It begins before the rise of the sun, before the first cry of the rooster. They leave their clay hut compounds and begin a steady trickle onto la route nationale. Their destination- jurato- Tomboronkoto’s gold mine. The diverse crowd steps together- an old man who parts with nostalgia for the days when this very hour beckoned his village to the fields, an adolescent boy who fervently believes a broken school system coupled with a skyhigh unemployment rate does not merit school attendance, a middle aged wife whose husband’s hazy date of return has created financial uncertainty within the home, a curious five year old who feels a magnetic pull towards the risky excitement which he has yet to fully comprehend, a wide eyed ten year old aspiring to earn money for his school registration fees, a fifteen year old girl looking to prove her new found maturity to a man who might return her favors with a share of his gold, an exhausted new mother carrying an infant on her back, a seasonal migrant worker from Mali, a newly wed couple who hails from Burkina Faso searching for a better life. They arrive already coated in an unnatural yet earthly orange dust, prepared to spend the next twelve hours hauling empty rice sacks with sand away into daylight with makeshift pulleys, pounding the dirt into a smooth pulp with a metal or wooden ore, and rinsing the toxic substance with their calloused hands. They haven’t the means to access technology which could expedite the long, tiring process and their minority status coupled with the distance from Dakar dictates that reforming legislation and sending supervision teams from the national level simply will not serve as a priority.
Every Monday (the traditional day of evil spirits) and Friday (the holy day of Islam), the village closes the mine, yet the work continues. On these days, the understaffed Poste de Sante consults from eight in the morning until at least six thirty at night. They treat the rampant respiratory infections caused from inhaling the dust (specifically in infants), severe fatigue complicated by malnutrition, sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS brought about by the increase in prostitution found near mining sites, and malaria. At two in the morning the midwife wakes to help a twelve year old girl give birth.
On these days, teachers will find fuller classrooms, yet persistent absences coupled with persistent bouts of malaria, pressing household chores, a general frustration with a lack of resources, and disengaged,busy parents leads to early drop out rates and low enrollment to begin with- hence the largely illiterate population. This demographic presents challenges for the plethora of optimistic NGOs who enter the terrain; they discover that the effects of cravings gold inherently clash with the behaviors which allow education, health, agriculture and small business to flourish.
It ends with the ancient Arabic call to prayer, the decent of the sun. The orange coated villagers return home. They haul a plastic pail of well water behind a bamboo curtain and wash the dirt, the fatigue, the stress from their muscular bodies. They ask each family member if he has spent the day in peace only, blast an eclectic mix of Akon, Beyonce, and Malian rappers on their cell phones, and eat a dinner of plain couscous- sometimes accompanied by a leaf or peanut sauce if work at the mine has gone well. If the family deems the night unusually warm, each will bring his mattress to the center of the compound and gaze at the clear stars, unpolluted by electricity. On the sea of mattresses, they think, they wonder, they plan, they doze, they laugh, they joke, they yell. The adults drink tea, the teens drink soda, and the children suck lollipops- the uncertainty of tomorrow dictates that the present be a celebration of today.
They may be tired, they may be sick, they may be damaging the very environment which has sustained their ancestors for years, but at the end of the day if their grandmother ate dinner, their child wore shoes, and their nephew paid for his medication the day was a success. A success funded by the only true income source which remains in the village- mining. And who can argue with a man who simply wants to support his family in the only immediate way he can muster?