It’s still dark when Aminata* wakes up. This night, as is often the case, was short and unbearably hot. She kept her newborn baby close to her, nursing from time to time. The regular breathing of her other children, all lying beside her and lined up on old worn mats, kept her awake for a while. The change in temperature caused the tin roof to creak for much of the night, which serves as a shelter for her family. Her husband, a miner who escaped famine in his country, found this old sheet metal plate on an abandoned site not far from the mining area where they settled a few months ago.
Discreetly, Aminata, like many women in the artisanal gold miners’ village, takes a plastic basin and places it on a piece of dyed fabric, which is taped to the top of her head. She also picks up a large yellow canister that is so heavy when it is filled with the 25 liters (about 7 gallons) of water, then she takes the narrow path that leads to the backwater pond. There is no water in the village, except in the rainy season in the lowlands. So, before the sun is burning hot, you have to walk a long way to that pond, a few kilometers away. Sometimes Aminata hopes that her husband will find a gold nugget, the biggest nugget there is, so they can buy a donkey and a cart. It would be so much easier for the daily chores that wear her out and so quickly. She walks briskly, trying not to focus on the strange noises that fill the night sky, praying fervently that an elephant might not have the stupid idea of going to the backwater pond at the same time as her and her fellow women friends! And once there, Aminata also hopes that the big, very big crocodile who, it is said, devoured an old woman who was doing her laundry a few days ago, will not be waiting for them…
When she returns to the hut that she calls home, the children are all awake. The father has already gone digging. He won’t come home until nightfall. Aminata’s eldest daughter prepared a meager meal for her brothers and sisters. A millet porridge that will have to last until the evening. Aminata takes her youngest and nurses him again, then puts the sleeping mats away, pours a little brown water into a container to wash a loincloth. She looks at her children and hopes that one day her husband will really find the biggest nugget and that her daughter will be able to go to the village school on the other side of the backwater pond. She would like so much that she could learn to read and write, then go to the city, find a small job, a housekeeping job for example, and so that she could support her family who stayed in the mine. Aminata hopes…
The sun is already blazing white in the sky when she goes to the mineral crushing area with her children. There, she met the other miners’ wives. Sitting in a circle, under a canvas sheet so worn that only the mesh remains, she pounds all day long into a metal container pieces of quartz that the miners brought up from the black hole. She was told that the pestle she is pounding with was once a part of a truck’s engine. She will crush and crush again. Quartz dust fills the shelter. Women coughing and spitting. The children are also trying to crush. Babies fall asleep on the mothers’ backs to the rhythm of the pestle. Aminata hopes. She hopes that she will be able to leave this painful job and that soon she will join the group of other women who have been trained in market gardening and animal husbandry. How wonderful it would be, she thought, to be able to get up in the morning, to work in the field. To grow tomatoes or lettuce. To water them with the water from the well which, she was told, will soon be dug. To drink all the water she wants. And then, when the season comes, harvest her own vegetables, keep some to feed his family. Then, for the rest, go to the village, on the other side of the backwater pond, where the crocodile will no longer see her as a potential prey, and sell his harvest at a good price, at the main market.
This could change her life and that of her family. Really. Aminata hopes.
*despite the narrative form of this article, Aminata is based on a woman that we have met in Burkina Faso. Her story is real, her plight is authentic, her solution is in our hands.