Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Pursuit of Dreams in The Gold Fields of Mali.

I have been suffering from the most annoying and persistant cold for the last three weeks. Having  a cold  can be nearly  a pleasant thing: to be allowed to lie down all day in a state of semi- slumber  while sipping a lemsip or a hot whisky and lemon toddy every four hours or so can be endured without too much complaint for a day or two. But this is lingering boringly and anyway I am up and about now, having taken advantage of the two day bed allowance a long time ago... and the worst thing about this cold is that it is making me stupid. I really can’t think properly and I am being beaten every time at level 3 on my computer chess which is depressing me no end. And then Birgit left and the Christmas décorations came down yesterday to boot.
Therefore I am sulking and not intending to write anything of any note. However, a dear French friend just wrote to me saying that she looks in on this journal every day and is so disappointed if there is nothing new! Oh, dear. There is only one remedy to that: I will have to post something that I wrote in the spring with Maman: an article that I have tried to sell to  no avail. Should anyone have any ideas on a publication which may be interested, please let me know, and perhaps it is not too late if I take it off the blog immediately? You may recall that Maman left us last year to go in search of Adventure; but that he came back again? Well; this is the story of what he did:

The Pursuit of Dreams in The Gold Fields of Mali.
I have a mud hotel  in the ancient city of Djenné, Mali.  The hotel has remained open despite the multi-facetted crisis that has shaken Mali in the last couple of years which has destroyed the country’s once flourishing tourism industry. To our barman/waiter Maman life in Djenné no longer held the same excitement as before when the town was one of Mali’s premier tourist destinations because of its spectacular mud architecture, and about a year ago Maman wanted to leave his employment at Hotel DjennéDjenno and go in search of adventure.

We did not hear from him for a few months until one day he suddenly returned. He had been in the goldfields of southern Mali and northern Guinea : an inhospitable area where water is scarce but which has always attracted adventurers because of its gold deposits. But rather than finding his fortune Maman had lost the little money that he had earned and he now wanted his job back. We agreed to this gladly, since Mamanis apopular member of staff. His tales of his experiences were fascinating, revealing a dark world which I did not know existed.   I wanted to find out more so I decided to send him back on an under-cover mission.  I lent him my camera for a few  weeks and he practised taking pictures. We then devised a questionnaire aimed at the people working in the gold fields which asked questions such as : ‘how long have you been here ?’ ‘ did you come here of your own free will or did someone send you ?  ‘ how much did you earn last week ?’ ‘Do you use prostitutes ?’  ‘What will you do with your money if you find a lot of gold ?’ etc. I wanted to know what drove these people on to suffer the hard-ships that Maman had described to me. Was it simply the wish for personal riches?

Maman’s brief was to take up with his former collegues and work as normal. At the same time he was to ask the questions as discreetly as possible. A special questionnaire was prepared for the sex workers, of which he told me there are many. I was interested in seeing whether the vigorous campaigns of awareness making about protection from HIV/Aids which have been undertaken for the last decade in Mali have had any effect. The price for seeing a prostitute is between 1000 and 2000 CFA. ( 1000 CFA  is approx.£ 1.20) Maman was given a budget in order to be able to talk to the girls. The other workers were not to be paid. The night before Maman set off our journalist friend Levy met up with us and gave Maman some advice. In particular he  was to make sure that he was never alone for security reasons. Maman agreed that this was necessary and said that it was already an accepted rule  in the goldfields for the chilling reason that human sacrifice is known to be practised. The next day he left.

The artisanal goldfields of the Mandé region  of southern Mali and northern Guinea which was Maman’s destination form a direct link to Mali’s glorious past : in the middle ages Mali was awash with gold. Most of the gold of the European courts came from here, winding its way north by means of the transsaharan trade routes. The Malian emperor Mansa Musa[1]  made a pilgrimage to Mekka in 1324 famously devastating  the economy of the region by the sudden influx of gold which devalued the metal for the next decade. Since those glory days Mali’s fortunes have changed dramatically.  This  land locked Sahel countrynearly twice the size of Franceis now one of the poorest countries in the world. In addition Mali  is  struggling to recover from the  AQMI [2]- led invasion of the north which brought it to the brink of annihiliation,  narrowly averted by the intervention of France, the former colonial masters in 2013.

However there are still rich gold deposits in Mali which counts  as Africa's number three gold producer behind South Africa and Ghana. The lion’s share of the mining is carried out by large corporations such as Anglo Gold Ashanti and Randgold Resources using conventional open pit mining techniques. According to the Malian mining Minister Boubou Cisse   Mali is forecast to produce 50 tonnes of gold this year. Artisanal mines such as those in the goldfields of Mandé make up four tonnes of this total. The work is dangerous for several reasons : badly supported mine shafts often collapse and a highly toxic amalgam with mercury is used to extract the gold from the ore. Children are often used as workers and particularly sensitive to the poisonous fumes.[3]

Malian authorities are not in favour of artisanal mining because it is difficult or impossible to regulate and there is no tax system. ‘We don’t have a penny from it’ says LassanaGuindo, the president of Mali's national direction of geology and mines. Plans are being made to outlaw traditional mining. It is hard to see how this will work : for a thousand years the goldfields of Mandé have excerted an irresistible pull for all those who seek fortune and who dream of a brighter future. ‘Aller à l’Aventure’ (to go in search of adventure) is a deeply rooted concept in the Malian consciousness. Like the heroes of a Greek tragedy the young men will leave their  villages in order to seek material gain hoping to return eventually in glory. Many go north and brave the terrifying hardships of the desert in order to attempt to cross illegally to Europe. Others are lured by the tales of easy riches gained in the goldfields of Mandé in southern Mali.  They have one thing in common : they cannot return home empty handed. And for the multitudes that are lost there continues to be the occasional success story which perpetuates the dream.

On his return to Mandé, Maman found that the circumstances had changed : everyone was complaining of the lack of gold in the area recently and he was not able to join a team to work as he had before. His former work mates nevertheless allowed him to join them, to take pictures and to interview them and Maman stayed for two weeks. The centre of his investigations was the village of  Degedoumou close to the Guinea border in Mali. This is a village whose sole raison d’etre is gold : its inhabitants are made up of all the different rangs that account for the gold trade : there are the ‘patrons’ : those that own a gold prospecting metal detector; the gold workers who dig the surface ; the workers who operate the machines that crush the ore ; the women who wash the ore; the gold dealers which weigh the week’s findings on small scales; the workers who perform the most dangerous task : those that descend into the mine shaft which can be up to 20 meters deep with tunnels that reach out horizontally from the central shaft:

‘My name is Malik Traoré. I am 20 years old, a  Malian from Kolokani. I have worked in the mine which is dug in the shape of a well shaft for one  year and three months. I was sent here by my parents to work. Our boss gives us 1000 CFA a day. We are a team of six people digging in rotation ; that is to say 3 people descend into the mine between 6am and midday and 3 people take the midday to 6pm shift. There are women too who pull up the earth from the mineshaft by rope. All day is passed digging. As far as working conditions go there are lots of difficulties : there is not enough food and the water is barely drinkable. If we fall ill we have to pay for the medicine ourselves, and even then there is often not sufficient medical supplies and we don’t even have a hospital : it is just a shack made from black plastic sheeting. I am not at all happy about the working conditions.  Yes, I have relations with prostitutes. I go there a couple of times a week, but I use condoms to save my health’.

Malick will get a share of the gold that is found as well. The gold is taken to the market at the end of the week and weighed and sold by the ‘patron’, the small scale lease holder of the particular well-shaft. He or she ( there are several female ‘patronnes’ ) will take half of the earnings and the other half is divided between the six workers. The week before nothing was found.  Malik’s work is considered the most dangerous of all the occupations and it is the only work which is given a guaranteed income.  The hand dug underground passages often collapse causing the death of the miners. There are mud pillars put in place to support the underground tunnels but these are not left alone should a miner have an idea that they may contain a gold seam. The miners are often high on cannabis in order to be able to bear the working conditions and this makes them lose their judgment sometimes with fatal consequences.

At the end of his work Malik makes his way back to his makeshift home : a shack made from little but plastic sheeting. On his way back he passes the centre of Degedoumou : here he could have a shower if he wanted to, there are several shower units in place but water is expensive. It costs 200 francs to take a shower. Workers are often obliged to go without washing if they have not found any gold.  He continues along the way until he reaches the row of  girls that are standing by their plastic shelters, waiting for customers. The girls are calling for him as usual. There is Fatoumata from GuineéConacry, Wodia from KanKanGuineé ;  there is Mariam from the Ivory Coast ; Hawa from Bamako ; Ramata from Gao and Fatou  the Burkinabe :

« I am FatouSankara. I am 23 years old and from Burkina Faso. I was married but my husband divorced me so that is why I am working here as a prostitute.I have not been to school and I have no professional training. It was my own decision to come here. If I manage to save some money I hope to send to my parents, and I would like to build a house. I would like to learn to be a hairdresser and then open my own salon. Once I have achieved that I think I will stop this sort of work. I am not happy with this situation because we have too much trouble with our  ‘patron’. He tells us that if we don’t find any clients we won’t get anything to eat. Also, I miss my parents who are far from me. I have experienced violent treatment from my clients and often the sex is rough. That is the reason we insist that the clients use a condom. Last week I didn’t get enough clients and I only earned 8000 francs. »

The women  all said that they keep the money they earn and do not have to pay a percentage to the person they call their ‘patron’ who is however their provider of accommodation and food and therefore takes payment for these services. The enforcement of this payment is harsh and many girls complain of ill treatment. Wodia from KanKan in Guinea said she only gains  5- 7 boys per week which earns her 5000-7000 francs and that it is not enough for her basic needs. Wodia has been in Degedoumou for 6 months. She was sent there by her parents. If she finally earns money she would also like to open a hair dressing salon, and she wants to give her parents money.
Not all girls are complaining however. The beautiful RamataTouré is 26 years old from the war torn city of Gao in Mali. She made a conscious decision to come to Degedougou. She has been here 1 year and 8 months  and she is quite content with her work and her situation « because I get a lot of clients. Last week I got 42 boys which gave me 42 000 francs  and that is quite normal.[4]» Ramata has been to school and has plans for the future : she wants to study commerce.
(picture not relating directly to person mentioned )
All the 6 women  thatMaman spoke to said they insisted that their clients used condoms.  Of the 15 male gold workers 7 were married and none admitted to using prostitutes whereas of the 8 bachelors interviewed 6 said they did. These 6 men all claimed to use a condom. The reason for this safety measure varied :IsiakoBollo, a 23 year old from Sinikrola, Mali,  said it was because the girls themselves insisted on it. For the others it was a question of personal health. A danger was identified because of the many nationalities present. Malians, despite being so poor, have a strong national pride and can be fairly chauvinistic. They often display a certain hauteur vis-à-vis their neighbours. « Yes, I use a condom because there are men from different countries here » said Badolaye  Keita, a 25 year old from Segou. These sentiments were echoed word for word by Ibrahima Diallo, a 20 year old from Bamako.

There is a grain of truth in this Malian  sentiment as far as the spread of HIV is concerned. The percentage of HIV/Aids infection in Mali at present is 0.9, while Burkina Faso lies marginally higher at 1%. The figure for the Ivory Coast is significantly higher at 3.2%. (UNICEF).

The opening of the Morila gold mine in Mali in 2000 brought a lot of prostitution to the area and HIV/aids increased dramatically. The management of the mine was criticized for not doing enough to stem the epidemic since their response was simply to put up posters advocating the use of condoms. In 2001 the DHS Program reported 1.7%  HIV/Aids in Mali with significantly higher figures in  the neighbouring countries. A major effort by many international NGOs to raise awareness of the dangers of unprotected casual sex was launched in Mali and it seems that this effort, sustained for more than a decade has borne fruit. Attitudes towards HIV are changing.  However gloomy the situation in Degedougou for many reasons, the responses of our little sample of sex workers and miners are encouraging in this area.

The village of Degedougou as we have seen exists solely for the exploitation of gold. It  is  an unusual Malian village in that it has no mosque. The practise of orthodox Islam  is not evident and the open soliciting of prostitutes indicates that the conventional morals of an African Muslim society has broken down. However, there is one area in which Islam still exercises a firm hold :Maraboutage is the particular branch of Islamic magic practised by marabouts, Islamic ‘holy’ men who can be consulted for a fee in order to find gold. Degedougou has a number of these, living from the hard-earned gains of the miners and prospering through the wide spread African certainty that the deities must be pacified and cajoled through sacrifice. There is often only a very tenuous link between Islam and the magic purveyed by the marabouts. The link is provided is that the magic formulaes that must be written down to accompany the sacrifices are taken from the Arabic text of the Koran. Stories of human sacrifice cannot be verified but are persistent and likely to be true.  This is is why the first rule among gold workers is never to be alone. There is a widespread sense among the gold workers that the very substance they are seeking belongs to the devil. This is one of the interesting details that Maman told me which made us include the following questions : ‘Does gold belong to the devil ?’ and ‘Can maraboutage help to find gold ?’ From our sample of 18 gold workers 14 said gold belonged to the devil.

The  dissenting voices came from LassinaKousbé a Burkinabé of 25 year who said « it is not the devil : only chance makes one find gold » while Mohamed Diallo from Guinea thought it was not  from the devil but  it was a gift from God. OumarKané, a 35 year old married Malian from Koulikouro who has been in Degedougou for 3 months said he thought it was not from the devil, it  was  only difficult to find. In his case this was vividly brought to the fore when he said he had only earned 1600 francs the previous  week, an amount that would not have even allowed him to eat.

MadouTraoré from Burkina Faso has been in Degedougou a staggering 20 years. He would like to earn enough to return to his native country. Therefore he would like to use a marabout but cannot afford it. 

The wish to return home is a recurring theme that surfaces time and time again amongst those questioned. The Malian- or African- family is a close-knit structure : parents rely on their off-spring to provide for their old age and children take this responsibility very seriously. In almost half (11) of the 23 people interviewed the workers had not chosen  to go in search of fortune on their own accord : 9 people said they had been sent by their parents and two women gold workers had been sent by their husbands. To be sent off in order to earn money appears not to have created any feelings of ill will : not even the two sex workers put any blame on their parents for sending them off to exercise their trade, and both said that if they managed to earn any money their first priority was to give to their parents.

The lure of the gold and of fortune is therefore often not a simple wish for personal gain : it is a wish for an improved future for the extended family. « To go in search of adventure » entails the dream of the glorious homecoming when the successful adventurer is able to display and offer his or her treasure for the benefit of the whole family. If these riches are not found the very return back to the village becomes itself an impossible dream. Mariam  Camara from Banankoro in Guinea was sent by her parents to work as a prostitute. She does not earn enough money and therefore she says ‘I do not know how to return back to my family’.
Only one worker wanted to buy his own ore crushing machine or gold prospecting device in order to set up and become a patron in his  own right.  All others expressed a wish to return home and to set up various commercial ventures :KadidjaSidibé from Gao in Mali left her hometown with her two children when she lost her husband in the recent war. Her children are eight and ten and they help her in her work which is the washing of the ore.  Her dream is to return to Gao to set up an embroidery studio, while ModiboTraoré from Koulikoro in Mali wants to open a welding workshop. One or two  have their minds set on more traditional pursuits : « I want to raise cattle »  says  Mohammed Diallo from KanKan in Guinea. BadoulayeYatouro, a 25 year old bachelor from Segou in Mali works on the ore crushing machine. He says he could not find any work so he came «  to save his life and his future « . Yatouro’s dream is to go into farming : «  I want to be a good millet ; maize and ground nut farmer » he says.

Maman’s  undercover trip to the goldfields of Mandé came up with some encouraging findings about the way attitudes towards HIV/Aids have changed in a positive way. But most of all the questionnaire we devised uncovered two dozen real lives : it proved once more what I have always known to be true : Africans, and Malians in particular have a great capacity for hope and an irrepressible desire to find a better future. In the midst of their daily  struggle they still retain a dignity and often a great generosity.  I retain from all the questionnaires the replies of MariamCamara, the 20 year old sex worker from Banankoro in Guinea who arrived in Degedougou three months ago, sent by her parents. When asked what she would do if she earned a lot of money she replied that first she would give  to her parents and then she wanted to build a shop to give to her little brother.
Sophie Sarin and MamanCoulibaly May 2014

[1] In 2012 the Celebrity Net Worth Website compiled an  inflation adjusted list of the richest people in the world of all time. With his $400 billion fortune Mansa Musa I of the Malian Empire came out the clear winner.
[2] Al Quaida in Islamic Maghreb

[3]A Poisonous Mix :Child Labor, Mercury, and Artisanal Gold Mining in Mali

December 6, 2011 Human Rights Watch 
[4][4] She is earning about 150 000FCFA a month, the salary of a mid-ranking Malian civil servant.








Blogger Kim Hart said...

Have you thought about trying Songlines Magasine? Though music biased of course they do cover a broader range of world views and stories?

2:14 PM  
Blogger toubab said...

Hmmmm, yes; thanks a lot Kim! but looking at it, it does seem as if the subject matter needs to be somehow related to music...?

2:52 PM  
Blogger Susan Scheid said...

Echoing what others have said, this piece deserves publication, and I hope David's and your efforts will succeed in that. Meanwhile, I'm grateful to have the opportunity to read it here.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Pascal et Monique said...

Thanks Sophie . What a treat!
Mais lorsque je disais que j'étais deçue lorsque tu n'écrivais pas, il ne s'agissait pas de reproches! Juste une marque de mon impatience!
Soigne-toi bien.

10:38 PM  
Blogger mary said...

What a fascinating insight. Well done for organising it and Maman for being an excellent journalist. It does indeed need a wider audience but I am not sure how. New Internationalist?
Thanks for putting it on the blog for us to share.

10:01 PM  

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