SEGUENEGA, Burkina Faso — Thirteen-year-old Zale Moumouni has been living 12 kilometers down the road from his village, searching for gold. He spends his days at the bottom of a meters-deep hole, shoveling sand to be sifted.
There are 250 miners on site — 150 of them are children. Moumouni started mining because he didn’t have enough to eat. He dropped out of school and is trying to make a living finding gold for the owners of the land — only he’s still not getting enough food. The landowners pitch in some food and tools, but that’s about it.
“We are here — we’re working, but we can’t find anything,” he said. “If we can have food and money, we’ll leave the place. If we had food and water, we’d go back to school.” He’s been there a month, he said, but he hasn’t found much.
A young mother panned for gold with her baby tied to her back. Another was pregnant. Accidents happen on the Baku site — one man had a bandaged eye, injured while digging. The miners say lack of rainfall led them to this.
“We are farmers, but the crop isn’t good,” said Sawaago Southaila, who seemed to be the closest thing the miners had to a leader. “It’s hard work, but it’s only when you don’t find anything that it becomes truly unbearable,” he said, adding that he’s responsible for feeding 21 children.
Droughts have plagued the landlocked nation. The United Nations Development Index ranks Burkina Faso among the poorest countries in the world.
Jacques Kaboré, who heads up Savings and Independent Lending Communities for Catholic Relief Services in Burkina Faso, said mining reveals the effects of food insecurity.
“Why would a child leave home to sleep outside?” Kaboré said. “Mining is an action of a people in survival mode. When we protect a child, we protect the future of this country.”
He said prostitution and drugs are common in the mining communities. So is death. Kaboré told a story of a mother who would pan for gold with her child strapped to her back. She was concerned that the child was breathing in too much dust. So the mother put a plastic bag on her baby’s head only to discover later that she’d accidentally killed her child.
“If you were able to eat twice a day, you wouldn’t turn to this kind of life,” Kaboré said, adding that farmers are tempted by the false hope of a big payoff. “It’s the hope that makes them suffer.”
Kaboré also said mining shafts range in depth from six to 60 meters, creating a precarious situation for the children who are lowered into them. Also, cyanide is often used in gold mining and Kaboré believes it will lead to long-term health issues and environmental destruction if the issue isn’t addressed.
Dominique Bangré, the CRS country representative for Burkina Faso, said gold mining has been an issue for the last five years. He said CRS is considering approaching gold mining companies directly to see what they can do through education.
CRS is featuring agricultural efforts in Burkina Faso during the first week of its Lenten Rice Bowl initiative.
In the Ramsa Village, Catholic Relief Services is working with local farmers. Last year, they issued emergency cash grants to local farmers. Saydou Zoromé was one of them.
He spent the money — $20,000 CFA — on millet. “Without the cash grant, we wouldn’t exist. We would have died,” Zoromé said. “Last season was a horrible season. Courage doesn’t come to bear here.”
This year, he said, the harvest seems good, but he expects to still have to work hard to make up for other needs. This year’s crop won’t be enough. The family lives on one meal a day so even the slightest decrease in food is catastrophic.
“During the difficult seasons, many children get sick,” Zoromé said. “We had to send them to the doctor to make them better, and that was expensive.”
Some of his children and grandchildren are mining for gold.
“When they get gold, they sell it and come back and give what they can to their parents,” Zoromé said. “Then they go back.”
CRS is also working with village members on Savings and Independent Lending Communities, a program that’s seen much success elsewhere. Community members pool their resources so individuals can make entrepreneurial investments. Some will buy bulk goods to resell at a higher price, for example, while others will invest in better seeds.
“The Burkinabé don’t get discouraged,” Zoromé said. At around 100, he still works the fields. He said his grandparents set the example by farming even when they couldn’t stand, dragging a chair across the land when they needed to.
Kouka Saligou Zoromé, another elder, said he often wakes up in the middle of the night. “The children are crying. At first I think, ‘Oh, it’s nothing.’ But then I realize that they’re crying because they’re hungry.”