Kollo, Burkina Faso — The noise is the first thing you notice about this place where they process the gold ore. Grinding, clanking, screeching, ear-splitting noise. You can hear the machines that pulverize the rock before you can see them. Closer to the site, but still before you can see the machines, you can see the dust, great billowing clouds of orange dust that fill the air and coat everything with a fine powder. And then, as soon as you see the machines, you see the children.
Children are everywhere, working. And while you might think the deep mines with their 50-foot drops and risks of collapse are the most dangerous places for children, the processing areas are actually worse—both for the immediate risks of maiming and death and for the long-term health consequences of constant exposure to dust, noise and repetitive labor.
The U.S. Department of Labor and the International Labor Organization consider mining one of the worst forms of child labor. Burkina Faso law prohibits child labor, but the law is difficult to enforce, largely because the parents are the ones most often putting their children to work. Small-scale mining is a family-oriented enterprise in which children work alongside their parents to contribute to the family's overall share of the meager wages paid to miners and processors.
The dangers to children from mining and processing gold ore are well documented and include respiratory illnesses and permanent lung damage from silicosis and other conditions caused by inhaling tiny mineral particles, muscular and skeletal injuries, hearing loss, accidental blinding, exposure to mercury and other heavy metals and toxic chemicals and accidents that cause permanent disabilities and even death. And then there is the fact that when these children are working, as they are six days a week, seven or eight hours a day, they are not in school.
The ore-processing and rock-grinding machines are makeshift, ramshackle contraptions cobbled together with pulleys and belts, grinders, flywheels and smoke-belching diesel engines. Where there is an established small-scale mining operation, there usually is a processing area nearby, such as this one near Gaoua in southwestern Burkina Faso. People bring large sacks of rocks and pebbles to be ground into flour-like powder. The sacks of powder then are taken to another site for processing, often with mercury, to create an amalgam, which in turn, is sold yet again for further refinement into gold nuggets.
While it takes the strength of a man to pour the heavy bags of rock into the crusher, small children do much of the other labor. They sharpen the grinding wheels without goggles to protect their eyes from metal shards. They scoop and bag powder from trays at the base of the machines without masks to protect their lungs. They fetch and carry and tend the machines inches away from pulleys, belts and spinning motors with the power to rip and shred anything caught in their works.
All the while the children are breathing the dust and diesel exhaust fumes. Their faces, arms, legs and clothing are coated with fine dust. When they are not working, they lie down near the machines and fall, almost immediately, into a hard sleep, oblivious to rhythmic pounding noise. Constantly, reflexively, the children cough, the hacking, throat-clearing coughs of smokers, but these children do not smoke.
Water, as in most places in rural Burkina Faso, is scarce. The children wash their faces and brush their teeth with the bilge water used to cool the machines. The water is far from clean.
You can see the toll the noise, dust and labor take on the children. Many have the blank stares and glassy eyes of people conditioned to endure whatever is put upon them. Their bare feet are calloused and swollen; their hands are gnarled and lined with deep cracks in the skin.
In the moments when they break from work, you can see the irrepressible happiness of children. Little boys play cards, laugh and tease each other. Azini is a tiny and beautiful six-year-old girl. She’s wearing her best white dress, now soiled with smears of rust-colored-ore. Azini twirls around and around smiling, her skirt billowing out like an open umbrella, oblivious to the assault of noise and dust.
The play and laughter do not last long and then the children are back at work, their hands moving in rhythm with the machines, their faces as emotionless as before.