MAGBURAKA, Sierra Leone, Mar 6 – Down a dirt road that slopes off a bridge, hundreds of men and women waist-deep in the river sift through gravel, separating specks of gold from the sludge.
It may be the eve of a general election in Sierra Leone, but those who eke out a living here in Magburaka have few expectations from a new government, whichever party wins.
“I have no political party. The politicians don’t help me,” said Mariatu Bangura, emerging from the brown water to stand barefoot on the bank of the River Rokel in Tonkolili district.
As 3.1 million voters select a new president, parliament and councils on Wednesday, it will be just another day of work for this 30-year-old mother of four in this mineral-rich area of northern Sierra Leone.
“I started after Ebola, because I don’t have anything. I don’t have money and I am a single parent,” she told AFP.
The haemorrhagic virus which killed almost 4,000 Sierra Leoneans between 2014 and 2016 also took her husband’s life.
Bangura said she earns around 100,000 leones ($13) a week.
“Sometimes I feel pain in my body, I get cold and there is nowhere to sit down,” she said quietly, admitting some relief came from her children, who help her after they finish school.
Although this West African country is strongly split between the ethnic and regional identities of north and south at election time, some feel left entirely outside of the political system.
It is dominated by two parties, the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) and opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).
– Parallel economy –
No one knows the true number of people working in the informal mining sector in Sierra Leone.
They uncover diamonds and gold and dig sand from the riverbed as an ingredient for cement, before selling them to local dealers as part of a parallel economy.
The days of rebels forcing civilians to dig up “blood diamonds” during the 1991-2002 civil war are over, but absolute poverty remains widespread.
Most of the workforce, which is estimated in the thousands, operate without licences, according to the government.
It says these workers bypass the tax authorities through agents who smuggle the minerals out of the country.
Joseph Tarawallie, 25, gave up his schooling when the Ebola virus first broke out in 2014 and all educational establishments were ordered to close. Since then he has worked in this gold panning area the locals call Masena.
“I was once a student, but because of a shortage of money I decided to take myself to the mine,” he said. Most of his family also spend their days here.
“We work very hard and as you see we suffer a lot,” Tarawallie added.
He gestured to children playing by piles of sand as their parents sorted through the earth on wooden structures hammered into the river floor.
“I would go back to school if I had a little money. I’m an art student,” he sighed, squinting into the boiling midday sun.
Tarawallie had noted the posters with politicians’ faces plastered all over Makeni, the nearby hometown of outgoing President Ernest Bai Koroma.
But he said without enthusiasm that he just planned to pick a candidate on voting day.
Koroma leaves behind a slumped economy battered by Ebola and flat commodity prices, but also marred by corruption and education standards that have declined during his 10 years in power.
– Diving in the dark –
One group of men in Masena work in the river’s deepest parts, diving down to the silty floor with buckets attached to canoes to dredge up more soil.
They told AFP they take sedatives or drink alcohol to ease the pain of cuts and bruises sustained in the murky water as they plunge blindly into its depths.
“We dig out canoes from the forest and transport them to this river so we can dive and dig out some gravel,” explained Mohammad Fulleh, a brawny man who is mining to save money so he can study Arabic.
“Before we go in, we take painkillers so we are able to resist. The river is very dark and there are sticks and other objects that can cause damage.
“When I have enough I will go back to my village to continue school,” he said.
But what Fulleh really wanted, he said, was a regular job, working out of the water.
“In the past we have had over 500 people here,” all working at sifting gold because they had nowhere else to go, he told AFP.
“We want a leader that will support job creation in this country.”