While I understand the importance of sharing my results with government officials and NGOs, I feel that the real value lies in sharing it with the community members who are directly impacted by mining and mercury. I thus spent the final two weeks of my trip to Senegal traveling to mining villages.
Each morning, Falaye and I would walk to the market to buy a bag of kola nuts – these are given to hosts as a sign of respect and are essential to establishing ourselves appropriately according to Senegalese tradition. We then continued to the car stand, where we’d find a car traveling to our set destination. In Senegal, there are no public transportation schedules; you arrive at the car stand, buy a ticket for the car, and wait for the rest of the seats to fill up. There are 7 places, but sometimes 9 or 10 people are assigned places before the car leaves. The best bet is to arrive around 8 or 9 and then be prepared to hang out for up to a few hours before the car is ready to go.
On one particular morning, we arrived at the car stand looking for a car only to learn that no car would be going that day – the normal store stock delivery (foods, toiletries, etc.) that helps to finance the car had not arrived and thus the driver did not want to spend the gas money to get there. The two of us, along with two other passengers who were waiting for the same destination, offered to rent a car – we would buy the extra four places in the car. At first, they wanted to charge us extra for renting the car, but we bargained them back to the normal fees, with each of us paying for two seats. Once this had been decided, someone was sent to the other car stand to get a car. Thinking this was the car we’d take, we all got in. Instead, it brought us to the second car stand where the driver knocked on the window of another car. It was 10 in the morning, but this other driver was still sound asleep in the back of his car. He woke up, agreed to take us there, and then set about his morning routine: washing his face, praying, rearranging the items in his car, tinkering around under the hood, pouring water over the tires. Finally, after almost an hour, he told us to get in the car. We all piled in and four men pushed the car down the block until we reached a downhill section for him to start the car’s motor. We were off…until we reached the carshop down the road. He pulled over, we all got out, and we waited while they adjusted the tires, tinkered under the hood, and did some other adjustments. Finally, at almost noon, we were all in the car and being pushed down the road one more time. We were off, down the paved road for an hour and then down a dirt road for another hour, until the car started making strange sounds. We pulled over, all piled out, and the driver again tinkered with the tires and under the hood. He finally decided we could make it the five kilometers to the next town where there was a carshop, if we drove slowly. So we continued down the dirt road, stopped at the carshop, waited for the car to be fixed, and then continued on our way. Soon after, we reached a police checkpoint. We were all asked to show our ids and explain where we were going. One man did not have his id, and we had to wait while he spoke with the police, gave them some money, and then we continued on our way. Finally, around 2, we reached the village.
Falaye had tried to call his contact in the village the day before to alert him that we’d be coming, but had been unable to get through. Upon arriving in the village, we realized this was because cell phone reception was out. Luckily, everyone knows everyone, so we asked someone on the street who pointed out his contact’s compound. We arrived there, greeted everyone in the family, and were asked to sit down for a bit. Falaye explained that we were there to present the results of my research to members of the community. So his contact brought us to the village chief’s house and introduced us. Falaye presented him with the kola nuts and some money to buy sodas for the meeting. We then waited while the chief’s son called together the imam (religious leader) and other members of the community.
Finally, the chief told us it was time to start. As I couldn’t speak the local language (and since it’s better for information on such a controversial issue to come from a local Senegalese rather than a foreigner), Falaye led the conversation. He introduced himself and explained why we were there. He then had me introduce myself (which he translated into Bambara).
Falaye then began the discussion, running it as a question and answer session rather than a lecture. He started by asking what they knew about mercury. Invariably, they explained the benefits of using it for gold processing – it was easy to use, cheap to obtain, and was effective at recovering gold. One man demonstrated the process of adding mercury and how small balls of gold-mercury amalgams could be squeezed into one larger ball using a piece of cloth. An older man was quick to add that mercury hadn’t always been used in the mines – the technique was brought by men from Burkina Faso in the early 2000s. Falaye then asked them if they knew why mercury was bad to use. There was silence. The chief finally spoke up that they’d been told it was bad, but had never seen anyone sick from the mercury. When asked the symptoms of mercury toxicity, however, they didn’t know. Falaye began to explain, and I searched the faces of a few men with trembling hands (a sign of mercury toxicity) to see their reaction. They remained composed, but were suddenly concerned and curious as to why they’d never been diagnosed as such. (The response: the hospital and local health post did not know the symptoms of mercury toxicity either.) Falaye then went on to explain the results of my research – people can be exposed to mercury both from the aquatic system (e.g., water, fish) and the terrestrial system (e.g., soil, crops, vegetables).
Next, they asked us: “Lan men nanu def?” (“What can we do?”). Falaye turned the question on them – asking for their suggestions of solutions. And this is the part that always amazed me. When we met with government officials and NGOs and asked them the same question, they responded that they didn’t know of a solution and that we should tell them what to do. But when we met with the villagers, they always had ideas of possible solutions to reduce their exposure and of how they could be reinforced. The solutions ranged from making protective equipment (masks, gloves) available in the local markets, to establishing a place far from the village where everyone would burn the mercury, and to imposing a fine for the burning of mercury without the use of a retort (cover that captures 80-90% of the mercury emitted) that would be enforced by the locally elected and well-respected mining police. After these solutions were proposed, we were asked again what we thought. Falaye would translate for me at this point to allow me to give my opinion. I supported their ideas. Eliminating the use of mercury is difficult without an alternative; until one is found, the solutions they proposed seemed effective pathways to reduce human exposure.
We allowed them time to ask us questions. Usually, after about an hour, everyone had had the opportunity to speak, we asked them to share this information with others in their community, and we were thanked by the village chief. We then stood up, grabbed lunch, and waited for a car to fill up and bring us back to Kedougou.