Even our tents and canoes, situated by the river over 2 miles away from the mine itself, were covered in a fine film of the pale pink, talc-like dust…
‘A relatively short day’s paddling on the River Gambia today, as we wanted to stop and visit another gold mine in South Eastern Senegal. This stretch of the river is dotted with artisanal gold mines – which draw thousands of migrant workers from all over West Africa: Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, Guinea-Conakry, Mali, and Senegal itself. All of them hoping to make their fortune. Whole families live in and around the mines, in makeshift villages (rather disconcertingly described as the ‘Wild West‘ of SE Senegal, during our pre-expedition research). All the mines we visited were understandably dusty, but this one, in particular, had an extremely fine, pink-hued, dust which got into absolutely everything. Even our tents, and canoes, situated by the river – over 2 miles away from the mine itself – were covered in a fine film of the pale pink, talc-like dust. But, at least we could pack up our tents and leave the next day, washing away the dust. Many of those people whose lives revolve around the gold mines, for months and years in some cases, aren’t so lucky, as they inhale toxic fumes from the mercury – used to separate the gold from the rock dust…’ Words by Helen Jones-Florio. Read more on the River Gambia Expedition blog.
Paddling up, in our two foldable canoes, towards the shore of Kemoto Point, we could see that our arrival was not going unnoticed – we were being closely observed by a dozen or so young kids, and a couple of elderly gentlemen, sitting smoking, by the rivers edge.
This kind of avid interest in us, was an all too common occurrence, throughout the whole of our journey, down the River Gambia, which began at it’s source, high up in the Fouta Djallon Highlands, of Guinea-Conakry. In Kemoto Point, however, we had our first real experience of a village which appeared to be populated by young kids, women, and older people – and no youth, to speak of.
After we made camp, our vigilant audience of young kids, grew in numbers, as the word went around that there were ‘toubabs‘ in town. They vied excitedly for our attention, telling us about an abandoned hotel that they wanted to show us. Intrigued, we allowed our boisterous entourage to lead us through the village, introducing us to their mothers, and grandparents, along the way. As we walked around, Florio and I began to notice that there seemed to be a distinct lack of men, particularly between the ages of 16-25. Where they all at work, in the fields, perhaps?
One of the few young men that we did meet, Lamin, told us of how ‘all my brothers’ (it’s the norm, in this part of the world, to describe extended family, even friends, as your brother, sister, father, mother, uncle, and so on, regardless of whether they are blood related or not, as people tend to live very closely together, often in the same compounds; sharing the responsibility for each other) had left to go to the Senegambia coastal areas, where the big tourist hotels were, where they hoped to find more work; to enable them to make money to send back to their families. The all too familiar urban drift, which we’d come across again and again, on our travels, but in Kemoto Point, the problem seemed to be exacerbated. Almost an entire generation, of young men, were gone, from one village – leaving a huge gap.
Another problem was that the men (and, in more rarer instances, young women) had left, to make their way, overground- ‘the back way’ – crossing the desert, towards Libya. By all accounts, a long, arduous, journey, followed by the fight – and immense expense – with 1000’s of other people, in Libya (providing they even make it that far), to get onto dangerously over-packed, illegal immigrant boats to Europe.
It was the oddest experience, to walk through a village where we didn’t encounter more than half a dozen young men. Meanwhile, our clamorous young escorts, leading us out into the bush, wielding rusty old machetes, expertly hacking away at any branches and grasses that stood in their way, became increasingly excited, to the point of becoming feral! They literally ran amok – hysterically screaming, shouting, laughing, fighting, and crying (I had to step in at one point, to admonish one young girl who was smacking her much smaller ‘brother’ around the head, for no apparent reason, other than she and her friends seemed to find it extremely hilarious!).
Sitting around our small campfire that evening, talking to Lamin – the kids still present and watching our every move, from the shadows, but respectfully keeping their distance, whilst we ate supper – he expounded on our conversation, about the problems of the mass exodus of young men, and about how the young mothers and elderly villagers couldn’t cope with the kids increasingly manic behaviour. With few men around, to discipline younger siblings and/or their children – especially the young boys, who now had no role models – he told us how the time-honoured structure of village life was shifting, and that the kids were being allowed to run wild. He explained it as a combination of the women just not having the time, or energy – as each minute of the day was spent working, cooking, cleaning, looking after their babies – to the elders, who no longer seemed able to garner the respect from the young kids; customarily, respect for elders is the norm in West African culture. There being little prospect of schooling for many of them – either not enough money, or they would be expected to work (especially, the young girls) as soon as they were able, to make up for their older siblings absence and, thus, lack of income. And, as for the younger boys, sadly, our friend explained, they would more than likely follow in the footsteps of the young men, leaving the village, for the coast, or going ‘the back way‘, as soon as they could.
Over the last month, Florio has been working onboard the Phoenix – for MOAS (Migrant Offshore Rescue Station) boat – documenting the rescue of 1000’s of migrants, off the coast of Libya; migrants coming, predominantly, from West Africa, East Africa, and Syria.
Seeing the images of all those people – all of whom are so desperate as to risk their lives, and often those of their children too, as whole families are on wooden fishing boats that are, nowhere near, made to take 400-500 people – reminded me of when we were on our ‘River Gambia Expedition‘, over-grounding and then paddling, we followed the course of one of Africa’s last remaining, free-flowing, rivers; from its source in the Fouta Djallon Highlands of Guinea, through Senegal, and on to the mouth of the mighty river, in The Gambia, West Africa.
We came across many, many migrants, from all over West Africa – both economic, and those fleeing from regimes which threatened their very existence. In the artisanal goldmines of South East Senegal, we met families, who had migrated either together, or the men settled first and then sent for their wives and children later
Like the boat migrants, they too were risking their lives, every single day, working in unregulated and extremely dangerous conditions, climbing down man-made holes – dug out with pick axes – 15+ metres deep, in some cases; ones which often implode, causing fatalities and maiming. All this, in the hope that they will be one of the very lucky ones, who will find a nugget of gold, to make their fortune, and to feed their family.
‘Whole families live in and around the mines. All the mines we visited were understandably dusty, but this one in particular had an extremely fine, pink-hued, dust which got absolutely everywhere. Even our tents, situated by the river – over 2 miles away from the mine itself – were covered in a fine film of the pale pink, talc-like, dust. But, at least we could pack up our tents and leave the next day. Many of those people, whose lives revolve around the gold mines, are inhaling toxic fumes from the mercury – used to separate the gold from the rock dust. The mercury that isn’t inhaled, settles into the environment – i.e. the pink dust that coats everything and everybody, at this mine… ‘ Helen Jones-Florio – See more at: River Gambia Expedition
Most of the miners we spoke to had, after many months, and even 1-2 years, of treacherous, backbreaking work, had found not one solitary grain of gold. And, so, they have little choice but to pack up and migrate to the next place, wherever that may be. Some of those we met, I feel sure, will have gone the ‘back route’ – overland, to Libya, to try to get onto a boat to Europe, in pursuit of a ‘better life’. Despite the dangers, involved in this tremendously risky journey, where many lives are lost on route or at sea, it is still preferable to returning to a country that either cannot or simply will not support them.
If you would like to read more about our journey, along the River Gambia, please check out River Gambia Expedition and floriophoto.com for more images, by Jason Florio, of the people we met along the way.