We stand as a group on the banks of the Falémé River, in eastern Senegal, waiting our turn to ford the river on foot. From the far side, the stutter and grind of Chinese-made ore-crushing machines drifts across like distant machine-gun fire as we wade knee-deep through the silted water and scramble up the muddy bank. Groups of three or four people, who have come to the river to wash their clothes or fetch water, watch incredulously as we make our way in a procession up the slope, crossing a gulley awash with brown water and crushed Coca-Cola cans.
We are just a few of the hundreds who have made their way here from across West Africa, though as a group of archaeologists working about half an hour upstream, we have not come as far as most. Our guide, Ousmane, who works with us at the archeological site, comes from the nearby village of Toumboura, which has been at the heart of the gold rush that began here in early January. By the time we arrived in mid-January to begin excavations at a large medieval site in the area, as we have done every January for the last five years, there were very few young people left in Toumboura. Only Ousmane and a few others remained to hold down the fort. All the younger men and women with whom we had worked in previous years, including Ousmane’s brother, had left town.
“Sambayaya,” he said with a smile, when we enquired where they had gone. “They’ve gone to get rich.” He laughed when we expressed an interest in visiting the mines in order to witness the fever that has gripped the valley, of which we are often temporary residents. “You’re looking to get rich, too?” he asked.
For the first time of many, we heard the story of how the gold mines had been discovered. Towards the end of December, a shepherd from the village of Sambayaya, across the Falémé river and about 12 miles downstream from Toumboura, had gone for a walk in the bush. When he came back that afternoon, he produced a large nodule of gold he had found, which he sold a few days later for 600,000 CFA francs (around $990 U.S. dollars). Unable now to keep word from spreading, he was joined on his next foray by dozens of locals from the surrounding villages.
A full-scale mining operation, built on human strength and home-made pick-axes
Since then, Ousmane tells us, the region’s population has swollen, with a vast tent city of some 7,000 people congregating here at Sambayaya, which formerly had a population of 200. Migrants from Senegal, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Burkina Faso, Gambia, and the Ivory Coast have increased the population by more than 30 times, turning a small fishing village into the largest town for some 25 miles. In a little under two months, he says, a full-scale mining operation has been launched, built on the most basic and ancient of techniques: human strength and home-made pick-axes.
As we crest the slope, the enormity of the operations become evident. The rapid fire of the ore-crushing machines and the hot, dry smell of earth are overwhelming. Sitting at the top of the terrace, hunched over the ore-crushers, are a dozen small groups of young men working in feverish orchestration.
We wander among the piles of machinery as Ousmane quietly narrates behind us. Here is where large blocks of ore are pummeled into a fine powder. There, a gold-panner is at work. Reaching down into a slush-filled pit with a steel pan, he scoops up a few cups of water and gently rolls it around inside. Skilfully, at each turn of his wrist, he allows the excess water to spill over the lip of the pan, leaving the heavy sediments to accumulate in the bottom. When there is only a small pool of water left in the pan, he allows it to circulate in the bottom with the sediments, using his free hand to sift through the mud and sand until he has found what he is looking for. Glinting in the silt were two small specks of gold dust.