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May 20th, 2009 | Africa

The Gold Mine…

Yes, yes…I know it’s been a while! I’ve received various emails and sms’s asking if my laptop had been stolen, or if all forms of power that been turned off in West Africa! Well, I’ve been very busy you see, trying to make sense of a company that had so much going for it, but has fallen on very hard times due to so many avoidable factors… More about those in later mails…

Before my memory begins to fail me, I feel the need to tell you about the last day Borge and Antonia spent here in April, before they jetted back to their civilized lives back in the U.K. …

After our visit to “Father’s Zoo” the previous day, we decided to take a drive out to Sunyani, a biggish town about 60 kms North of Mim, where we planned to have lunch at one of the hotels that served “good food”. We were accompanied by Father, who, during the course of the previous evening had mentioned rather enigmatically, that he had friends who were “digging for gold in the bush”… We decided on the spot that this was something we had to see. He looked a little doubtful at our eagerness to visit the site of the diggings, and then after some careful thought, accompanied by much scratching of his bald head, he said that he would have to make a few calls to “get permission”… Perhaps I had a few too many beers under the belt, but normally I would have questioned the need for “permission”… But with Grass-cutters and Brush Tailed Porcupines running about under my feet, and an African Grey perched on my arm, trying to share my beer, you can understand why I was too distracted to ask the question…

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny… Too sunny when you have a blinding headache caused by a mixture of beer and the local Palm Wine (read Gut Rotting Chemical NOT Fit for Human Beings!), with a few glasses of cheap AUSTRALIAN white wine thrown in for good measure… In hindsight, I shouldn’t have touched the stuff… the Australian white wine that is…

Borge staggered to the breakfast table, looking like he had been dragged backwards through a bush, eyes red-rimmed and hair looking as though it was trying to flee from his scalp… Antonia, while putting on a brave face (as she had matched us every step of the way) sat quietly off to one side, muttering something about staying home to read her book… Her suggestion fell on deaf ears…

After picking at Asahri’s greasy attempt at a “European Breakfast” and washing it down with a few mugs of black coffee, we set off to collect Father, and headed north on a sand road which finally connected to the tar road leading to Sunyani.

We passed the massive Newmont Gold Mining complex, a Canadian company who has mining concessions in the Western Region of Ghana. I had recently been visited by an Australian geologist whose exploration contract of behalf of Newmont had come to an end. He had mentioned to me that a massive string of open cast mining sites had been earmarked for the area, and that the gold bearing reefs had been traced all the way to the Ivory Coast border. In order to obtain the concession, Newmont had agreed on a “Social Responsibility” project which apart from building clinics and schools also meant giving a large portion of land within their concession, to the local community for their own development. This part of the plan was destined to back-fire in spectacular fashion…

The area given over to the community was largely a morass of marsh, abandoned Cocoa and Plantain plantations mixed with small pockets of hardwood forest, already denuded by illegal logging… Newmont probably thought that they had negotiated a “sweet deal”… Little did they know that a small group of miners that they had laid off a few months earlier had not been idle… They had begun some “exploratory” digging of their own, with information that they had gathered from the workers who assisted the geologists. They had discovered a bonanza of gold bearing reef running through the “wasteland” that had been allocated to the local chief and his community!  They quickly formed a committee that would “regulate” their little gold field and then set about digging with far more enthusiasm than they had showed while working for Newmont…

I was not sure what to expect from this visit as we turned down a dusty side road and made our way slowly under the forest canopy. Father advised that we should keep our cameras hidden and not speak unless spoken to… That is when little niggles began worming their way into my brain…

“Is it unsafe for us to be here then?” enquired Antonia.

“Maybe…” , replied Father.

Borge and I exchanged glances and shrugged our shoulders, but from that moment on there was tension in the air that did not fully dissipate until we were sitting in a Sunyani bar later that afternoon, sucking on ice cold beers, lost in the memories of what we had seen only hours before…

The track rounded a huge old Ceiba, reaching perhaps 60 metres into the clear blue sky, and suddenly out of nowhere a heavy beam of wood descended from the surrounding forest, narrowly missing the bonnet of my car, and settled into the crook of a tree on the opposite side of the road… Three guys ran out of the bush, two armed with machetes and the third with a sawn-off shotgun… Time seemed to stand still… Antonia put her hand up to her mouth to stifle a scream, Borge put his hand on her leg to calm her, and I let a huge smile settle onto my face to hide the surprise and anxiety I felt course through me. Shotgun sauntered up to my window, which I had wound down in order to greet him… Father shouted something in Twi, introducing himself and advising the guy that we “were expected”… The guy shook his head and motioned us back the way we had come. His machete-wielding sidekicks looked on unsmiling….

The "road" to the mine...

I snapped this photo while we wound our way towards the diggings. The truck had just delivered a load of water sachets to the site. The white car in front of us was driven by one of the Lebanese “buyers” on his way to collect the gold… He avoided all contact with us at the site, shading his face with a large panama hat…

“This could get interesting..” I mumbled to Borge, all the while keeping the grin firmly fixed on my face… He smiled back and said,

“This is why Africa is s-s-s-so exciting…you just never n-n-n-n-know what can happen f-f-f-from one d-d-d-day to aaaaa-nother!”. Yes quite…

Antonia had not said a word, sitting rigidly in the back seat, and trying her best to stay calm… While Father jabbered on, I lit a cigarette and as I took the first deep drag, Shotgun held his hand out towards me without taking his eyes off Father. I took the cigarette out of my mouth and handed it to him, which he took without thanking me… I considered commenting on his complete lack of manners, but a glance down the barrels of his shotgun (which were no more than a foot from my right shoulder) made me reconsider…!

“It’s a pleasure.”, I said loudly, which made him take his eyes off Father and give me a long look… An uncomfortable silence followed… then Father shoved a GHc 20.00 note into the guys hand and after a short consultation with his fellow “Toll Gate assistants”, Shotgun turned towards the forest and nodded his head… The beam began lifting… We had no idea that there were other people in the thick bush around us, but as we passed under the boom, I saw four other men pulling on a rope that held the beam…

Father then explained that the miners were being harassed by Newmont into giving up their activities in the forest, and as a result “checkpoints” had been set up on the only two tracks into the diggings. Strangers were not welcome, and White strangers even less so!

“Not even the Police or Army, who had been asked to investigate, will enter this place…!” said Father with a big smile…

“Thanks for the “heads up” on that one, Father!” I said through clenched teeth… “You might have mentioned that last night…”

“Eh, you and Borge were drinking too much to have remembered anyway…!” he shot back…

“You m-m-may be right, b-b-b-but that’s not the p-p-p-point!” Borge said, cracking open a beer from the cooler box placed strategically between his feet…

Antonia had that glazed look in here eyes, her head nodding from side to side as if trying to shake off the vision of Shotgun and his menacing pals…

“Don’t worry,” I said as cheerfully as I could… “This time tomorrow you’ll be in a plane on your way back to Gatwick!”

“You think?” was all she could manage, still shaking her head…

Father later told us that the only reason he believed we were allowed any further, was that Antonia was with us! Apparently they thought that no Engineers or Newmont Security personnel would be daft enough to bring their wives to the digging site…

We passed through two more “checkpoints” and talked our way through those too… Antonia was all for turning back by now, but Borge and I convinced her that since we had come this far, spent GHc 50.00 on “tolls” and been relieved of a number of cigarettes, we wanted to see what these “b-b-b-bloody miners were hiding!” I could see my own excitement reflected in Borge’s eyes and body language… We had no idea what to expect, but our curiosity had been heightened by the elaborate means the miners had gone to, to protect their illegal activities… In hindsight, we should have turned around, as we discovered later that we were most definitely in danger of being beaten up or worse!

We finally came to a “parking area” where trucks (offloading mining props, water and vegetables) fought for parking space with cars, bicycles and carts… Total pandemonium!! We reversed the car into a space between a few Cocoa trees, and Father got out to find his “connections”… We stayed put, deciding that if he hadn’t returned within ten minutes, we would get the hell out there, and leave him to his own devices…

A small crowd gathered around the car, asking who we were looking for… I suggested to Borge that he tell them we were here to check for “Prospecting Licenses”, at which Antonia burst into uncontrollable laughter… Must have been the nerves, as Borge thought it was “n-n-n-n-no laughing m-m-m-matter!”… Finally Father re-appeared with one of the “Committee Members” who beckoned us to follow him into the melee of people on the edges of what seemed to be a sprawling shantytown… We passed the blacksmith, beating bits of steel on an anvil and I asked if I could take a photo of him. He looked questioningly at the Charles the committee member, who nodded his head and then said,

“You may take some pictures, but not too many… Ask me before you do so…”

The Blacksmith...

Fringpong Yeboah, the black-smith…no pun intended…but blacker you will struggle to find…!!

We continued walking down a narrow alley between Spaza shops, selling everything from food and water, to Shovels, Pick-axes and, believe it or not, Dishwashing Liquid… Leaving the sprawl of little shelters behind us, we entered the diggings themselves, followed by a cloud of flies that seemed to cover everything… Cholera and every other imaginable disease lurked in the shadows…  Antonia walked with her hand held over her nose and mouth…whether to hide her amazement, or to protect her sinuses from the pervading bad smell, or just for purposes of avoiding serious illness, I never got to ask her…

We crested a small hill, and down below and in front of us stretched what we had been through hell to see… Five trenches had been dug parallel to each other, each about ten metres apart, like fingers on a hand… The trenches themselves stretched far and beyond what we could see… Charles estimated that about 5 000 people lived and “worked” there. The committee was in charge of selling off plots over the gold bearing reefs. Each plot measured about 2 metres in diameter. The owner of the plot, then dug down to the reef itself, using picks and shovels to remove the earth, which was lugged away by any means possible, and dumped in the marshy area on the edge of the diggings… Logs were being used to fortify the walls as they went deeper. The logs also acted as a ladder down to the bottom of each pit. Some of them went down at least 30 metres!!!

Fire and water was used to break up the rock. Smoke poured from a series of the pits, and Charles advised that miners in specific areas were assigned a certain day of the week to “burn”, otherwise “we would have too many problems everyday…” he said…

“So there are rules here then..?” I enquired..

“But of course,” he replied, “otherwise how could we operate?”…

All very civilized… The “Committee of Twelve” ran the show, taking half of all the gold found, half of which, went to the Chief. The miners, for all their efforts, and the dangerous conditions under which they worked and lived, got half of what they dug out of the ground…

There was only one diesel generator that I could see, and the owner was using it to pump air through leaking pipes to the only jackhammer working below the surface. The gold bearing rock was then brought up to the surface in buckets, taken over to the “crushing area” where gangs of heavily muscled men broke the ore using 10 and 14 pound hammers… Primitive, but effective…

The shafts down which guys clambered every day, to work on the reef below… After building a fire on the reef itself, the pipes on the right are used to lead water down onto the hot rock, to break it into smaller chunks for lifting to the surface…

Rubble, rubble, ....toil and trouble...!

For a small fee, they would then send their crushing’s through a sluice to separate the tiny nuggets from the dust… Some guys sold their crushed ore to “middle-men”, who took it away to be crushed and processed “somewhere else”…the exact location of which was never revealed… Lurking in the background was a Lebanese “buyer” who had come to buy the gold which had been accumulated by the miners. He was sweating profusely, fanning himself with a panama hat, and each time we glanced in his direction, he would turn his face away… Apparently he collected between “three and five kilograms every second week” according to Charles, whose shoulder I stuck to like glue, as he wandered through the digging, explaining how things worked…

I noticed that some of the pits were covered in palm branches and asked why this was…

“This means the owner is away, and he has placed the sticks in a certain way to ensure that nobody climbs into his hole while he is away…” advised Charles…

Gone fishing...or something like that...!!

That led me to the obvious question about theft…

“Oh…there is very little theft taking place here…” But this was Ghana, for goodness sakes…theft MUST be a factor… After much pressing on my part, he eventually admitted that SOME theft did indeed take place…

“What happens to those that are caught?” I asked.

“The Committee (after hearing the evidence one must presume!) gives them a public beating to discourage others”…

“Ah, J-J-J-Jungle Justice!” exclaimed Borge… “I l-l-l-like it…! Y-y-y-you should start that at th-th-the factory, Mr. B”… The thought had crossed my mind, I must say…

Apparently the beatings sometimes got out of hand…but according to Charles, so far this year there had been only four fatal beatings that he could remember… Mmmm…the Fatal Beating… An excellent deterrent for the unruly and badly behaved… Antonia saw the little smile that had played across my face at Charles’s statement…

“You think that’s OK… don’t you, you Bastard!”

“Well it certainly saves time on written warnings and such!” I shot back… The logic of which she couldn’t argue with… Borge just smirked, nodding his head vigorously behind her….

Borge contemplates getting Antonia a momento...

Each time I wanted to take a photo, Charles would glance around and either say “Ok, but be quick…!” or “No… Not now, maybe later…!” I was taking snap shots as we went, and was not getting any photos that truly described what we were walking through… I wished I had been able to take a shot from a vantage point higher up… This was truly an amazing place to be in… The smell of Marijuana hang heavily in the air, load music emanated from some of the pits, while others seemed to be empty, until I looked down into their depths and once my eyes had adjusted, saw the shiny backs of the diggers far below…

An old man ambled up to me and showed me a nugget about half the size of my thumb… He thrust it out to me, and at first I was afraid to take in my hands, in case he construed this to be acceptance of a “buy”… This had happened to me in Tanzania, when I picked up a bunch of bananas from a table on the side of the road… When I tried to put it back, the owner would have none of it, and demanded his money! He eventually went so far as to begin tying it to the back of my bike with bits of vine from a creeper growing in the tree above him… I eventually had to resort to my “Thunder Face”, and pointing at the bunch of bananas and his backside, left him in no doubt as to my intentions with the bunch, if he persisted in trying to fob them off on me…

Eventually relenting, I took the nugget from the gap-toothed old man’s hand and found it to feel like a small bar of soap… It was surprisingly heavy, which left me in no doubt that I was holding the real thing… I pointed to the Lebanese in the distance and told him to sell it there… He shook his head vehemently at me, and said, “No… He is a bad man, and gives us too little… White people give fair prices…!”

“N-n-n-not this one,” chirped Borge, “Y-y-y-you should see what he is now charging f-f-f-for his furniture!”…

We had also been shouted at by some of the miners, who made it quite clear that they found our presence unwelcome… A group of young guns rushed up to Antonia and I and asked in load voices,

“What do you want here, Bruni’s? Why have you come? Go home, this is OUR place…”

His red-rimmed eyes and spittle gathered on his lips told me that the Mountain Cabbage he had been smoking had kicked in… I smiled my broadest smile at him and his group and taking Antonia by the arm told here to “just keep walking…” The smile never leaving my face… We tip-toed through the puddles of water and piles of rubble while they followed closely behind, shouting and making a general nuisance of themselves. One of them poked me in the back with the stick he was carrying… I whipped around and grabbed the stick from his hand, breaking it over my knee in one quick motion, while he backed away, almost falling into an open pit behind him…

Time stood still… The startled look on their faces told me that I momentarily had the advantage, but what to do with it escaped me at the time… The tableau was broken by Charles, who walked up and in a loud voice harangued them for a short while… The only English word I understood was “guests”… The mood grew ugly as they shouted back at him… Borge had now come up from behind them and shouted “HEY!” at the top of his voice… He walked over to me and turned to face them, saying,

“Ok-k-k-kay, w-w-who’s first?”… Yeah, right, like they would be agreeable to form an orderly queue…!

Before they could react to this, Antonia and I turned  and began walking away, leaving Charles to deal with them… Borge followed, a big, stupid grin plastered to his face…

‘That was f-f-fun!” he said, “I th-th-think we could have t-t-taken them!”…

“There were eight of them, Borge,” Antonia reminded him…

“Yes,” he answered, “F-f-four each for R-r-r-Ronnie and m-m-m-ee!” Sharing is caring, I suppose…

We made our way back through the shanties on the edge of the diggings, fought our way through the chaos of the parking area and eventually got to our car… A group of men had surrounded the vehicle and demanded money “for looking after it”… We studiously ignored them, and after much manoeuvring, managed to leave the area and make our way back down the winding track, away from the mayhem behind us…

We got back to the tar road without incident, and made our way to Sunyani, where we settled for beers and a late pub lunch at the Tyco Club, situated next to a large and modern looking filling station. With the cold beers in hand, we recounted the things we had seen and experienced that morning…We all agreed, Antonia included, that it was an experience that we would remember for a long time… The harsh conditions under which the miners worked and lived was testament to their determination to make a living, no matter the circumstances… The miners “who worked hard and struck it lucky” according to Charles, could earn as much as Ghc5 000.00, a month… (About $3 000.00!) Compare that to the $60-odd per month they earned at Scanstyle, and you can understand the lure of the diggings…

The Tyco Club, Sunyani...

Father surveys the outside of the Tyco Club in Sunyani to ascertain its worthiness… Or is he looking at the advert above the sign…?

We made our way back to Mim in the evening gloom, and after dropping Father off at his compound in town, we retired to Borge’s bungalow, to punish a few more beers… Hours later, I stumbled through the trees towards my own bungalow, reminding myself that I had experienced something special today and would add it to the many memories I have of this amazing Continent. So much to see and so little time…

I also reminded myself that tomorrow, Borge and Antonia would be leaving, and I would be on my own again… I realised how much I had missed European company, and the opportunity to talk about things that the average Ghanaian would never consider…

Before I fell asleep that night, I lay awake wondering what it was that made me want to experience many more of today’s moments… I realised  that it was moments like these that made me fell so alive…!! My sense of wonder so heightened that I felt as if I was about to float up off the ground… The same feeling I believe that Garth (who I met in Vilanculos and now lives in Germany) must have felt when he took off from a small airfield in Barberton to fly around Southern Africa with his fiancé, or what Stefan will feel when he casts of the bow-line on his catamaran and sets sail for distant places in the Indian Ocean… Was it about being able to tell others of the amazing things you’ve experienced? See the wonder in their eyes ? Knowing that for a few heartbeats they’ve been able to live some of their dreams through your own experiences? To just for a moment escape from where they are and who they are…?

For me, a part of it is about that, I think… I know I felt that way when a friend spoke about his trip to Ethiopia a few years ago…and when Allan “World Rider” Karl told of his trip through South America… That, and an inborn sense of curiosity that burns within me and wants to know as much as possible about all things…great and small…

And you can’t always do that from the comfort of the armchair in your living room…

2 comments to The Gold Mine…

  • Antonia Leth

    wow.. fantastic to read your thoughts of that day…
    what an experience that we shared that day…a life experience not to be missed…and probably we are the only white people to see this…we still talk about it…I can honestly say I wasn’t sure we would get out alive…my memories where the sheer scale of this place, a village of about 5000 people, organised with everything the people needed. Food, tools, drugs and woman of the night…I felt a sadness of the lengths people will go to feed their families and loved ones… risking their lives down these small holes in the ground, with fire and water…and the greed of men who benefit from the risk…africa i guess. I can still see the large machettes, cocaine and the angry fear on some of the peoples faces, thinking we may be a threat to them…(us a threat!!!)i can only say I felt extremly white with my fair hair and in experience of the lives these people live. I remember father holding my hand and thinking, the people will think I’m a new wife 🙂 I can also remember sensing you, borge and father feeling the need to protect me, I was like a child wanting to explore and find out more. I have to say you all made me feel safer…none of you showed the fear which must have been there…fab to see you got some pictures, like you say cannot show what we experienced…a memory never to forget….x

  • Hi there…. Yes, we lived life LARGE that day…. I intend finding more those kind of days over the next few years !

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

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