With a flashlight tied to his head and only a rope to hold onto, the miner slowly lowers his body down the cramped, hand-made tunnel. Inch by inch he climbs deep into the precarious shaft until his light is a tenuous speck in the darkness. It is here in the hot, claustrophobic space where he begins his perilous search for gold - a process which depends almost as much on luck as it does on skill.
In the hot, dry season near Diakhaling in the South-East of Senegal, when farming activities come to a halt, the villagers have no choice but to resort to hazardous traditional mining. It is a difficult job with many badly injured and some even killed. Still, they had no other means to make a living. So when the Senegalese government granted mining rights of the Gora area to Sabodala Gold Operations (SGO), the artisanal miners where suddenly illegally mining within SGO's licence.
The villagers were scared and concerned. No-one was sure what the impact would be on their livelihood and altercations broke out between the villagers, the police and the mine. It was a time fraught with misunderstandings. However, through many meetings between SGO and the villagers, awareness was raised and dialogues opened and the situation calmed down. From the outset the mining company had a programme of social engagement . US$9 million is being invested into all communities impacted by their licence and through this they have improved infrastructure, health, water and sanitation, education and sustainable income generation. Many local youngsters are also working in the SGO mine, providing them with a stable income.
Knowing that the villagers had been deprived of their mining income, SGO set up the Gora Fund to mitigate the impact of their presence and to enable the villagers to again support themselves. It is run by a managing committee comprised of men and women from all six of the villages surrounding the Gora mine. The committee meets on a monthly basis and discusses the upliftment of the area now made possible through the fund.
Great strides have been made in the right direction: a health post with a resident midwife and active pharmacy has been set-up and is happily delivering about 19 babies a month; grain mills have been erected; and the construction of the Diakhaling Mosque is almost complete. Also, the creation of a legal mining corridor has aided local artisanal mining activities. Yet, possibly the biggest joy-generating development is the acquisition of a tractor.
Local resident, Sambally Cissokho, is the driver and is asked by all and sundry to till their fields. It has become the villagers' pride and joy and seeing it driving around the area is perhaps the clearest indication that a partnership between big corporations and small villages can indeed turn into a win-win situation for all.