had to hold his body while his head flopped at a dangerous angle. When she turned toward me, I saw his eyes rolling into his sockets, teeth black and wasting, mouth turned in pain, and legs and arms too skinny for a child. He was starving, sick, and likely didn’t have many days left. It was an incredibly sad sight.
Eventually, the tire was rolled back into place on the car, and we set off. The road to Sarya was recently paved and beautiful as a result of the gold mining industry – though there are some potholes, these don’t take up the entire width of the road, and driving is easy. The 60 km trip only took an hour, and I was eager to continue to the gold mines in Kharakhenna after dropping off our bags, but that is not the Senegalese protocol. First we had to stop by the governor and police stations to alert them of our presence and our activities. Then we had to walk around Sarya to greet Falaye’s friends and acquaintances. By that time, it was rude to leave without waiting for lunch (around 2:00 in Senegal) and then too hot to travel until 4:00. (Nothing happens in Senegal between 1:00 and 4:00.) But eventually we did find a car, waited for it to fill, and traveled an additional 30 km on the beautifully paved road to Kharakhenna, where I was completely unprepared for what I saw.
I had been told that mining villages are transient communities whose populations have swelled with the gold rush. People from Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Ghana, and Nigeria flock to the mines for a chance at striking rich. And not just miners come, but also people selling wares and prostitutes. Kharakhenna was once a small village, but it’s population now likely exceeds 15,000. As the population boomed, people didn’t have time or space to build compounds (a series of huts surrounding an open area where a family lives together), but instead constructed just a single room. In fact, the rooms weren’t even constructed of mud as in villages or cement as in cities; instead, they were created by weaving dried weeds together and then using plastic sheets to cover any holes. These rooms extended for several kilometers in every direction. On the road, lines of people sold every possible item from food to containers to gasoline, similar to what you’d see in a city but all based out of weed huts. Interestingly, there were a lot of people selling solar panels (the first time I’ve seen this in Senegal), and many were placed on top of the weed roofs to provide power for the rooms. There were also a few places selling new motorcycles, a big attraction for people who strike it rich in the mines.
We were met by one of Falaye’s friends who acted as our guide in the village. I was introduced to many people, the first of which was wearing a Syracuse t-shirt. There is truly a sense of community in the village, despite its strange construction, and people were welcoming and kind. As it was a Friday, no one was working in the mines. This originates from the Western African belief in genies, who they say are active on Fridays and Mondays. As a result, if people try to work in the mines on these days, they are likely to be injured, and it is best to either process mined dirt or to relax for the day. We walked up to the mines, where it is ok to look at them, as long as we don’t try to dig. Thousands of holes dotted the hillslope; each hole was tens of meters deep and then continued horizontally. Men descend via rope tied to a wooden pole over the hole, and a fan keeps the air circulating. Sometimes they descend for multiple days at a time, bringing food and tea into the hole with them. Dirt is lifted back up from the team at the top of the hole. The process is extremely dangerous, and many holes collapse due to lack of structure; theoretically, every 10 meters is supported by wooden poles (leading to deforestation as people chop down trees for these support systems), but in reality, people often don’t reinforce the walls as often as they should. There is also the danger of reaching the water table, whereby water begins to fill the hole and needs to be pumped out before the digging can continue.
Once the dirt is removed from the hole, it is brought into the village, where it is ground into a sand, mixed with water, sieved on an angled wooden plank covered by a mat. The dirt on the mat is then dunked in water, and the water is checked for flakes of gold (which it usually contains). At this point, mercury is added to the solution since it selectively binds to mercury, which one man demonstrated to me in his hand, while asking, “Gis nga mercure bi?” (Do you see the mercury?). The mixture is then taken to huts and burned by the women, releasing large amounts of mercury into the atmosphere and leaving the gold behind. Additionally, some of the tailings are then bought by men from Burkina Faso, who move it to the bush and add cyanide to remove even more of the gold. They know that cyanide is prohibited by the government, and this process thus occurs very secretively. In fact, people are generally loathe to mention that they use either mercury or cyanide, for fear of repercussions by the police or Senegalese government.
Traditionally, Senegalese people had mined for gold using just water, and no chemicals. However, as more people from Mali and Burkina Faso learned of the Senegalese gold deposit in the 1990s, they immigrated to Senegal bringing not just themselves, but also the technique of using mercury to extract more gold. And thus, the black market trade of mercury (originating from mercury mines in Ghana) began.
When people are not working in the mines or processing the dirt, they behave like other Senegalese (or West Africans) – they sit, talk, drink tea, and smoke cigarettes (another sign of their wealth – nearly everyone I saw smoked a pack a day, at a cost of $4). They also played checkers and engaged in promiscuous activity. Fortunately, I was unaware of most of the prostitution occurring in the village, though the unnaturally light-colored skin (caused by chemical skin lightening creams) and heavy amounts of make-up on many of the women alerted me of their presence. And, since men far outnumber the women, the men even engaged in tasks outside their gender norm; I noticed men cooking, washing clothes, and cleaning. I was also interested to note that French was fairly common among many of the people; with such a high amount of foreigners, local languages were not shared by all present, and French was often the first language utilized among strangers and even amongst friends from different localities.
Aided by Falaye and his friend, I was able to collect my first few water and soil samples. I collected soil samples along a transect from a hut where mercury is burned toward the river. We were also aided by a man from Burkina Faso, who took soil samples for us from the bush where cyanide is used after the mercury processing. My project is officially on its way!
(I apologize for the lack of pictures. My connection is too slow now, but hopefully I'll be able to post some when I head back to Dakar.)