Journey down an artisan mine

IT’S only after 10am and already the searing heat and humidity of a typical west Africa day begins to force tiring locals under the shade of dusty makeshift shelters.

Young men are returning red-eyed and covered in clay from a night’s mining at the mine of Abompe. Others are beginning their day, clean clothed and wishing for luck.

Every day hundreds of thousands of illegal miners risk their lives in search of gold.

Today it was my turn.

After a brief but friendly introduction to the mining gang’s boss, it’s agreed we can visit the site.

Miners step out of tunnels into the heat, their backs piled high with bags of soil and ore.

Rolling bundles of cannabis into large cone shaped joints, other miners look on, amused at my enthusiasm to visit the tunnels.

Stretching as far as the eye can see are grey muddy plateaus, where the large mining companies operate.

Putting on a makeshift head torch held together by a plastic band, I join a group of miners as they descend into one tunnel.

I’m told all the miners might collect 1,000 cedis (€523) in a week’s digging.

Many workers complain of breathing difficulties and also allege security guards with mining companies have set fire to their site.

Bent down with my back pressing against the tunnel’s roof for the first 100 metres, I watch as the ‘galamsey’ or artisan miners joke as they descend.

After 10 minutes of crawling, we come to a vertical shaft. A sheer drop lies ahead and darkness. Only logs hold the sides of the mucky walls together.

We spend nearly an hour descending through the narrow tunnels, the galamsey positioning my feet on hollows in the rocks amid the darkness.

Bare foot, without any safety clothing or equipment, the agile miners move fast and carelessly from wall to wall.

A slip nearly sends me hurtling to the bottom hundreds of feet below.

Once there, I meet young miners hammering away the rock. Some have been there for 10 hours caged in by giant walls of rock hundreds of feet below the surface.

This project was funded by the SIMON CUMBERS MEDIA CHALLENGE fund, supported by Irish Aid.

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