Life at the margins

In the harsh reality of Ghana's gold-mining areas, children are still being used as cheap labour. But, as Bob Chaundy discovers, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Photo by: Georgie Fienberg

The eastern part of the Talensi Nabdab region of northern Ghana is a desperate place. Its makeshift mud huts have no electricity or water; their ragged thatched roofs are patched up with rags and black plastic bags. The whole desolate scrub landscape is covered in a grey dust that manages to find its way into your eyes, nose and seemingly every facial pore. The roads are no more than dirt tracks and there are few facilities save the occasional hut selling basic foodstuffs. The place has a feeling of the Wild West about it.

This is gold mining country. Not the sophisticated excavation you see in the south of the country that gave the former Gold Coast its name. There aren't enough commercially viable deposits for the big corporations. Instead, here we have small-scale mining done by individuals and families desperate to scrape a living in a poverty-stricken environment. This includes children, a practice that is illegal but one almost impossible for the Government to enforce. There are no official statistics, but locals estimate that, on average, four children have been killed each year since 1995 when this form of mining first began. Hundreds have been injured. In fact, as I walk around the area where most of the mines are located, I notice a young boy of around 12 operating a milling machine that grinds the stone containing small traces of gold.

Dangerous work

Poverty forces parents to exploit their youngsters. Children are particularly vulnerable since they are nimble and don't understand the risks. It's dangerous work. The miner, with a torch strapped to his head, has to climb down a two-metre square shaft as much as 100 metres deep, with no safety precautions. He is armed sometimes with home-made explosive and a small drill. At the seam, he either blasts or drills into the rock, or both, collects as many stones he can fit into a bucket that is then raised to the surface on a pulley. The process to extract the gold then begins. The rock has to be crushed into smaller pieces, milled into a powder and mixed with all manner of ingredients including, at the end, pieces of mercury. Children are therefore exposed to the effects of dust and metal poisoning. The boy at the grinding mill was wearing no protective gear despite chippings flying around, while his mother, working the crushing machine nearby, was covered in dust that had even penetrated her eyelids. I asked why she didn't wear a mask. She replied that she had tried it but it made it difficult for her to breathe, so she'd rather do without.

There are no official statistics, but locals estimate that, on average, four children have been killed each year since 1995 when this form of mining first began

I watched as one young adult man used a small blowtorch to burn off the last of the impurities from one piece of gold the size of a small ball bearing. It weighed around 35 grams, for which he received the equivalent of $14 from the buyer who watched the whole process assiduously. I asked the miner how long it had taken him to complete the process from excavation to extraction. The answer was between one and two days. This is life at the margins. Females don't traditionally go down the mines, but the plight of girls is still poor. Cash payment for work is rare; instead, people are paid in kind. Teenage girls are often forced to pay for meagre pieces of stone with their bodies. Teenage pregnancies, already high in Ghana as a whole, are even higher here. One 14-year-old I came across was several months’ pregnant. When we asked her who the father was, she had no clear idea since she had slept with so many boys, also teenagers. Narcotics and hard liquor are rife and ensure that, at night, children are often left to fend for themselves.

However, the plight of the children here has improved significantly over the past two years. The UN body, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), as part of its International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), initiated a scheme in 2005 to try to get children out of the small-scale Ghanaian mines. It chose a Ghanaian-based secular child rights organization, Afrikids, to run and co-sponsor it. Afrikids, with a grass-roots, holistic approach, has built up a reputation for similar work in Ghana, including rehabilitating children trafficked to the big cities and curbing the practice of killing so-called ‘spirit children’, those born with physical and mental deficiencies thought to be evil spirits masquerading as humans.

Getting the children out of the mines

In two years, through a scheme they call Project Sunlight, Afrikids, with ILO help, has taken 150 children out of the mines. The project leader, Raymond Ayinne, is a social worker continuously reinforcing his message to the local community in their own language. He remembers only too well the night he witnessed a 12-year-old boy found dead in a mineshaft. ‘They brought him out like you would carry a piece of luggage. It was painful. I know that if he had been an adult, he wouldn't have died. He would have understood the risks.’

One child broke into tears when I asked him what life was like when he worked in the mines. It brought back memories of his parents who had both died while he was still young. A man he didn’t know took him in and demanded he work down the pits in return for food and shelter

To persuade the families to part with their source of income, the organization has provided them with micro-finance loans and paid for government health insurance for a period of two years. They provide two female goats that the families then breed to provide income. Afrikids sponsors a number of the poorest children, paying their school fees for two years, for their uniform and their government health insurance. They monitor the quality of the schools too. As Raymond Ayinne points out, ‘There would be no point in establishing a school which didn't teach the student to read or write properly, otherwise the parents would feel that they might as well have sent their kids down the mines.’

One child, whom I shall call Joe, broke into tears when I asked him what life was like when he worked in the mines. He told me through an interpreter that it had brought back memories of his parents who had both died while he was still young. A man he didn’t know took him in and demanded he work down the pits in return for food and shelter. Joe is now being sponsored at school and says he will never return to the mines.

One of the biggest mine owners, a gruff, wiry but rather charismatic individual named Daniel Panara, used to employ children when mining first began here 13 years ago, but has been won over by the arguments against using child labour. He did implicitly admit though that sometimes when families were desperate, he turned a blind eye to their children doing some work above ground at certain times.

‘Sometimes in the vacation, we get lots of kids coming to work in the mining sector. But when school comes, we make sure we push them back into school. I'd like to see schools put on extra classes during the vacation time. That would help.’

Panara explained that the gold seams are becoming more difficult to reach since those above the water table are becoming more and more depleted. The extra investment needed for pumps means that profits are reducing.

As we drive down the dusty track from the school, four women sit in an open-air hairdressers on the roadside. A girl in her late teens is attaching hair extensions to a woman breast-feeding her baby. The teenager is a former child mineworker; she is one of dozens who have benefited from the kind of vocational training that has enabled her to earn a living, and gain independence. Others choose to train to be seamstresses, mechanics, panel-beaters or whatever is available. Whether there will be enough work to go around in such a poor community remains doubtful for some. Yet none of the apprentices I talked to, nor those at school who had worked in the pits, had any intention of returning to mining work, and the hope is that they can provide a model for future generations facing the lure of gold.