Text and photos by Lindsay Rust
The city of Komabangou is so new that it can't be found on most maps of Niger. It’s name is a simple description of the landscape in the local language, meaning "red clay basin". But the ancestors who named this place never could have guessed that Komabangou would come to mean "gold" to the entire country of Niger and a large swath of West Africa. More than gold, Komabangou is "hope" for the thousands of men & boys who have left their families and traveled here from as far away as Chad and Ghana in search of a fortune.
Boys who work in the mine shafts quarrying quartz rock
In a land that offers very little opportunity for young people, the allure of Komabangou is irresistible. Hundreds of new workers arrive everyday.
We drive into Komabangou at about 2:00 in the afternoon, the hottest part of the day, after grueling trip rattling over washboard roads. It's desert, barely a tree in sight, and a strong wind sends up wild tornadoes of dust. The temperature today is easily 120 degrees, and my companions tell me that late at night, the drinking water freezes.
In a few moments, a man approaches and welcomes us with a hard handshake and warm smile. His name is Dogo. He's tall and thin as a rail and beneath his blue turban are trustworthy eyes.
Dogo leads us through the outskirts of town towards the interior. From a bluff, we see the vastness of the mines. Komabangou sprawls over 100 acres of desert, a lawless, makeshift shantytown existing for one thing only: gold. The site is pockmarked with thousands of vertical shaft mines, grass huts, and mountainous piles of dirt and rock pulled from deep within the earth's surface. Incredibly, the government estimates that over 30,000 migrant laborers work here at any given time.
Young laborer after a long day quarrying rock
The gold rush at Komabangou began slowly and quietly, when a Canadian mining company sent a team of geologists out to study the land, which was rumored to contain precious metal. After a year of prospecting, extracting core samples and analyzing their gold content, some 15 million dollars worth of research, the geologists determined that there was a large quantity of gold in the ground at Komabangou--over 100 million dollars worth, in fact. But the gold was sprinkled throughout several hard-to-mine white quartz veins, making it impossible to set up a profitable mining operation. So, the company pulled up its stakes, along with their armed guards, and vacated the property, leaving behind an abandoned camp facility and rumors of millions hiding beneath the surface.
Almost immediately, people began to arrive from all over West Africa to claim a stake of the land, and a stake in their future. They would mine the land in a way that the professional company could not, with techniques that have changed little since the Middle Ages, when two-thirds of the world's gold supply came from West Africa.
I ask Dogo to explain the process to me.
Briefly, he says, it involves picking a patch of ground at random and digging straight down, as deep as 50 meters, with shovels and pickaxes until hitting the quartz veins that may or may not contain precious metal. The rocks are then quarried, usually by the smallest workers, hauled to the surface, and transported to the pounding shacks, where men pound the quartz into dust with iron mortars and pestles.
Pounding quartz rock into dust
After this, the dust is mixed with water and gold is panned from the sludge. The gold is quickly sold to traders, who travel with it to the capital city, Niamey, and resell it at a healthy profit.
Panning quartz sludge to extract gold dust
Today at Komabangou, one gram of gold fetches 5000 FCFA, about 7 US dollars--next to nothing, considering the amount of physical labor, time, and personal risk required to produce it. Death is a frequent occurrence in the mines--many workers lose their footing and fall down the deep shafts, others die from a variety of ailments caused by pounding rock into dust.
A place to gamble away hard-earned CFA
Despite the dangers and hardships, the digging at Komabangou increases, and hoping to find a vein of gold-sprinkled quartz is the most attractive work option for thousands of young African men. Dogo and his digging partners make weekly sacrifices to ensure their success. I ask what type of sacrifices they make, and he replies, "Money, sugar, kola nuts, and dates. Sweet things that please the spirits that bring gold luck."
"Talibizey" children in Koranic school at Komabangou
Most of the miners at Komabangou make enough money for food, some clothes, and occasionally enough to send home to their families. Others strike it rich here. Dogo tells me of a man named Tambari who came to Komabangou on foot with nothing but the shirt on his back. He picked the right place to start his mine and quickly became a CFA millionaire. Now he travels around the site in a Toyota Land Cruiser, own dozens of mines, and employs close to a hundred men. None of whom, incidentally, are paid in cash. Tambari's workers, like most others here, are paid in bags of quartz rock, a sort of lottery system payment which sometimes yields a substantial amount of gold, but more often only a pinch, and that after the arduous process of extracting it.
I ask Dogo how his luck is, if he's been finding any gold. He replies that he's been digging the same mine for ten months, but has yet to find precious rock. "It's true that we have not yet discovered any gold," he says, "But this doesn't discourage us. To the contrary, we persevere, for we know that gold exists, and that Insha'allah one beautiful day we will discover it." Until then, hope keeps him alive.