Cyanide accident at Djibo dam in Burkina Faso: will the gold mines kill us before they save us? (Part 3)

On 29 July 2011 a truck carrying 40 tonnes of cyanide heading for the Inata gold mine overturned at Djibo dam. Some of the cyanide got out. The only casualties so far have been fish, but my burning question is this: could it happen again? If Avocet Mining (London), Samsung (Korea) and Vehrad (Ghana) do not change their ways, then the answer to this is yes.

Thank you to all of you who have been tweeting, blogging and FB-ing about this incident. Please keep it up. Use the Share this buttons at the bottom of each post. I have to admit I had never used a Share button on a website until very recently – I did not know how, and was a little bit nervous of it. But it’s extremely easy: you just click on the button (either Facebook or Twitter), enter your FB or Twitter password (don’t worry, this part is secure) and you’re done.

Welcome to Part Three of my exposé of the recent cyanide spill at the Djibo dam. Here are Part One and Part Two in case you missed them: Part One is a news story explaining what happened when. Part Two is a little bit spicier.

I ended Part Two with an open letter to Brett Richards, CEO of Avocet Mining Ltd. I appealed to him to do four things:

  1. Take responsibility for the effects of his company’s activities
  2. Listen to the voices of local people
  3. Consider alternatives to cyanide
  4. Tarmac the road between Kongoussi and Djibo

Under the heading Listen to the voices of local people I supplied links to news forums in Burkina Faso where locals have been commenting on the cyanide scandal. I am sure that Mr Richards speaks French, but for the sake of those who don’t, I have translated a large selection of these comments into English and pasted them below. I agree with most but not all of the opinions expressed.

Comments posted at L’observateur

12 August 2011 06.14 by Ouedraogo Y
“The driver lost control of his vehicle whilst crossing the wall of the dam.”
In theory there are transport norms for these kinds of products; the lorry should not have crossed there. No prolongation of journey time is too much in this kind of transport.

12 August 2011 08.45 by Loroum
Hello everyone! It is regrettable, but it is a sad reality: faced with the crisis, the director of the mine drew back from his responsibility and accused the company Samsung, the manufacturer [Ed. Samsung was not the manufacturer but the courier] of the product. The latter is based in Korea, so what can they do for our poor ignorant population? Our people are left to pick up the bill for the [gold] exploitation; they have to collect the broken pots of Ghanaian transport company VEHRAD. In the end the containers were taken out of the water by a Burkinabe company BLMS. So why seek contractors outside of Burkina when we have the requisite professionals right here? The government does not seem well informed about this accident because it has still not reacted. Where is the Minister of the Environment?

12 August 2011, 09.27 , by Djelgoji
Certainly SMB is responsible for this catastrophic situation, but don’t let the tree hide the forest, I think that the Burkina Faso State has not played its role. It has not built proper roads in this part of Burkina, which is neglected in spite of the presence of the mine. It is up to local people to defend themselves, and why should we not make a complaint to the International Criminal Court against the Burkina government and SMB?

12 August 2011 10.20, by unouagalais
This reminds me of the theory of our ex-Prime Minister Mr Tertius Zongo who declared hand on heart that gold mining could not develop a country. Unfortunately he must since have been lured in by the corruption of those raptors who do not care at all about the development of Burkina! We are engaged in an exploitation of our gold in the worst possible way – it’s not surprising that our lakes are polluted.

12 August 2011 13.12, by Bari Leon
I think that the mining company of Belahouro (SMB) is most to blame, if we remember that it pretended not even to be using toxic products like cyanide. That is the truth but we always end up being taken in by lies. Meanwhile the local authorities surpassed themselves in their dereliction of their duty of information and awareness during the crisis which followed the events of 29 July 2011 at Djibo dam.

Comments posted at Lefaso.net

2 August 12:34 by Anon
If what is written here is true, the situation is too serious for our national authorities to remain silent. It is not enough to deplore or condemn; this situation deserves particular action, in order to save the courageous poor people, the animals and especially the environment which this generation must leave to the next. Meanwhile, people must mobilize themselves to make their complaint to the Djibo magistrate who must in turn order an inquiry to determine the responsibilities of each party.

2 August 10.55, by kab
If the people [of Djibo] themselves do not take action, no one will come to their aid, and both people and animals will die in silence. Everywhere in the country people are struggling for a better life, but in Djibo [they do] nothing! Even though it’s there that the worst problems exist, in my opinion, and this poison in the reservoir is just another consequence of the passivity of [Burkinabe] people who watch their local authorities doing what they want instead of [those authorities] working for the good of all.

2 August 11.01 by Guiti

This is really worrying. Yesterday I crossed the dam to go to Aribinda and I noticed a lot of dead fish. Something must be done to limit the damage.

2 August 11.38 by Bi Neere
This is negligence on the part of the authorities. In the face of these sad realities, it is our poor parents who will once again pay dearly. Do not fold your arms, sons and daughters of Soum and the Sahel, our parents are all going to die

2 August 13.00 by yeral dicko
Your article is spot on! I was in Djibo at that time and I took lots of photos. It is a real shame that people don’t wake up to the seriousness of the situation!!! It’s time the State did something about this part of the country.

2 August 14.25 by Eric
We should have expected this! All that is a problem with the regime! When you are drunk on the inside as well as the outside it becomes impossible to raise your head and say no to these rapacious westerners who treat us with less consideration than their dogs. Eat and drink, for tomorrow we will all die! Unless a little Jesus comes out of nowhere and saves us from our current leaders as quickly as possible. Oops, not just our own leaders but also those vultures of Western Presidents, from Sarko to Obama via David and Merkel… they are more terrorist than Al Quaida. Believe me: the end of the world is very close.

2 August 14.42 par Taretare

This is terrible news. Thank you for having brought it to the attention of the world. I hope that an immediate solution will be found before the worst happens. I do not think it is enough to write; the youth must once more mobilize, but this time our key demands must be satisfied. Our leaders always need a push in the right direction.

6 August 22.25 by Mariam SERI SIDIBE
Hello dear brothers and sisters. After the spill of toxic chemicals in Abidjan, where several thousand fell victim, the horror goes on…
I am a Sister of the Order of Guadeloupe living in France, but I once lived in Africa. I will share this article in ‘Africa’s Struggle’, an anti-capitalist newsletter, to raise awareness of this situation.

Comments posted at Lepays.bf

2 August 00.15 by Tapsoba
We are waiting for the reaction of the government – or will they react too late, like a doctor arriving after a death? They refused to take this danger seriously when we called them to action back in May. It’s so sad you could cry.

2 August 12.08 by Salowmoon
I almost have tears in my eyes! It’s just like in the Westerns:

They come and take your land by force ;
They remove gold and they make off with it ;
They corrupt your sons and daughters ;
They degrade the roads ;
They decimate cattle and wildlife, and all the while they are poisoning the land and the water for decades to come.
They don’t care about us locals who did not ask for anything and did not expect anything.

2 August 10.05 by I.SAD
Thank you, brother, for your update. If these miners get away with everything, it is for the simple reason that they have the blessing of our authorities, who ignore the interests of their people and the wellbeing of these poor areas in exchange for ‘envelopes’. I live in [Djibo] province and it makes my heart ache to see the discrimination in this place which has no tarmacked roads. The economic potential of Soum [Ed. Soum is the province of which Djibo is the capital] is enormous: just take the example of Soum’s cattle, which are Burkina Faso’s second biggest import.

When the gold mine at Belahouro [Inata] opened, the people of Soum saw this as another compelling reason for the road to be surfaced. Besides, back in 2005, Blaise had announced during his presidential campaign that the tarmacked road which stops at Kongoussi ‘is crazy to stop there.’ But alas, our hopes have been dashed once again by the irresponsibility and bad governance of our leaders. And not content with all that, they are poisoning us and consigning us to an inhabitable environment. Nevertheless, people are on high alert more than ever now and they will continue to organize themselves to show these demagogue leaders that they are not slaves.

Cyanide accident at Djibo dam in Burkina Faso: will the gold mines kill us before they save us (Part Two)

Welcome to part two of my exposé of the recent cyanide spill at the Djibo dam. Here’s Part One if you missed it.

Thank you to Simon Cross and Keith Smith for their excellent blog posts about this accident. Thanks also to those of you who have been tweeting and FBing your support. As you know, Google search rankings depend largely on incoming links. So simply linking to these articles will increase their page rank. Getting the word out is half the battle – Avocet may not respond to our calls for change but they may well respond to investor pressure. Just think of that – the 10 seconds you take to re-tweet a link to this article are 10 seconds that could change the world. Just use the Share Buttons at the bottom of this page.

The title of my series of articles is drawn from the title of Hyacinthe Sanou’s news report: Avant de nous sauver, l’or va nous tuer. (Before it saves us, gold will kill us). This may seem melodramatic but it accurately reflects the deep fear and unease with which the inhabitants of the Djibo region now view the Inata gold mine. What began as an enthusiastic scramble for jobs has turned to cynicism and resentment. Before the cyanide spill, relations between miners and locals were already at an all-time low, and now they have been thoroughly poisoned. More about that later.

Here’s a reminder of the accident we are talking about. The photograph is from Avocet’s official communique – it was taken just one hour after the incident occurred and shows the cyanide containers are partially submerged.

Cyanide containers submerged in downstream flow from Djibo dam
Photo from Avocet

In this article I will go all Erin Brockovich and tackle the question of corporate responsibility – in a word, blame. There is something not right about our blame culture, steeped as it is in litigation and finger-pointing. But in a case of near environmental disaster (or as we shall see, three near disasters) attributing blame is necessary and helpful. There is no use crying over spilled milk, but spilled cyanide is worth crying, tweeting, blogging and if necessary shouting from the rooftops about – if it means it doesn’t happen again.

In my correspondence with Angela Parr, Investor Relations Manager at Avocet Mining Ltd, she has been keen to stress that safe delivery of cyanide was part of Samsung’s contract and nothing to do with SMB (the Inata mining company, of which Avocet owns 90%). Here is her response to the article I posted yesterday about the accident.

Hi Steve.
Thanks for the opportunity to review.
I think the article is largely factually correct. However the one point that I think is ambiguous in the article is SMB’s level of responsibility relating to the incident. SMB is in no way contractually responsible for the delivery of cyanide. Delivery forms part of Samsung’s contract as SMB only take delivery of and responsibility for cyanide once it reaches the Inata mine site. SMB’s response to the situation was based on a sense of duty of civic care rather than on one of contractual responsibility. I hope you can appreciate the distinction.

I understand. SMB (the mining company) was in no way responsible for the cyanide whilst it was on the road, nor was it contractually obliged to go and investigate the cyanide spill. It sent a team to help with the damage assessment because it is a good corporate citizen, a veritable Ben and Jerry’s of the mining world.

It is good that SMB sent a team of specialists so quickly to the scene of the accident. It is commendable that they got the message out about the potential danger and embarked on water testing there and then. And that they lifted the cyanide containers out of the water before Vehrad even turned up. Gold star, SMB. Here is a picture they took on Sunday 31 July of one of the containers raised clear of the water on timber blocks.

Cyanide container at Djibo dam two days after the accident
Photo from Avocet

According to a narrow contractual definition of corporate responsibility, Avocet Mining (AVM) is in the clear. They probably can not be sued for any damage resulting from the Djibo cyanide spill, because safe delivery of the cyanide is Samsung’s job. But it is clear that Avocet Mining do have wider moral obligations to the people who live in the Djibo region. If Samsung’s delivery methods to Inata are (as we shall see) fundamentally unsafe, Avocet Mining will be keen to improve matters, as much as anything to avoid tarnishing the reputation of their company.

With this in mind, the CEO of Avocet Mining Brett Richards has initiated high-level discussions with his Samsung counterpart, and according to the official Avocet report on the Djibo dam debacle, these talks will address the need to:

  • Ensure that containers are improved in strength and rendered water-tight.
  • Improve the quality and training of drivers.
  • Establish emergency response measures in country to enable more rapid reaction and mobilization than occurred in this instance.

Let’s take those points one by one.

1. Ensure that containers are improved in strength and rendered water-tight

Shutting the container door after the cyanide has bolted. Still, this is the very least that is necessary in order to ensure that an accident of this kind doesn’t happen again.

I asked Paul Bateman, President of ICMI (International Cyanide Management Institute) about the strength of the containers used to transport cyanide to Inata:

We do not yet know the specific cause of the accident in Burkina Faso. Once that information is available, we will be in a better position to determine the extent to which non-compliance with the [Cyanide Code] and/or human error were contributing factors.

Avocet is not a Code signatory, and consequently the Inata Gold Mine is not subject to the Code. Therefore, the mine is not required to purchase cyanide from a Code-certified manufacturer, and ICMI has no information regarding the manufacturer of the cyanide used at the mine. Samsung is a sales agent for a number of cyanide manufacturers, and is considered under the Code as a “consignor/transporter” because it organizes and oversees supply chains consisting of contracted cyanide carriers. Since the packaging of cyanide is typically the responsibility of the manufacturer rather than the transporter, we are not able to comment further regarding its packaging.

The Cyanide Code an important initiative, especially when so much mining around the world uses cyanide in its treatment processes. But inevitably the effectiveness of such a code is dependent on the quality and thoroughness of its individual auditors.

2. Improve the quality and training of drivers

Anyone who knows Africa knows that this is an issue. I blogged some time ago about the dangers of bad roads and bad driving with particular reference to Burkinabe bus-drivers – many of whom have an inshallah attitude to risk. The same goes for truckers. With trucks carrying potentially lethal cargoes, you desperately need good, risk-averse drivers.

You also need good roads. The main problem with the Kongoussi to Djibo road is not the potholes. It is the deep horizontal ruts known here as ‘washboard’ or in French as escalier. The best driver in the world could lose control on the Kongoussi-Djibo road, and no amount of driver training can annul that basic fact.

I asked John Chung, the International Manager of Samsung, for a comment on the Djibo cyanide spill. Here is his reply:

As signatories of International Cyanide Management Code (“ICMC”), Samsung C&T and our service providers are committed to making our best efforts to ensure safe transportation of cyanide.

Samsung C&T and our inland logistics partners fully survey our transportation routes, and provide regular safety training to drivers. And while transporting cyanide, each consignment has an escort in the front and a convoy in the end for any emergency.

However, as can be seen in the recent incident, there are cases where we face unexpected road conditions.

Unexpected road conditions? Water flowing over the spillway of the north side of the Djibo dam? That is not unexpected. The dam overflows for three months of the year, every year, and has done since its construction. I am appalled that unexpected road conditions should be cited as a mitigating circumstance. If I had not already lost confidence in Samsung’s ability to safely manage the transportation of cyanide, that statement alone would do it.

But things are even worse than they appear. Near the end of the Inata mine director’s official report comes this particularly chilling statement:

Avocet Mining/SMB will be discussing [the Djibo accident] and two earlier incidents where cyanide trucks turned over due to driver error with SAMSUNG

When I first read that, it hit me like a Vehrad truck. This is not the first time that such an accident has happened. It is simply the first time that it has happened in water.

I emailed Angela Parr three times to ask about these earlier incidents, but at the time of posting this article she has not yet replied. As soon as she does, I will post her comment here.

3. Establish emergency response measures in country to enable more rapid reaction and mobilization than occurred in this instance.

One might have expected in-country emergency response measures to be in place already, particularly since both Samsung and Vehrad are signatories of the Cyanide Code which demands that just such measures be in place. Paul Bateman at the International Cyanide Management Institute has not yet received Vehrad’s detailed report on the accident, so he did not comment directly on their culpability. He did say this:

In recognition that even the best procedures and training cannot eliminate human error, equipment failures and other causes of accidents entirely, the Code has an extensive emergency response component that requires operations to have appropriate plans and capabilities to act in the event of a cyanide incident or accident. The additional information expected from Vehrad should help us determine if the response was consistent with its established procedures.

So we are waiting for Vehrad’s report of what caused the driver to crash his truck. I would advise them not to use Samsung’s phrase ‘unexpected road conditions’ in their report. There was nothing unexpected about the road conditions on the day of the accident, nothing at all. I wonder how fast the truck was going…

Notes and Recommendations

Brett Richards, CEO of Avocet Mining Ltd, is a former professional ice hockey player. He has the drive and bullishness that investors like, and his company has its sights firmly set on adding as many ounces as it can in West Africa. Here is my open letter to Mr Richards, representing the pleas of the people I meet on the streets of Djibo every day.

  1. Take responsibility for the effects of your company’s activities
  2. Fact: if there were no gold mine at Inata, there would be no cyanide trucks travelling on bad roads in the north-west of Burkina Faso. There would be no cyanide to spill on roads, no cyanide to spill in water, no cyanide to terrify local people and send them into a month-long psychosis. Please sign up as soon as possible to the Cyanide Code. It is the experience of ICMI that the Cyanide Code is most effective when all parties, including the mine, the transporter and the manufacturer, are certified in compliance with the Code.

  3. Listen to the voices of local people.
  4. You must be more relieved than anyone that nobody has died as a result of the cyanide spill. But please read the Burkinabe comments here and here and understand the depth of local ill-feeling against your mine.

  5. Consider alternatives to cyanide
  6. Your mine is the rising star of West African gold mining. Financially you are in for a stellar year. Your recent drilling results were fantastic and you are all set to double your production at Inata. The price of gold is high and set to rise even further. Why not celebrate all this by kicking the cyanide habit for good? Norman Haber of Haber, Inc. has developed a new method of mineral extraction using non-toxic, cost-effective alternatives. The Haber Gold Process (HGP) has undergone preliminary and follow-up testing by mining engineering groups, which have concluded that HGP results in more gold recovery over a shorter period of time than the cyanide leaching processes with a cost comparable to, or less than, cyanide leaching.

  7. Tarmac the road between Kongoussi and Djibo
  8. If you persist in using cyanide to extract your gold, please ensure that the road between Kongoussi and the gold mine is properly tarmacked before allowing cyanide deliveries to continue. Recently the people of Djibo staged a two-day road-block to protest against the condition of the Kongoussi-Djibo road. It is dangerous for donkey carts carrying firewood, let alone heavy goods vehicles carrying cyanide. Please read my article in the Guardian Weekly about the Djibo Road Protest.

    All good wishes to you and to your colleagues in London and Inata.

    Yours sincerely,

    Stephen Davies

    Continue to Part 3.

Cyanide accident at Djibo dam in Burkina Faso: will the gold mines kill us before they save us? (Part One)

When I was small, my mother told me not to run whilst carrying scissors. These days I rarely feel the need to run carrying scissors, but even if I wanted to I wouldn’t. Mother knows best. Dangerous items should be transported with due care. I cannot help thinking: if only the good people at AVOCET mining company, SAMSUNG (Korea) and VEHRAD TRANSPORT (Ghana) had listened to their mothers.

The article that follows is a detailed exposé of a cyanide spillage which occurred on 29 July 2011 in Djibo in the north of Burkina Faso.

Cyanide spill at Djibo dam - a Vehrad Transport truck heading for the Inata gold mine overturns in the water

Most of the photos on this page and in the gallery are stills from a video taken shortly after the incident by my friend Didier. The pictures are poor quality but they give an impression of the scene nevertheless. A couple photos are taken from the mine director’s official report entitled “Potential Cyanide Emergency at the Djibo Dam” – these photos are credited in the captions. I will include some longish extracts from the director’s report in the following article, but for those who want to read the full report, I uploaded it here: Potential Cyanide Emergency at the Djibo Dam (right-click and ‘save as’).

At the time of writing this, I could not find anything in English on the internet related to this accident – I googled cyanide and Djibo expecting a deluge of information – but nothing. However, there are various articles in French (google the words cyanure Djibo), all of which stem from two original reports published in Burkinabe newspapers and online, one by Hyacinthe Sanou, the other by Adama Amadou. News articles with comments enabled have attracted a torrent of indignant opinion from Burkinabe men and women who are fed up of this sort of thing happening. Some of the comments were clearly posted from Djibo’s cybercafe – two are from people I know.

What I have written below looks like an interview but it isn’t. The subheadings are there simply to aid readability.

What happened in Djibo on 29 July 2011?

At four o’clock in the afternoon a ten year old boy called Bukari came to our house. ‘Have you heard the news?’ he asked breathlessly. ‘A lorry full of poison has skidded off the dam wall into the water, and there’s poison leaking into the water. Everyone in Djibo has gone out to look at it.’

I immediately knew the dam wall he was talking about. It forms the northern lip of the Djibo reservoir, and has a spillway along which all cars and motorbike heading in the direction of Dori have to travel. The spillway is so narrow that two donkey carts can barely pass each other, and it floods in rainy season (July to October) making passage even more treacherous.

A murmuring crowd lined the reservoir banks near the scene of the accident. Young and old craned their necks for a glimpse of the fallen lorry. And there it was, lying on its side in the water, massive and immobile, wheels akimbo. Most of the onlookers would not have been able to read the words CHIMIQUES TOXIQUES on the back of the lorry, but the neon skull and crossbones sticker proclaimed its own bleak warning.

The truck was carrying two 20 tonne containers of cyanide granules

Here is the account of the accident from the mine director’s official report:

On 29 Friday 2011 at approximately 12:30pm, an incident involving an over-turned truck and cargo occurred on the dam wall at Djibo. A truck belonging to VEHRAD TRANSPORT (Ghana) was transporting two 20 tonne containers of cyanide to the Inata Gold Mine. As it entered the concrete spillway section of the Djibo dam wall, the driver lost control of the vehicle and it fell onto its side into shallow water on the downstream side of the wall. The transport company VEHRAD TRANSPORT is contracted by the international cyanide supplier SAMSUNG (Korea) to deliver cyanide in West Africa.

What was the initial response to the emergency?

Gendarmes arrived quickly on the scene and stood at either end of the dam wall. A team from the gold mine appeared soon after (Inata mine is only forty kilometres from Djibo). They wore orange jackets and grim expressions as they set about assessing the damage.

team from Avocet owned gold mine in Burkina Faso at the scene of the potential cyanide emergency

All the onlookers were asking each other the same questions: Had the two containers ruptured on impact? Had they sustained water damage? Had any cyanide found its way into the water? If so, how much? The local radio station started announcing repeatedly that nobody should touch any water from the lake or from the wells in the vicinity. Cows must not drink there, children must not wash there, normal life must be suspended immediately until we had more information about the threat. The people of Djibo spiralled into what one Burkinabe commentator called la psychose – a collective psychosis which lasted several days.

The panic was not confined to Djibo. The town of Burow lies forty kilometres downstream from Djibo, and the people there were told not to draw water from their wells – only from their pumps. Even the animals had to be given pump water to drink, and in a pastoral region such as this, you can imagine the chaos that this caused. My friend Paate tells me that the queues at the pumps stretched all the way to the horizon. Burow, Djibo and all the villages in between had suddenly fallen victim to one driver’s carelessness . Or perhaps three wealthy companies’ carelessness.

Here is what the mining company (SMB) had to say about the immediate aftermath of the accident:

Considering the potential severity of the incident, SMB was immediately advised of the event and asked to assist. In the best interest of the people of Djibo and the region, and taking into account its duty of care as a responsible corporate citizen, SMB immediately dispatched a team of specialists and resources to Djibo with a view to providing technical and logistical support to SAMSUNG/VEHRAD towards limiting and eliminating any potential hazards arising.

Immediately after being made aware of the event, SMB notified all relevant regional and national authorities that the incident had taken place, advised of the potential severity of the incident, and requested the assistance of the authorities and the Gendarmerie to notify the populations in the area and downstream of incident site of the potential hazards arising as a result of the incident. Specifically, SMB requested the authorities to ensure people, children and livestock be kept clear of downstream water until such time as the authorities were satisfied that the situation was safe, and that permission to occupy the area and water was given.

Upon first arrival at the scene, it appeared that the two cyanide containers were intact, although lying on their side in shallow water. A water sampling exercise was immediately embarked upon by SMB’s Environmental Department covering a radius of three hundred (300) meters downstream of the incident point, and this exercise continued throughout the recovery operation. Some fish mortality was observed in the immediate area of the containers where elevated levels of cyanide were recorded.

How dangerous is cyanide?

It doesn’t take much to kill you. Read Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie, or even better this Wikipedia article on Cyanide Poisoning.

What happened next?

On Sunday 31st July 2011, with SMB’s assistance, both containers were recovered by VEHRAD through the use of equipment provided by BLMS, a Burkina Faso company. The containers were then delivered to the Inata Gold Mine and stored in the high security area of the metallurgical plant. Subsequent inspection of the contents of the containers showed some impact and water damage had occurred to some of the individual cyanide boxes.

Boxes of cyanide sustained impact damage and water damages
photo from Avocet, inset by me

What has happened since?

Ever since the accident the rumour mill in Djibo has not stopped turning. A week after the spill, a dead woman was brought in from Kelbo. Her husband claimed that she had drunk cyanide-contaminated water from a well but it turned out that he was lying. The truth was that during a fierce quarrel he had forced his wife to drink poison, and then tried to avoid prosecution by blaming the mine accident.

Now, nearly three weeks after the accident, an uneasy calm has returned to Djibo. Lots of dead fish have been found but to date no humans have died from contact with contaminated water. So public opinion has settled on the theory that only a small amount of cyanide leaked out. This is being inferred from the lack of poisoned people piling up in hospital corridors. There has been no communication from the municipal authorities. The Burkinabe news reports and the attached comments all lamented this lack of communication. Hyacinthe Sanou wrote:

Une réaction officielle, pour rassurer et surtout sensibiliser la population, n’aurait pas non plus été de trop.
An official reaction, to reassure and educate the local people, should not have been too much to ask.

This afternoon I asked a griot (professional musician and storyteller) what people are being told now about the accident. “Min andanaaka fay,” he replied in Fulfulde. “Do min ngoni kaa, min maayaay tafon.” We haven’t been told anything – but we’re still here, we’re not dead yet.

What does the mine director’s report say about the current threat level?

As a result of the incident, and after inspecting the contents of the containers at the Inata mine site, there is some probability that small amounts of cyanide were released to the environment. However, in that strong sunlight contributes towards the rapid breakdown of cyanide, and that the rain storm of 1st August will have had a beneficial diluting effect, the danger now posed by this event continues to diminish.

The danger ‘continues to diminish’ but the tough questions are only just beginning. Tomorrow I will post part 2 of this article. We will look at the ‘Notes and Recommendations’ in the mine director’s report, and ask whether Avocet/SMB are right to be blaming this accident entirely on SAMSUNG (the cyanide supplier, based in Korea). We will also be looking at something called The Cyanide Code which exists to stop exactly this sort of thing from happening. I will try to keep my tone dispassionate but forgive me if I occasionally slip into rant mode. Some things are worth ranting about, and this daft accident is one of them.

Thanks for reading this far. If you blog, please do publish a link to this article. If you are on Facebook or Twitter, please use the share buttons below. The very least we can do for the people of Djibo now is to get the word out about this near catastrophe. The more exposure this accident gets, the less chance there will be of it happening again.

Good wishes to all who read this – and remember, don’t run with scissors.

Continue to Part 2

Why there are no zombies in OUTLAW

I wrote OUTLAW in Chichester Library during my sabbatical year in the UK. The library is within slingshot distance of Waterstones, so I used to go there on my lunch break and pore over newly published fiction. During one such lunch break I leafed through Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, looking at the pictures and chuckling and wishing that Outlaw had more zombies in it. Or any, for that matter.

As I walked back to the library that day my mind was spinning. Perhaps it’s not too late, I thought. Perhaps I could introduce some zombies in my novel without breaking the plot. Cram them in, shoehorn them in, Ctrl-v them in by the bucket load – then sit back and inform my publisher that they will need to find an African zombie illustrator. No, two African zombie illustrators – one for the cover, one for the innards.

My favourite motivational book is Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. She devotes several chapters to describing how you need to give your left brain permission to think wildly and freely, and how you should not let your right brain jump in too fast with a No-no-no-it’ll-never-work. Good advice, right up until the moment your left brain suggests parachuting a regiment of zombies into your work-in-progress. When this happens, there is only one course of action: extract your left brain, pulverize it and dance on the remains with hobnailed boots. Which I did, right there in the library foyer.

Right brain thought it had won, of course, and over the next few days it was even more obnoxious than usual. So imagine right brain’s confusion the following week when the following happened: I was sitting at my computer reading about Mungo Park (a famous Scottish explorer of West Africa who features several times in Outlaw) and came upon this webpage explaining that there was a mystery surrounding Park’s disappearance in the heart of Africa. Not just a mystery, but a zombie mystery:

Park’s disappearance was big news back in England, where the public had developed a fascination with explorations in Africa. A rescue mission was quickly put together under the direction of Africa Society director Joseph Langley. Langley and his team traced Park’s route, sailing up the Gambia and crossing the jungle to get to the Niger.

At the end of the second day on the river, the team paddled around a bend and laid eyes on the legendary city of Tellem. In his 1808 account of the mission, Dark River, Langley recalls his team’s disappointment upon finding that, far from being a city of gold, Tellem was a small village constructed of mud. As the team drifted closer, they saw dozens of Africans emerging from their homes and walking towards them with a peculiar, stiff-legged gait. In his account of the trip, Langley remembers being initially heartened by the sight of the villagers: “They wore brightly-coloured garments and the broadest of smiles.” But as he got closer, Langley realized that what he had mistaken for smiles were actually the grimaces of flesh-hungry zombies: the entire village had been transformed. Langley ordered an immediate retreat, but the canoes became swamped in the rapids. As the voracious zombies waded into the river, Langley was swept into the current and carried several miles downriver. He eventually reached a friendly village; the villagers took him to the mouth of the Niger, where he was picked up by a British ship.

Though Langley had gone further into Africa than any white man before him, he found himself the subject of scorn upon his return to London, where his zombie story was derided as a self-serving excuse for a failure in leadership. However, later accounts from the Asante tribes of East Africa lent support to Langley’s account. Denkyira, the Asante king, informed the English garrison in Gambia that he had led a raid on Tellem and destroyed many zombies, including several white men. The king presented the garrison commander with the clothes and personal effects of these men. Among the items was Park’s diary, with its ominous last entry: “Tomorrow, we should reach Tellem, a city that has haunted my dreams since I was a child. I cannot sleep for the excitement.”

I minimized Opera, maximized Open Office, and started rewriting Outlaw. My heart was pounding. Sparks flew off the keyboard. The zombie mystery surrounding the death of Mungo Park would become the central feature of my reworked plot, providing a dose of horror and a whole barrel of Zeitgeist. The story arc would be exquisite. The teenage protagonist’s journey would bring him inexorably closer to Tellem, the location of Park’s disappearance. Fleeting encounters with zombies on the road would prepare the way for a full blown battle in the final pages, culminating of course in a thrilling duel: African Zombie King versus African Robin Hood, no holds barred, to the death.

As I went to bed that night, I even had a title for my surefire bestseller: ZOMBIES VERSUS OUTLAWS.

It was so very nearly perfect. But then in the dead of night I was woken by a thought even more chilling than the zombies I had been imagining: What would Hemingway say?

The curse of the Hardcore Hemingway Fanboy (HHF) is that whenever HHF sits down to write, Hemingway stands close behind the right shoulder, gurning, tutting, smoking and being raucously and unapproachably brilliant. He comes to you even in your dreams where you think you are safe, bearing down on you to dispense pithy advice littered with #writetips and #writequote hashtags (for even as a figment of a literary imagination, Ernest is keen to move with the times).

Before he got very far into his rant, it was clear that the great man was not keen on ZOMBIE VERSUS OUTLAW. He sneered so much that his upper lip actually touched his nose. Then he drew himself up to his full height and said what he always says to young writers:

Write when there is something you know, and not before.

Forget posterity. Think only of writing truly.

Write as well as you can with no eye on the market.

Know what to leave out.

Which is not to say that no one should write zombies. He or she who knows zombies must write zombies. But it was time to face facts – I do not know my zombies. I’ve never even seen Dawn of the Dead.

The next day, the WIP was retitled Outlaw and the Tellem zombies were banished forever. The Zombie King grinned, shrugged and waded stiff-legged into the River Niger, closely followed by my chances of fame and fortune. But at least Ernest was grimly satisfied. And the silver lining, which he himself discovered as a young writer in Paris in the twenties, is this: The pictures in the art galleries always look better when you’re hungry.

Nice bice: rainy season is here

When I was eight I got a set of colouring pencils for my birthday. I have always been a sucker for good stationery and I loved those pencils dearly, not least because of the delicious names the colours had. I remember vermilion, burnt ochre, canary yellow and (my then favourite) green bice. Green bice was outrageously green and I must have overused it in my colouring-in because it quickly wore down to a stub and disappeared.

Wiktionary describes bice green as bright green, like a leaf. Follow that link to see a sample, or instead just look at the new grass in these photos:

We went for a walk in the country this afternoon. Every year I’m boggled afresh by how Burkina’s semi-desert gets so lush so suddenly. One good rain falls on the barren ground and the next day the grass springs up so quickly you can practically see it growing. Earth, which for eight months has been pounded relentlessly by the scorching sun, feels a drop or two of rain and wakes up with a start. ‘I’m alive!’ it seems to cry. ‘Bring on the bice.’

As my wife and I hurried along trying to keep up with Libby our trailblazing toddler, we happened upon a dromedary in the trees. The camel pursed its lips and stared at us for a while – and then turned moodily away. Libby didn’t mind. She’s listened to DEAR ZOO a hundred times so she knows the score when it comes to camels:

I wrote to the zoo to send me a pet. They sent me a camel. It was too grumpy. I sent it back.

Walking with a Fulani cattle drive

I enjoyed writing the Fulani cattle drive scenes in my latest novel Outlaw. As I mentioned in the Afterword to the book, those scenes are based on a real journey that I took a few years ago, accompanying 4 Fulani herders and 96 cows on a loooong walk (nine days and nights, of which I managed four). We ate on the move, slept on the ground and had to keep a very sharp eye on those recalcitrant cows.

My main memories of the Fulani cattle drive are of the choking dust kicked up by 384 hooves, the sun’s blistering heat between 11am and 4pm, and the hilarious banter between Idrissa and his fellow herders. For the full story, have a read of this travel feature which I wrote for the Sunday Times.

How Chobbal the albino camel got his name

Fama is one of our neighbours here in Burkina Faso. She is eighteen and she makes a living from selling chobbal, which is porridge made from sour milk and millet. Every morning Fama gets up early and pounds millet in a wooden mortar until it is a fine flour. She mixes the flour with water and herbs and cooks it over a fire.

When the millet is cooked she leaves it to cool and forms it into balls (about the size of pool balls). She puts these millet balls in a calabash (a bowl made from the calabash fruit) and takes them from door to door. Each ball costs 50 African francs – that’s about 7 pence (10 cents). To make the chobbal, she simply mixes the millet balls with milk. She says it tastes better if you use yesterday’s milk rather than today’s.

Chobbal is delicious but it has a reputation for making you go to sleep. So don’t eat it at lunchtime if you’re working in the field or herding cows in the countryside.

I chose Chobbal as the name of the camel in Sophie and the Albino Camel. Like an albino camel, chobbal is an off-white colour – and very smelly!

Djibo Ouagadougou road protest

It is the day before Djibo’s weekly market. Usually its narrow streets would be thick with the fumes of twenty-ton lorries dropping off their wares, but today the town is eerily quiet and smoke-free.

Three miles south of the market, forty-two lorries are parked up along the red laterite road, bumper to bumper, hulking and impotent. The road itself is rutted and potholed; it is barely passable at the best of times but today it is an absolute no go. On a narrow bridge in front of the first lorry, a massive tree trunk lies, and nailed to the trunk is a neatly stencilled banner: La route du développement passe par le développement de la route.

On the Djibo side of the roadblock, a party is going on. A huge marquee straddles the road and in its shade sit a hundred or more teenage boys. There are chairs, table, a big music system and three microphones. Blasting from the amps is the song Dar es Salaam by Burkinabè rap duo Yeleen. The boy closest to the music system leans back on a metal chair and nods his head to the beat. Now and then he takes the cigarette out of his mouth so that he can rap along with Yeleen: Your palace is too far to hear the echoes of our grief, You don’t have to hear your people crying justice, hope and peace. The boy stabs the flat of his hand through the air in time to the rhythm and his lip curls in anger, or perhaps disdain, as he thinks of distant statesmen.

A tall good-looking boy wearing a baseball cap grabs one of the microphones and turns it on. He jumps at the deafening whine of feedback, steps away from the amplifiers and gestures to rapper boy to turn the music down, which he does.

‘Six years ago the President came to Djibo,’ shouts Baseball Cap in heavily accented French. ‘He saw that our road is not even fit for donkey carts. He promised us tarmac all the way to Ouagadougou. Today we shall hold him to account. Until we hear from him, not a single vehicle will enter or leave this town!’

The teenagers are clearly the vanguard of this protest, but the rest of the community is out in force as well. Shopkeepers loll on sleek motorbikes, relaying scraps of news on bluetooth headsets. Turbaned shepherds stand and gaze. Knots of older men sit in the shade of nearby acacia trees, chewing cola nuts and laughing often. Young women sashy among the crowd balancing plates of mangoes and yams on their tightly-plaited heads.

Morsels of gossip ripple among the protesters:

“The Haut Commissaire is refusing to come and see our roadblock. He’s afraid of a peaceful protest!”
“Adama Koudougou has donated five sacks of rice and two kilos of tea to the cause. We should put someone in charge of provisions. We don’t know how long we’re going to be here.”
“A truckful of gold miners are going to try and drive around the blockade. If they do, we must form a human chain to stop them.”
“We’re on the news! Radio France International is talking about the Djibo road demonstration. When has our little town ever been talked about in Paris?”

When indeed? And if the echoes of Djibo’s grief can resound in Versailles, perhaps even the marbled palaces of Ouagadougou are not entirely soundproof.

Update January 2016 – The Ouagadougou-Djibo road is in as bad a state as ever.

Welcome to Burkina Faso

A reggae musician on the streets of Ouagadougou

I met this lad in Ouagadougou (capital of Burkina Faso) a few weeks ago. We found ourselves sitting next to each other at a street-corner Nescafe kiosk and talked about this and that. He told me about his life as an aspiring reggae musician and about his encounter the previous day with rioting militia. He gave me a CD and I took his photo.

There was so much about the meeting which was typical of West Africa – the sickliness of the cafe au lait (made with half a bowl of sweetened condensed milk), the noise and bustle of street vendors and passing taxis, and the friendliness of strangers. Burkina Faso is an extraordinarily easy place to make new friends.

I am going to be posting a snapshot of my life in Burkina Faso every Monday and Thursday. Do check in from time to time and feel free to comment. Hopefully as I get used to doing this, my photography will get better. In the meantime, please bear with me.