Niamey, Niger, May 3 – Arriving on motorcycles and donkeys, in cars, or even on foot, hundreds of people have flocked to a site in southern Niger hoping to strike gold.
The news spread like wildfire: gold had apparently been discovered deep in Kafa Koira, just south of the country’s capital Niamey.
“I came to try my luck,” Kadri Issia tells AFP, with a pickaxe slung over his shoulder. He comes from Dan-Zama, some 10 kilometres (six miles) north of the site.
Not far from an airport, a dried up stream bed surrounded by thorny shrubs is teeming with fortune seekers. They use a run-down track winding through heavily populated neighbourhoods to reach the spot.
In only two days, the normally empty site became a buzzing scene with street vendors selling food, fresh water, bags, ropes and digging tools to throngs of people.
Minibuses and “Kabou-Kabou” motorcycle taxis shuttle people in from the centre of town.
Policemen were even dispatched to secure the site.
“I woke up Monday morning to discover crowds of people around my house,” local resident Issaka Abdou told AFP.
– Hot sun, landslide threat –
More than 1,000 mostly young men and women use pickaxes, crowbars, buckets and machetes to chip away at the banks of the dry stream bed around a hundred metres (yards) long. They work under a scorching sun and the threat of landslides in search of gold deposits.
Some dig with bare hands, others are equipped with metal detectors.
Zakari Issa was one of the first to arrive.
“I have been digging for two days but still haven’t seen any gold,” says the 42 year old, with a strained look as he hollers up from a hole around two metres deep.
Nearby, Hassana, a young mother, sifts tiny ochre stones using a plate.
“These sacks might contain gold. We will take them home to sift carefully,” says the father of Ali, a teenager who watches over reserves of water and little bags of sand from a freshly dug hole.
At the other end of the site, two large men hit rocks with a crowbar.
“If we find gold, I will buy myself a motorcycle,” says a third man, handing out tea and cigarettes.
– Gold, or pyrite? –
“I found some!” a 50 year old suddenly shouts out and quickly slips a tiny piece of yellow coloured stone into his pocket.
It might be gold, or it might be iron pyrite, commonly known as fool’s gold, a geologist tells AFP. Novices often get the minerals mixed up because of their similarity.
Believing in their luck, many people continue to haul sacks of gravel into town in small trucks.
A few days later, hundreds of gold seekers turned their efforts to nearby hills where a gold nugget was said to have been found, a motorcycle driver said.
Artisanal gold mining sites are common in Niger, where gold is extracted on an industrial scale in western parts of the country near Burkina Faso.
Thousands of people from Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal have been scouring mining sites in the region since the 1990s.
In February, the government shut down another site in the desert in the northeastern Djado region which was discovered in 2014 and drew more than 20,000 people from Niger, Chad, Libya and Sudan, according to local officials.
Authorities said they closed the Djado site for security reasons, citing terrorism and armed robbery on the frontier between Chad and Libya.
The government promised to reopen it but also granted an exploration licence for the site to the government-owned mining company.