The lure of gold is attracting some young Malians, who neglect everything else, like education, in the siren call to make quick money. Mali is the third largest producer of gold in Africa, with 70% of Mali's export earnings coming from gold production, according to official government statistics.
But the lure of mining for gold, which attracts Malian youth to the gold mines, has its dangers, and is making young people neglect education in favour of what appears as easy fast wealth. Now in Mali, the search for gold is seen as the fastest way to become rich and gain everything you and your family want, ending up making education seem a waste of time in the eyes of a major part of the population.
The artisanal gold mining sites are the areas that attract the most people because of the rudimentary technical means used to extract gold, are accessible to the greatest number of people despite numerous risks they are daily running at such sites.
In the Malian regions of Sikasso in the south, and Kayes in the west, where there are the conventional gold production plants, as well as the traditional gold panning sites. The classrooms are now being deserted by students for the call of the gold mines. Many young people who drop out of school, are even encouraged by their parents who believe that the income earned will support the family. These gold mines are also an easy lure for many young schoolchildren in other major cities of Mali, especially Bamako where, in recent years, several hundred students under 18’s have left school to flock to gold exploitation sites, according to a report from the local academy.
Youssouf Dembélé, a 17-year-old student, told 7Dnews how he mysteriously disappeared from the classroom to find himself on a gold mining site outside Bamako. "My childhood friends who are not literate have had access to everything they desired thanks to the money they were able to earn on gold sites. Whenever they came to rest with their family after several months of absence, they brought extravagant presents and always made fun of me. As I could not bear the frustrations it caused me, I decided to leave the school benches and follow their path without telling anything to my parents."
"At first, I had trouble getting used to excavation work and I was making very little money. But after a few months to break-in my skills, I was able to make savings that actually allow me to offer myself a lot of pleasure. My parents who could not understand my choice, finally congratulated me for my courage as well as all the financial efforts I’m now making for the well-being of the family," continued Dembélé, adding that he no longer intended to return to school and continue with his education.
Despite the policies recently adopted by the Malian state authorities as well as initiatives undertaken by Human Rights Watch, National Unit for Combatting Child Labor, Malian Chamber of Mines and International Labor Organization in partnership with the Malian Ministry of National Education against the rush to the mining areas, the lust for working in gold mines in Mali continues to endanger the future of the young. And in spite of official measures to close the gold panning sites where health and criminal risks keep growing, many parents still prefer to send their children there to look for money rather than keep them in school, which they see as a "source of unnecessary expense."
Sanata Traoré, a 14-year-old girl from Kéniéba in the Malian western region of Kayes, explained how she was forced to drop out of school and work in gold panning sites: "Last year, just two months after the start of school, my mother came to get me out of school one morning so that I might go and work with my aunt on the Morila gold mining sites despite the persistent refusal of my teacher. My father died the year before and my mother was the only one to look after me and my two younger brothers."
"She told me that I was old enough to work and earn money in order to help her take care of the household and gradually purchase my wedding trousseau. My other friends, who were already working in gold mines and regularly sending money to support their families, had encouraged my mother to put an end to my education. Despite my crying following my withdrawal from school, she did not feel any compassion for me and even threatened to deny me if I did not obey her. This is how I agreed to go to the Morila gold mining site where I involuntarily exposed myself to the harshest things of my life. I will not be able to have my degrees anymore and my dreams will not be achieved either", she added with eyes full of tears.
Local authorities, who say they are aware of the impact of mining activity upon the education of children, have confirmed that in several villages in the locality, schools are about to close because of the mass rush of children to gold panning sites. Regarding the case of girls, Baghaga Fadimata Camara, Chairwoman of the Bafoulabé Circle’s Council in Kayes region, said: "Out of five girls enrolled in school, only one completes her curriculum. For several years now, we have been sensitizing children and their parents to make them understand that knowledge is worthier than gold. Many children, who go to the mining areas, come back with many types of diseases and become an additional burden on the social community."
Apart from the fact that gold represents a kind of windfall for a large part of Malian youth who prefer it to academic credentials, the gold panning sites are becoming more deadly due to a host of risks, which most miners are less aware of. Like illegal emigration, which causes countless deaths in the desert and Mediterranean, several victims are also recorded every year on artisanal mining sites in Mali, where there is generally no safety, clean water, healthy food or healthcare centres. During extraction activities, underground drilling often collapse on miners who are then caught underground, and shafts abandoned after exploitation become sometimes very dangerous. But all these risks are still far from curbing the impulse of gold panners and some young people’s futures continue to be being ruined at the dangerous gold-mining sites.