Stolen Childhood: How toddlers learn to mine gold

A few kilometres from Minna, Northern Nigeria, miles of dug-out craters scatter the landscape. These illegal mines, along with others across the country, are the livelihood of around five million poverty stricken people: families who, on a daily basis, have no choice but to put their lives on the line just to survive.
Working long hours for little money, the backbreaking work these miners endure can lead to serious health risks. While some spend hours in tiny openings in the rock breathing in damp air, others stay in cold water for days on end, giving them a high chance of developing conditions like Silicosis, Pneumonia, Tuberculosis, and Lymphoma.

Standing in the yard of his nearby house, Abdulahi Abdulahi, a former employee of the Nigerian prison service, is one of the many miners forced into this line of work. Ever since a jailbreak at the prison he worked for in Minna, Abdulahi has struggled to find steady employment. Conditions are so bad that, of his sixteen children, ten are full time miners.

Deep lines stretch across his brow as he tells his children to grab their metal pans before a long day’s work. “Fasten up… Let’s go, let’s go,” he shouts, as the family bundle into the back of an auto-rickshaw—or keke napep—heading for the mine they work at only a few miles down the road. Leaving the vehicle, the family walk into a field where others are already at work.

Abdulahi’s situation is typical among his fellow miners: a man forced to make his children work out of complete desperation. With his tearful eldest son, El Haji, standing nearby, the family know there are very few options for them. “When I was working,” Abdulahi says, “I didn’t allow them to engage in mining.”

Toddlers as young as three years old work here, in the hope of raising enough money to help feed their family, with any left over used to pay for their school fees. While many hope to be educated one day, the majority will not earn enough to cover even the most basic schooling.

Sifting through the water and rubble with his hands, Rabi’u, 12, is already an experienced miner. Although he’s spent much of his young life digging, most days he finds nothing at all. An average day for him is spent digging and washing tonnes of sand in the hope of finding a few specs of gold.

If he finds any, buyers will either pay for it directly, or get the gold processed at industrial mining plants around the area. These large-scale sites, used to extract the gold from rocks using a variety of methods and algorithms, are where the decent money is made, one step removed from the source. After processing, the gold is then exported to the Middle East and Europe.

“We seek a legal means of making money,” one plant worker says, wooden benches and bags of rubble surrounding him. “We make good money from the gold we dig,” he adds.

The increase in illegal mining has sent shockwaves across the whole industry. Many certified miners haven’t been allowed to work, as a crack down from the Nigerian government on mining rages on across the country. Just recently, president Muhammadu Buhari set up a special security team to guard against illegal mining countrywide, though this has meant the closure of many legitimate mines.

“The challenges that you face from informal, artisanal miners are in the fields where you’re operating in and already have licences for,” says John Olukayode Fayemi, the Minister of Solid Minerals.

With more mines being closed than ever, licenced miners have less places work as a knock on effect. Hordes of mining graduates, meanwhile, certificates in hand, have also suffered, and are hopeful of a resolution soon. “These graduates don’t have jobs and it would be good if they are allowed to mine without interference,” one spokesman says.

With mining conditions at a low across Nigeria, action needs to be taken quickly. As five women huddle around one mine, their colourful clothes increasingly muddied, they search through the murky water for any sign of gold. Their frantic pursuits can often lead to danger; the unstable earth they dig through can come crashing down at any moment, leading to death in many cases.

“If we had money,” one of the women says, “we would not subject ourselves to this hardship.”

At a neighbouring mine, three year old Abba has been learning the trade from his older siblings. Earning 100 Naira a day, the equivalent of just under 30 cents in the U.S., he’s trying to raise money to go to school, though he can’t yet understand English, the language the course will be taught in. As he plays around in the mud, with a smile plastered across his face, it’s clear he’s nothing more than a child being asked to grow up too soon.

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