So I've been meaning to publish this for a really long time, but had trouble uploading the photos, and I didn't think I could do the story justice without.
Almost a year ago now, I went down to the mine. There are a ton of mines throughout Mali, and trade in gold was responsible for the rise of many of Mali's empires in the past. Indeed, the city of Timbuktu gained its legendary status as a center of the gold trade in the 14th century. Today, Mali's mines come in a couple flavors - we have the highly-producing mines, which are usually taken over by European (or South African) companies and highly mechanized; the moderately-producing mines that bring in miners from all over the country, but do not produce enough gold to bring outside investment; and the community mines, which act as a significant income supplement for locals who usually live less than a day's walk from the mine, but don't produce enough to bring the more serious prospectors.
These places have rules, mythologies, and spiritualities all their own. In many ways they remind me of the legends I heard in grade school about the California gold rush. For the mechanized mines, and more producing local mines, whole towns pop up on the outskirts of the mine, with basic services like bakeries, restaurants, and hotels. This year's hotspot is the Dagala mine, about fifty kilometers on a bad road from Narena. Hundreds (maybe more) of men and women have left town to try their luck.
The mines are loosely organized, and for a small fee anyone can prospect there. You keep what you find. Apparently at Dagala, the success of a site is measured in how many motos the gold will buy. Obviously, not everyone can just up and leave town, and thus the smaller local mine remains active as well. Most women, who simply don't have the strength to dig all day long, will go to wash the dirt from the mine in search of few flecks of gold (a technique similar to the panning methods I learned in fourth grade). My host mom does that fairly regularly, and a day's work usually yields about a tenth of a gram, which she can sell for about two bucks.
In search of some greater understanding about the operation of these places, I went to the small Djelibani mine, which many of my villagers walk to daily. I chose a day when they were giving a sacrifice to open a new section of the mine (As a sidebar: in my rather uninformed opinion, it really shouldn't qualify as a sacrifice if you're going to eat it, but I'm not in charge). The atmosphere was that of a prayer service - about a hundred and fifty men (women don't do sacrifices) were seated on the ground, and the important ones were all given a chance to speak.
I've left out the photos, but they sacrificed a bull, consecrating the site of the new mine.
After that, they arranged themselves in lines, with about fifteen feet between people. And sat on the ground.
Then they raised their picks and struck the ground, loosening the soil until there was enough to fill a bucket, which they dumped a few feet away. Pick to dirt, dirt to bucket, bucket up out of the well, dump a few feet away, lower bucket back down, pick to dirt, repeat.
And they kept digging... At Djelibani, they have to dig about fifteen or twenty feet before hiting groundwater (in the dry season). At that point, they tunnel between wells, in search of veins of gold. Sometimes they find some, sometimes, they don't. Then they find a new place to sit on the ground, and do it again.
To address some of the crazier points of this occupation, allow me to elaborate...
It takes about a week to dig fifteen feet. In the best stories of Djelibani, one well can wield up to fifty or a hundred dollars worth of gold. At Dagala (where yields are measured in motos), they have to go much, much deeper - I've heard twenty meters, which takes about two months. The work is brutally hard (see shoulders of the gentleman above). They often have to pick their way through boulders. Most of this happens in the hottest part of the year.
Not to restate the obvious, but twenty feet is a long way down (not to mention twenty meters). For a person to get into these holes, they use no elevators, mechanical contraptions, or even ropes; they simply put their back against one side of the well and their feet in front of them, against the other side of the well. Then they slowly walk their way down. It's the same to get out.
There are no engineers for this process, and the mines often collapse. Most collapses happen long after the people have left the mine, but there are really no guarantees. Two years ago a collapse nearby killed dozens of people. They tell me that the next day, everyone was back at it.
There is really no way to backfill these things once they are dug, and sheep and cows occasionally wander into the mine, and fall into a well. Very rarely, children do the same.
Needless to say, I was blown away by my visit there. My most striking realization, however, was that this is one of the better economic opportunities available, at somewhere between two and eight dollars a day.