By Adam Sjöborg
Edited by Kristen Foht and Lina Svensk
Mining for hope
Mali is one of the world’s poorest countries, despite the fact that one million Malians are digging for gold. They dig tunnels by hand and without license, which makes one of Mali’s largest industries both illegal and dangerous. What drives people to the mines, and where does the wealth go? By tracking this controversial mineral, I hoped to find answers to these questions.
“You need to take off your shoes and socks,” one of the miners tells me.
I do as I’m told. The dry mud beneath my bare feet crumbles as I put down my foot. This is a land of dirt and dust, scorched under a ruthless sun. Still, I see people wearing winter jackets or several layers of clothing — everything stained with mud. You do not have to ask who works underground. If he has turned grey with stains, then you know. And now it’s my turn to climb down the mine.
“Put one of your feet here and the other one over there,” another miner instructs me and smiles.
“Holy shit,” I reply spontaneously. Now I realize why you have to be barefoot. It is because you have to climb down using only your hands and feet. No rope, no ladder — nothing; the walls and the pieces of wood are the only things preventing the tunnels from collapsing. With one foot on each side of the shaft, my new-found instructor almost does the splits.
“Like this!” he says and lets go of the wall. I look down and realize that I can’t see anything but darkness. It makes the hole feel endless. With the agility of a cat, the miner climbs down. Five metres is enough to make him disappear completely.
Artisan mining is not in any way a new phenomenon but can be traced back to the origin of the Malian state. To understand why people go down these mining shafts, one must look at both Mali’s history and present state.
Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa that is twice as large as France, with its northern half lying in the Sahara desert. Modern Mali is a young country, but its history can be traced back hundreds of years to a time when Mali was an empire ruled by the legendary emperor Mansa Musa, one of the wealthiest men in human history.
As a devout Muslim, Mansa Musa travelled to the holy city of Mecca in 1324 with an entourage consisting of thousands of servants. On their way, they passed Cairo. During his stay in the city, he gave away gifts in gold to such an extent that the price of gold in Egypt crashed and would not recover until many years later.
But the empire started to crumble, and in the late 19th century, the French came and brought an end to Mali’s independence. The country fell under French control and became a part of French Sudan. This lasted until 1959, and in the following year, the modern state of Mali was reborn.
Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world today but is, ironically, still very rich in gold. An armed conflict with separatists and jihadists has been ongoing since 2012. In 2013, the capital almost fell into the jihadists’ hands, and the French army came to Mali’s rescue. Today, a large UN-intervention force is placed in Mali, mainly in the north.
Still, gold can safely be mined in the south and close to the border of Senegal in the west. Well, at least it is safe if you are working for one of the bigger multinational companies that operates in Mali. If you are one of the one million Malians who mine independently — in the artisan mining industry — the reality is a bit different.
It is one week before my visit at the artisan mine and I have just started to interview people with mining experience here in Mali.
“To work in the traditional mining industry is like smoking. You get addicted. It gets into your blood, and if you don’t quit in time, it will kill you. It’s the hunt for gold that drives the miners to their deaths. You tell yourself that tomorrow you will surely find gold, but you don’t. Still, you stay for another day, then another,” says Fredrik Koné.
I meet Fredrik outside a school for artists, craftsmen and designers in Mali’s capital Bamako. He used to work in the Artisana district, an area where artists make and sell jewellery and souvenirs. The Artisana district is something of Bamako’s old town, with narrow streets filled with small shops. It used to be a popular place for tourists to visit, but that changed when the war started.
“The war changed everything, and it became very hard to support yourself financially. A few friends of mine told me about the mining industry. ‘If you’re lucky, you can become a millionaire,’ they told me.” But the reality turned out to be quite different.
Fredrik explains that, in general, there are three groups of miners: the first one uses a machine to detect gold in the ground. The second, and biggest, group belongs to those who cannot afford a machine of their own. So they dig where they have heard rumours that there might be gold to be found.
The third group, says Fredrik, are the ones who separate the gold from the stones with the help of strong chemicals like mercury. They rarely have sufficient protective gear and often get seriously ill as a result of contact with the chemicals. Most of them work along the Niger River.
I ask him if he made any money during the three months he worked in the mine. He looks like he just took a big bite out of a lemon.
“Of 100 people that go to the mine, maybe 10 find something of significant value. I made enough to afford food for the day, but not much more than that. When I got back to Bamako after three months in the mine, I was so weak that I had to borrow money so that I could recover at the hospital.”
A young man, wearing a knitted cap and a big smile shows up. His name is Sidiki Diabate, he’s a friend of Fredrik Koné and he joins us. Sidiki is a musician who, like Fredrik, went to the mines when the war started to solve his financial situation. His job was to walk around with the gold-detecting machine for about 30 kilometres each day. He did that for one and a half years before his body said no more.
He made some money, he says. “But most were taken by the men who owned the machine. They are men driven by greed.”
They are not the only ones. It is not only the work itself that can get you into trouble.
“Sometimes armed robbers come to the area where we sleep during the night and rob us of all the gold we have found — and of everything else we have of value.” Even the villagers rob the miners from time to time, they both tell me.
The topic makes both Sidiki and Fredric increasingly emotional as they continue to talk about their own experiences in the mines. Their voices are getting louder and their body language more frenetic.
“Those who find gold tend to disappear with it. They leave friends and colleagues — people they have promised to share their finding with — empty handed. Gold makes people treat each other badly. You generally hide the biggest piece of gold that you find and happily return with only the smallest pieces of gold,” says Sidiki.
But this kind of behaviour does not come without risk. They explain that it’s not uncommon that people who are caught stealing gold end up dead — murdered.
I ask them if they are not put on trial first or get to have some kind of legal process. First they just laugh at the question. But the laugh quickly dies off and they reply together with a short: “No.”
Large quantities of gold have been found close by the border of Senegal to the east. Thousands of Malians are travelling to these outskirts, hoping to find enough gold to change their lives. To confirm Fredrik and Sidiki’s story, I had to visit one of the many artisan mines. Just like all the aspiring miners from Bamako, we took the bus at dawn and began our 550-kilometre journey on crumbling roads to one of the greatest goldfields in the world close to a small city called Kéniéba.
To get to Kéniéba from Bamako, we first got on a bus that managed to take us halfway before it broke down. When the passengers turned into a mob in search for the driver who was clever enough to hide, we decided to bribe our way onto another bus. It didn’t take long before we realized that almost every man and woman on this bus was on their way to different mining areas in the region.
“This is the second time that I will try my luck as a miner,” says a tall man who sits next to me. He’s wearing a large winter coat and a smile broader than the Niger River. At the same time, his eyes are so sad that it’s hard to look at him. He has no bag or backpack with him. Still, he tells me that he has no intention of going back to Bamako empty handed. “I will stay there until I find something big. There is nothing else for me.”
The tall man looks nervously out of the window as if he’s searching for any kind of landmark in this vast landscape sprinkled with small trees. Suddenly he tells the bus driver to stop.
“Here, in the middle of nowhere? Sir, you must be crazy!” the driver shouts as the man disappears into the darkness outside.
We continue to bounce up and down and into each other as we make our way through the bush.
“It was not my intention to become a miner. The work is too hard and it is tearing on me. Still, I have no doubt that I will stay here for the rest of my life,” another miner tells me and describes the feeling of finding gold as “sensational.”
“But if you find gold, you better keep the news to yourself. There are people out there whose only purpose of being here is to rob people who have found gold,” says man a couple of seats behind me. People around me nod in agreement.
Sixteen hours after we got on the first bus in Bamako, we reached Kéniéba.
The small city is beautifully surrounded by proud mountains that seem to embrace the city and shield it from the world outside. Still, the wind finds its way inside the valley and hits us with such force that it is hard to stand up straight as we get off the bus.
Two young girls in a small road shop are the last to close their store for the day when we get off the bus late at night. They serve me and my translator, Alphonse, coffee and sandwiches and charge prices way above those in Bamako.
It is not only the miners that try to make themselves a fortune. Miners who work hard under a burning sun are going to need both food and water, regardless of whether they find gold or not. So small businesses pop up around the mines. Out here the merchants can charge more or less what they want, since there is nowhere else the miners can go.
The girls’ finish our order and pack everything up in the shop, including the lamps that happened to be our last source of light. There are no street lamps out here, and no lights from windows or signs can be seen. There is only the raging wind that tries to tear down the shed and our only shelter.
“Where are you going?” a passing man on a moped asks us while we sit in the dark. Before we have a chance to answer, he continues. “I can take you there — cheap.”
We decline and my translator tells me that this is the area where the traditionally hunters live. It seems fitting, as everyone here is after something. The next morning we will continue our own hunt.
At first, I only hear his voice. It’s the voice of an old man, but it is firm and strong. It comes from the shadows at the other side of the hut, just by the small bed. I notice that both my translator and my guide nod several times and repeat greeting phrases. I do the same, and soon after the shape of a tall man, the village elder, starts to stand out from the shadows.
The village, which is not large enough to have a name, lies half an hour further out into the bush from Kéniéba. Farming used to be the way that the villagers supported themselves here. But a couple of years ago, gold was found and that drastically changed.
The village elder asks us to sit down and offers us corn rice and water. We eat some while he converses with other men who enter the hut. When the time is right, we explain our reason for being here. He listens and then tells us that we have his blessing to visit the mine but that he will join us. We are guests in this area and he does not want anything bad happening to us. The long days at the mine combined with the lack of food can make some men edgy, he explains. Especially when drugs are involved. By showing everyone at the mine that we are with him, we minimize the risk of misunderstandings and tension.
Accompanied by the village elder and a small entourage of his closest people, we set off to the mine. We follow the dirt road until it comes to an end and the landscape is remarkably transformed. The image of the quiet countryside is utterly destroyed as hundreds of men, women and children suddenly appear in front of us.
People are shouting, pickaxes slam into rocks, the whole area is buzzing with life and chaos. There is no doubt that this is one, big working site, but there are no offices, storage facilities or any kind of structures out here. There are just holes. And no one is in charge of more than the hole that he or she digs in.
“We need structure. Everyone is here by his or her own will, which means that no one leads the work. You can see for yourself how it is here,” says Bamba Sissoko, a young man with broad shoulders and a firm face.
I meet him and several of his fellow miners as they are sitting in the shade enjoying their lunch break. Bamba tells me that there’s no problem with sickness caused by chemicals here, because they don’t work with that. Here, they separate the stones by hand.
“But we are constantly hungry. We work hard but never have enough to eat.”
Despite lack of leadership, they have some general guidelines concerning when to work, or rather, when you should not work. A man who sits next to Bamba introduces himself as Masa. He is quite fashionably dressed, wearing a white hat and a clean shirt with matching colours. He explains that normally they work from 6 in the morning to 18 in the evening, which also happens to be the hours when the sun is up. Except on Monday, which is their day off.
Masa lives in a village nearby and has worked here for two years. But when the rain period begins he goes back to his family’s farm.
I ask him if the work here has been lucrative for him.
“No, but I keep hoping that it will change one day. It’s hope that drives me.” All miners around him tell me that it’s the same for them.
A man in charge of one of the mines assure me that every miner here is at least 18 years old. I spot a boy who sits among the other miners and has a lot of white mud on his clothes. I ask him how old he is, and he tells me that he is 16 years old.
His name is Mone Kata and he works as a miner. He used to go to school, but he chose to drop out and become a miner instead.
“I regret that and would go back to school if I could. I would not work here if I had a choice,” he tells me.
That children work in the mines comes as no surprise for The United Nations Children´s Fund, UNICEF. Neither that dire poverty forces children to work. If you have to choose between starvation and child labour, you might go with the latter. But according to UNICEF, the parents’ attitude toward this practice is also a major problem.
“Many parents do not believe that child labour negatively affects children and, in fact, is an important way to socialize the child into their adult role,” writes Michelle Trombley, head of the Protection Section for UNICEF in Mali, in an email.
A consequence of this is that child labour is not only something that you find among the poorest.
“Forty percent of children between the age of 5 and 12 are involved in some sort of labour activity, and although child labour is most common within the poorest segment of society, it is common practice also in the richest households,” writes Michelle.
She points out that a shift in societal norms among communities and families is necessary and that it is something that UNICEF is working on. The absence of a fully functional child welfare system in Mali is another problem. But, like the Malian government, UNICEF struggles with a lack of financial resources.
Sitting beside a hole in the ground in a no-name town outside Kéniéba, I ask Mone if he could describe how it is to work down in the mine.
“Hard,” is all he says, so I ask him if he could elaborate. “Go down yourself and you will see,” he tells me with a rock solid expression.
Many miners have asked me to go down different shafts. Everyone has said it with a sense of humour, but not this boy. There are so many mining holes around here that it’s hard to move from one point to another without risking falling down in one, so I just pick the closest and start to remove my shoes and socks as instructed.
There are two great dangers for the workers inside the mine. One is the risk that the tunnel will collapse and bury you alive; the other is the deprivation of oxygen. The latter is sneakier and will not kill you quite as dramatically. Instead, it will slowly make you more and more tired until you fall asleep and might never wake up. The deeper they dig, the more dangerous the mine becomes.
When this happens, you will be dragged out by the fellow miners that find you. There will be a funeral, a day off, and then it is business as usual. There is still gold to be found and food that has to be paid for.
As I make it down to the bottom, I realize that the air here is cooler and in some ways more humid than the dry desert air above. When I finally reach the bottom of the shaft, I almost step on a middle-aged man who’s resting there. He first looks at me with an expression of great surprise but soon shakes my hand and guides me further down by crawling on all fours through a narrow tunnel. It does not take long before it splits up in two. One is still under construction by a young man who is digging with a pickaxe. The tunnel he chooses goes straight down, and once again we have to climb.
I remember that Fredrik Koné told me that the mines usually are five to thirty metres deep. It is almost impossible for me to estimate how far down I have gone since I have no point of reference. But it cannot be more than 10 metres, I tell myself.
So what brings people down here and what makes them stay? I ask myself as I reach the bottom and meet two men who cannot be older than 20. The answer is a deadly mix of hope and desperation combined with a lack of options in life.
“If you offered me another job, I would take it immediately. But at least this is better than stealing,” Bamba Sissoko tells me when I get back to the surface.
“When someone is trying to sell you gold but have no idea how much it’s worth, then it’s most likely stolen. For the most part, I follow my gut instinct. It’s like a skill that you develop after you have been in this business for a while,” says Mohammed Diombana, who makes a living by trading in jewellery made of gold or silver in Bamako’s Artisana district.
Alphonse and I are back in Bamako after our visit to Kéniéba. A lot of the gold that is dug up ends up here in Bamako’s own “Gold street,” which lies inside the Artisana district. Here you find row after row with craftsmen specialized in making jewellery out of gold or silver but also people like Mohammed Diombana who only trades with gold.
Some of the stores here have a bit of luxurious feel to them, despite being quite small; large windows display shiny jewellery while a man, dressed for his profession, receives customers behind a desk. Other places consist of nothing more than a worn down counter in the open, where a man dressed in jeans and a T-shirt will serve you.
Mohammed Diombana’s place is something in between. He trades out in the street behind a counter and has no store of his own. But it is clean and the goods are impressive. Behind him sits a man who is transforming a lump of gold into a piece of jewellery as we speak. It is not uncommon for the craftsmen to be working inside the store.
I ask Mohammed where the stolen gold generally comes from, and he tells me that it varies quite a lot.
“It could be teenagers who have stolen it from their parents, but also from robbery or burglary,” says Mohammed. Miners are not mentioned.
He, like every gold trader I meet here, ensures they do their best to avoid trading with stolen gold. Not mainly because of moral reasons, but because it is too much fuss if the police get involved.
Every day they check the global price for gold, and then they trade gold for that price, they tell me. Because of this, Mohammed does not believe that the miners who come here are treated any differently from any other customer.
Mohammed Diombana shows us the way to another gold trader, Samba Diakité. No other man trades more in gold than him in the Artistana, he and several other traders tell me. That does not mean that he has a big office though. A large safe takes up a substantial part of Samba Diakité’s place. The door to the safe is open and Samba sits in its opening, constantly trading gold for cash. One metre behind us sits a man who is working on a piece of jewellery, which will soon be ready to be sold.
”How’s business?” I ask him.
“It goes well, very well,” he tells me and taps in some numbers on his calculator. He gives me a note and points at the numbers. “This is how much I have received today,”
I read: 607 grams of 23 karat gold.
“I buy around five kilos of gold every week,” he says like he was trading in eggs. He tells me that today’s gold price is 22,000 Cefas (West African Franc), almost 38 US dollars, for one gram of 24 karat gold — pure gold. It is also the amount of karat that he aims to trade in. Despite the fact that gold’s value has been decreasing for several years, it’s obvious that the gold business goes well. At least for him.
“I receive necklaces, rings and bracelets that people want to sell. But also lumps of gold from miners. One gram of 18-karat gold is worth 16,000 Cefas, but after it has been refined, we can sell it for 20,000 for each gram of gold.”
Despite the large amount of gold and cash that flows through this place, he is not worried about security.
“No, no, we have no such problems. Sure, it happens that someone is trying to sell stolen gold to you from time to time. It’s not possible for anyone to tell what gold has been stolen or not all the time,” says Mohammed Diombana. He adds that: “No one has been trying to steal from me personally.”
Even though the Malian government has succeeded in attracting foreign companies, the Malian gold mining industry has seen better days.
“Mali’s mining industry is not growing at the moment. Since 1996, we have nine active gold mines. But two of them are about to close because of depletion, so we need to find more gold,” says Lassana Guindo. His official title is Technical Adviser, which means that he is second in charge after the Minister of Mining. Lassana has his office in central Bamako, in the same area as the majority of Mali’s ministers.
Our visit is unannounced and his excitement to meet me and Alphonse is non-existent. After realizing that Lassana has no interest in shaking my hand, I ask him how important gold mining is for Mali’s economy. At first, he continues to write in his notepad; then he looks up with an expression of slight surprise.
“It’s pretty important,” he answers. “It makes up around 6 percent of our GDP and almost 25 percent of Mali’s service tax income.” Still, mining companies do not have to pay any corporate tax for the first five years of production. In addition, all equipment used for prospecting can be imported duty free for the first three years of the actual mining. Lassana Guindo describes the relationship between the state of Mali and the foreign mining companies as solid.
“I would say that we have a good relationship with all of them. They all have authorization by us. It’s correct that the Malian state gets 20 percent of their income.”
Mali is a poor country with very little infrastructure, and mining costs huge sums of money. This creates something of a dilemma that can explain the friendliness toward multinational mining companies.
Lassana Guindo confirms that about one million Malians dig for gold in Mali today, without permit from the government, which means a big loss of income for the Malian government.
Generally, the mining law concerns three different types of mining activities that can be translated to “large, medium and small-scale mining.” But all of these require that you apply for a license to mine and that your application is accepted.
One of the requirements, even for small-scale mining, is that the legal entity has the technical and financial capacity to carry out the mining operation. This, combined with all the paperwork that has to be filled in, could be problematic in a country where over 60 percent of the population does not know how to read or write.
Lassana assures me that the Malian government is greatly concerned with the working conditions of the artisan miners.
“One year ago, we arranged a big mining conference where we invited representatives from them. During this conference, we talked about what should be improved for this group of miners.”
I ask him to give me an example.
“We must set up corridors for them. Artisanal mining activities sometimes reach into areas where the companies operate, which causes problems,” says Lassana, but shortly fills in: “But we also want to supply them with tools. And we also have to educate them through workshops about how to work with the chemicals for example.”
Lassana’s words make me remember our final moments in the village next to the gold mine. We had just said goodbye to the village elder and stood by our mopeds ready to go back to Kéniéba. At that moment, the village elder’s first son walked up to us holding a papaya, large as a football. He gave it to us and said: “This is what we produce; this is what supports us. What we need is water for farming, not gold.”
This story was made with the help of Kickstarter and the financial support of 31 backers. A big thank you to each and everyone of you for helping me publish this story.
If you like what you have read and would like to read more stories like this, then please consider donating through the Paypal button below. Every penny goes to fund future articles.