Senegal’s gold rush brings hope and despair
The search for the precious metal has dramatically transformed Bantakokouta, a Senegalese town on the borders of Mali and Guinea.
Mohamed Bayoh climbed into the deep, pitch-black hole, hoping to emerge with a nugget that would change his life.
The 26-year-old Guinean is one of thousands of people from across West Africa who have arrived in remote eastern Senegal in search of gold.
The rush for the precious metal has dramatically transformed Bantakokouta, a town on the borders of Mali and Guinea.
Two decades ago, the locals numbered just a few dozen. Now, there are several thousand on the back of a floating population of dream seekers and risk takers with gold in their eyes.
Over time, their ant-like labour has left the landscape looking like Swiss cheese.
As far as the eye can see, through the pervasive dusty mist, small huddled groups protected from the sun by makeshift branch shelters haul up spoil scratched from the ground.
“Working here is like playing the lottery – you are never sure of winning,” sighed Bayoh, who said was clear in his objective: To “find a lot of gold,” he said.
“Not a little … a lot. To start another life in Guinea.”
After six months’ gruelling work, he had earned enough to buy two motorbikes.
One gramme (0.03 of an ounce) of gold – roughly equivalent to 60 grains of rice – brings in 30,000 Central African francs (CFA francs), or about $48.
But the risks facing miners are many, from landslides, cuts and fatal falls to the use of drugs to dull aches and pains, said Diba Keita, head of a community vigilance committee.
The town itself bears the signs of poverty and transience.
Its alleys are littered with rubbish, and goats and sheep roam untended. The vast majority of the huts are rudimentary constructions, made of bamboo and brushwood.
In his workshop, Souleymane Segda, a 20-year-old from Burkina Faso, put crushed pieces of promising-looking ore through a grinder.
The apparatus takes up most of his room, which has no toilet and doubles as his bedroom.
The young man is covered in dirt as he sifts through the dust in search of flecks of gold.
The flakes are recovered after washing the dust with mercury – a practice that is banned because of its health and environmental risks, but which remains widespread.
“I can earn up to 50,000 CFA francs ($82) a day. I go back home as much as I can and when I’ll have earned enough, I will leave for good,” he said.
Bantakokouta has experienced a surge of activities typical of gold rushes around the world – an influx of stores selling tools and electronic goods, places of worship, a medical post, nightclubs and video gaming rooms, as well as crime and vice.
“The gold has brought wealth. In the past, we used to go to Mako,” said Waly Keita, 63, referring to a town 20km (12 miles) away.
He recalled with nostalgia the time when “our mums” used to dig in the river bed, searching for nuggets, while the men went into the bush to hunt and collect honey.
But the gold rush has also brought problems, including “banditry” and “conflict”, he said.
The Senegalese and foreigners generally get on well in Bantakokouta, although flare-ups do occur.
In 2020, clashes between security forces and Guinean miners resulted in the death of two young men.
“Prostitution has become a major problem,” said Aliou Bakhoum, head of an NGO called La Lumiere (The Light) in the regional capital, Kedougou.
“Young women, mainly from Nigeria and often underage, fall victim to highly organised trafficking.”
He said his association had taken in about 40 girls, some as young as 15, and was helping them to return home.
The trafficking has prompted the state to beef up vigilance and invest heavily in security and intelligence, a senior administrative official who wished to remain anonymous said.
The authorities have also intensified operations to secure the border with Mali, fearing a violence spillover from its deeply troubled neighbour.
The Kedougou region of southeastern Senegal suffers from more than 25 percent unemployment, a poverty rate of more than 70 percent and a worrying school drop-out rate.
As living conditions fall, many young people are tempted to try their luck in the mines.
But many emerge disappointed, and willing to resort to just about anything.