Week 2‎ > ‎

Hunger for Gold

This weekend Franco and I decided to take a couple of days off from our daily courses about internet resources. So we decided to ask our local friends and participants what was worth seeing in the area around Ouahigouya. After a series of suggestions regarding sites of naturalistic and anthropologic interest, our Italian friend Velio - who collaborates with CISV here - finally mentioned something that made our eyes blink: the gold mines!

I know that Burkina Faso isn't rich of natural resources so to hear the word "gold" next to the name Burkina Faso or Ouahigouya definitely raised our interest. No doubt we have to go there to check out what is this untold story of the Burkinabe gold.

In 5 minutes we organize the team for this expedition: Nufu is going to be our chauffeur, Ollé takes the role of intermediary and translator, Sylvie and Agui just decide to join us in the car and help documenting with pictures and videos.

Saturday morning we all meet and finally take off to the gold mines. I’m not sure about Olle’ and Nufu, but I know that at least 4 of us (Gio, Franco, Agui, Sivlie) have never been there. In the car, my brain tries to imagine what a gold mine could be like, but the only result is too similar to the Welsh coalmines to be true. Sure, there is no Thatcher here, at least. The result of my imagination is something like a gigantic hole, an en-plein-air mine with big wheeled carts and a rigid organization. I don’t reveal it to anyone, I keep my imagination in the back of my mind, and I don’t allow it to influence the opinion of what I’ll see.

In the meanwhile, Nufu leaves the main road and starts driving apparently heading to nowhere; at a certain point he stops the car. We jump off and start walking towards some stacks of dirt.
The sun is hitting hard our heads; the dust in the air becomes more and more thick. In this sort of fog we can see some silhouettes. After few meters we are in the middle of the gold mines.

What you see when you are in the gold mines here is nothing but holes, small holes. Here in Burkina Faso everything is kind of approximate and clumsy but these holes are quite impressive for their precision. Their shape is a square of one meter per side, beside them little hills of stones and dirt.
You have to be careful not to step into one of those and fall in the complete darkness.

The people working here are neither black nor white. They are beige.

Completely covered by dust they look at us at first with certain suspicion, but then they let themselves go to smiles and waving even posing for pictures.

They explain us that the rule here it's quite simple: if you want to look for gold you can just choose a spot and start digging. I personally think that the whole thing can't be as simple as they tell us, and that some sort of hierarchy has to be respected. Anyway, I don't have elements supporting my doubts therefore I tend to trust what they say.

The holes are about 15 meters deep and then they proceed horizontally in a - I believe - intricate underground net. People dig with their hands and basic tools. There are no machines, apart from the machines for breaking the stones, but for those you have to pay and many people just break stones by hands.

Somebody kindly invites me to go down in one of the holes and take a look down there, but although I consider God being a very powerful tool for safety I don't feel like going 15 meters underground protected only by my prayers.

We keep taking pictures and talking to people, they come from anywhere looking for gold. Their lives consist of digging, breaking stones and breathing dust. Somebody told me that few weeks ago a dozen of people went down in one hole, but never came back. Sometimes they rescue some bodies down there; one of those men had 5.000.000 of CFA (about 750€ = a lot here) in his pockets. Burkinabe tales or real stories?

Honestly I saw everything of a mine there but the gold. At a certain point a guy insisted for me taking a picture of him with a small bag in his mouth, inside there is something yellowish. It has to be gold, I think! They are peanuts instead.
The sun keeps cooking our heads while we keep shooting pictures, until an elegant man appears from this cloud of dust and dusty people (including us now). He is the only one dust-repellent, it seems. He says he represents the company that owns the rights of exploiting the site, and he says we can't take pictures. But our animist (and suspected magician) friend Ollé uses all his diplomatic skills (or occulted powers) to convince the gentleman to let us document the experience. Surprisingly he succeeds.

Ok, now that we got some sort of authorization from the undusted man, we could keep exploring every single square centimeter of the mine, we could ask people and do much more. Instead, we get bored after 5 or 10 minutes and we decide to return to the car, stopping only for a couple of more pictures here and there. That’s our gold, now we can go.

words by Giovanni Innella, Franco Papeschi
photos Giovanni Innella, Sylvie Ouedraogo