By Matteo Fagotto
Bagega, Nigeria — Every day, a white-dressed figure wanders around the gold-mining site of Bagega, a village in northwestern Nigeria. Lean and middle-aged, perfectly dressed in traditional attire, his black-and-white leather shoes in stark contrast to the bare and dusty feet of the miners, he inspects every piece of gold extracted by the hundreds of men who work under him.
In a space as big as two soccer fields, scores of young men crush, grind and wash gold stones, sheltered from the scorching tropical sun by makeshift, wooden sheds. Some as young as 5, they work from eight in the morning until sundown, united by a common dream: to “hit the jackpot” and become as rich as the “white man,” Alhaji Adamou Tsiko, chairman of the Bagega Gold Miners Association.
Until five years ago, Bagega was just one of the many countryside villages dotting Zamfara, one of the northernmost and poorest states in Nigeria. With nothing more than a rural clinic, a school, a mosque and a few hundred mud houses, the village’s 8,000 inhabitants relied on subsistence farming to feed their children.
“Everyone knew there was gold in the region, but people didn’t care,” says Alhaji Jibril, the village chief, sitting in his “office,” a simple mat under a big tree in front of his house. Then, the economic crisis hit and the price of gold started climbing. In a matter of months, Bagega was at the centre of a new gold rush.
Ibrahim Abubakar, 22, came close to realizing his dream when he and some other miners discovered 330 grams of gold in just a few days, earning more than $9,300 to be split among eight families. It is a huge amount of money in a region where 70 per cent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
“Life was good then,” he says of the time two years ago. “We even managed to buy a pickup.” Then his 20-month-old son Abdelmajid developed a high fever and started having convulsions. The next morning, he was dead. In less than a week, seven other children died after experiencing the same symptoms.
“I heard about lead poisoning, but I don’t care about it. I want to go to Mecca, and this is the only job that allows me to chase that dream.”
Bagega had discovered the dark side of gold.
Sitting in the courtyard of her house in nearby Abare, 25-year-old Asuya Surajo is cooking cassava. On her lap is 4-year-old Naimaatu, wearing a black and blue dress. She is blind in her right eye and her limbs are lifeless. There is a thread of saliva coming out of her mouth. “She got paralyzed in just one night, when she was 18 months old,” says Asuya, who has lost six children because of miscarriages and early deaths.
Naimaatu is among the few survivors of what Human Rights Watch has called “the worst lead poisoning epidemic in modern history.” Since the beginning of 2010, about 460 children under the age of 5 have died in eight villages around Abare and Bagega. Another 5,000 have been affected by exposure.
When the death toll started to rise, the villagers thought they were victims of an evil spirit. It took a team of experts, led by the medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), to determine that the deaths were a direct consequence of the gold extraction.
“When we first arrived in 2010 in Yargalma (one of the eight villages), 43 per cent of kids under 5 were already dead,” says Ivan Gayton, the Nigeria head of mission for MSF. “The international level of concern for lead poisoning in the blood is 10 micrograms per decilitre. At 45, you start having permanent brain damage. Some of the kids had levels as high as 700.”
At that time, Asuya’s husband was a miner. Like Abubakar, he used to bring the stones home, where Asuya would crush and grind them into dust to search of gold. But the stones contained deadly lead oxides and carbonates — and those particles would spread in the dust to be inhaled or ingested. Lead poisoning is particularly lethal for children under five because their developing bodies can absorb between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of the lead, compared with 10 per cent for adults, causing permanent damage to the brain and nervous system.
MSF is still treating more than 2,000 children in seven villages, including Abare. Contaminated topsoil has been removed and gold processing has been banned from homes. These simple steps have helped lower child mortality in those villages from 43 per cent to two per cent.
But not in Bagega, which is as big as the other seven villages put together. When the funds for the cleanup (allocated by a coalition of international donors and Nigerian authorities) ran out in 2011, the work stopped. The next phase will be funded by the Nigerian government, which only released the necessary $5.3 million at the end of January. The team is now in a race against time, having to clean up 380 compounds before the start of the next rainy season in five months, when the roads to Bagega become inaccessible.
MSF cannot treat the 1,500 children of Bagega before the cleanup is completed; the chelation therapy is useless if patients go back to a contaminated environment. Until that time, villagers will have to choose between their dreams of wealth and the health of their kids.
A few months ago, the Zamfara state government decided to ban gold mining. The measure proved useless, since most of the gold activity is unregulated and the people in Bagega were not offered any viable alternative.
“I heard about lead poisoning, but I don’t care about it,” says Mahmoud Aliou, a 38-year-old Muslim gold miner. “I want to go to Mecca, and this is the only job that allows me to chase that dream.”
As long as global demand keeps prices up, the gold rush is unlikely to end. On the contrary, according to a new study by Dr. Abdulsalami Nasidi, the lead poisoning emergency co-ordinator for the Nigerian presidency, at least 10 new contaminated villages have been discovered in Zamfara, all of them far from the mining sites. “They buy the ore and bring it to their villages to process it. They are after the gold rush as well.”
Like the other villages, Bagega’s gold-processing site has been moved outside town. But many miners still come home with clothes full of dust. Many are children, who clean themselves in contaminated pools, the same water used to wash the gold dust. Some, like Mamadou Sala, who came from Niger with his family, are as young as 6; some have dropped out of school, like 16-year-old Lawali Gadu. His dream is to become a professional football player like his idol, Kevin-Prince Boateng, the Ghanaian AC Milan midfielder.
Mining experts say with more modern technology (such as wet grinding machines that wouldn’t allow the contaminated dust to spread into the air), mining could continue without health hazards. In Bagega, nobody can afford that equipment.
So, the villagers remain caught in a cruel paradox: to provide food for their kids they have to keep mining, the same activity that is killing them.
A dark cloud will loom over the gold villages for some time. Studies are being conducted to assess the long-term effects that lead poisoning of such magnitude might have on adults, livestock, land and water.
Moreover, the chelation therapy will take several years to complete. So far, MSF has worked for free, but this is unlikely to last, given the cost.
The only option for Asuya and her family is to wait and see. Her husband has returned to farming, their dreams of wealth now a nightmare.
“We never got any support from the authorities and we wouldn’t know how to pay for those medicines,” she says, her dark, expressive eyes scanning the mineral-rich hills surrounding Abare.