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Story Publication logo August 3, 2013

The Cost of Gold in Burkina Faso: Hands and Feet

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In just a quarter century, one of the world's poorest countries has transformed itself into Africa's...


KOLLO, Burkina Faso — I watched Dieudonné Yara and Philippe Linga sleep, the deep sleep of exhausted children. Every parent knows this sleep and it is a beautiful thing—utterly still and peaceful. The boys, who were about 6 or 7 years old, lay on empty rice sacks in the dirt, using their hands as pillows, oblivious to the rhythmic thunking of the ore crushers nearby.

As I photographed the boys, I studied them and because they were so still, I had time to notice the details and time to think about what labor in the gold mines is doing to the young children who work alongside their parents all across Burkina Faso.

I photographed their hands and feet, and realized as I did that the hands and feet of these small children were much larger than they should have been. Their skin had the texture of dirty, cracked leather. Thick crevices encircled their swollen knuckles. Their nails were split and broken from handling ore. Open, half-healed cuts showed through the dirt on their palms.

Their hands looked like they belonged to old men who had spent lives at hard labor—not children. And their feet were no better – callused and swollen with thick hard soles from running barefoot over sharp rocks.

I thought about the strength necessary to pry chunks of ore loose from strata deep underground and the deftness required to manipulate the ore-crusher controls or spin a pan full of mud and water until silt and gold separate to form a small dimple.

I thought about the coarse, hand-made tools – the shovels, hoes and picks – that the African miners use, and it came to me that the bare hands of children are mining tools, too, responsible for who knows how much of the ore brought out of the small-scale gold mines of Burkina Faso.

As a photographer, I often look to the eyes to find the image. The eyes reveal mood and emotion and tell a story. Because the boys were asleep, because their eyes were closed, I noticed their hands and feet. And once I had seen their hands and feet, I could not stop noticing the hands and feet of other children. For these children, the hands and feet tell the story.

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