Almost at once, the people arrive, hundreds of them, men, women and children, and assemble in the gloaming twilight by the roadside in the Burkina Faso countryside. They have come many miles and traveled for days, by foot, bicycle, bus, scooter and lorry, drawn to this rocky, arid stretch of land near the Ghana border by the rumor of gold.
Men with muscular arms and calloused hands that attest to their experience in the gold fields survey the land and with a just a few gestures, pronounce it fit to explore. The people pitch camps or lie down to sleep in the dirt by the road, ready to rise at dawn and begin prospecting.
Short hours after sunrise, with cooking smoke still hanging in the air, the land is raked bare of its sparse grasses and rid of its spindly trees and the digging begins. All hands, even the tiniest ones, are in the dirt, frantically clawing rocks into buckets, bowls and pans.
And just like that, a small-scale mine is born.
Burkina Faso has rich gold deposits that until recent times have gone untapped. Unlike its neighbors, Mali and Ghana, that built ancient empires on the gold trade between Africa and Asia and remain major producers today, Burkina Faso is a relative newcomer to the world gold market. Major foreign mining companies have only recently returned to the country after being banned in the 1990s. Small-scale gold mining began in the 1980s, as families, forced from their farms by drought and famine, literally began trying to scrape a living from the ground.
Today, Burkina Faso, ranks 4th in Africa and 23rd in the world in gold production. Only modestly regulated, small-scale mines spring up overnight wherever gold is rumored to be. If the gold field is on municipal land, local authorities will tax each producer 10,000 CFA or about $20 a year. If the gold field is on private land, the landowner may work an arrangement for a share of the proceeds.
If a gold field is good, word gets out and a boomtown springs up with shanties, supply huts, restaurants and assorted kiosks among the hastily constructed tarp dwellings. If the gold holds out, a new village will grow. There will be roads, water wells and eventually generators for electricity.
Small-scale gold mining in Burkina Faso, as in other developing countries, is a family affair. Even the youngest children work alongside their parents or in small groups. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated in a 2006 report that 30 to 50 percent of the people working in small-scale mines in the African Sahal, which includes Burkina Faso, are younger than eighteen.
At this barren place near the settlement of Bilbalé, about 20 kilometers east of Diébougou, there are probably 50 children among the 200 people working. Mothers with babies on their backs bend double from the waist to rake rocks into buckets, covering themselves and their infants with thick red dust. Naked toddlers play near their mothers while bare-bottomed boys, no more than 3 or 4 years old, hack at the ground with primitive, handmade hoes that are longer than they are tall. All of the children and many of the adults are barefoot.
Child labor is officially against Burkina Faso law, but when the parents are the ones who keep the children out of school to work, the law is hard, if not almost impossible, to enforce. Daouda Ganno, as general secretary of the mayor's office of Tiébélé, is all too aware that children in his village are not in school. He says that leaders are trying to establish a prefect near each village to enforce school attendance. When a child is absent, he says, "the prefect will go out and find the parent and ask, "Where is your child?" and then they will find the child and bring him to school." This is Ganno's plan, but at the moment, it is only a plan.
At this new mining site, work continues all day long at a frantic pace, as families are eager to fill as many vessels with the raw dirt and rock as they can. This will be their share of the "take" and if gold is found in this dirt and rock, they will get a little money for it. If no gold is found, there will be no money and this rag-tag group of miners will disperse and go home or move on to the next place where gold is rumored to be.
A story circulates through the camps of three men who struck an amazingly rich vein, made 20 million CFA (about $40,000 US dollars) in a month and cashed out. Perhaps the story is true, but for miners in a new camp like this one at Bilbalé, the reality is closer to 5,000 CFA a day or about $10. If the ad-hoc camp becomes an organized mining cooperative, the best miners and their family might earn 20,000 CFA or about $40 a day—a far cry from $40,000 but better than the subsistence farming most have abandoned.
On this first day of digging there is no time for play. The older children have the sure movements of their parents, and the gnarled hands and feet of experienced miners. The youngest ones are learning quickly. Four-year-old Rasmata Ouedraogo, her hair in tight pigtails, lifts a rock-filled pan. Mimicking her mother's motions, Rasmata tries to swirl the dust from the rocks. The pan is almost too heavy for her to hold, yet she throws her tiny body into the motion.
When her mother does this, the dust flies away, leaving the heavier—possibly gold-filled rock—in place. When she tries, pebbles tumble over the side of the pan. She bends down, gathers the rocks and with her tongue between her teeth, concentrating, concentrating, she tries again. She will keep doing this until she can do it no more.
(This post was updated on July 31, 2013.)