Avocet’s Inata gold mine – Employment

Senior accommodation and bar at Inata gold mine
Senior accommodation surrounds a thatched bar at the Inata gold mine in Burkina Faso

This is the third of four articles about the Inata gold mine in the north of Burkina Faso. I visited the mine last Saturday.

‘Rich people care about the environment. Poor people care about jobs. Rich people look at big industrial developments and are squeamish about the grass that will be dug up. These people are the NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard!). Poor people on the other hand look at the same industrial developments and are glad of the jobs that will be provided.’ Andy Mortimore is talking about a copper mine in Canada, not a gold mine in Burkina Faso, but his inference is clear. Those namby-pamby Nimbys need to wake up and smell the employment quotas.

Employment at the Inata gold mine is a complex business. The vast majority of men in Burkina Faso have ‘cultivateur’ in the profession box on their ID card. But dependence on farming means dependence on good rainy seasons, which the Sahel is not famous for. It is rare for a farmer in the north of Burkina Faso to gain enough food from his harvest to feed his family for the whole year.

This year the harvest was especially poor. Men who got nothing from their fields are picking up their spades and leaving home in droves. ‘O yehi kange’ is what the left-behind mothers say about their prodigal sons. ‘He went gold.’

Most of these men will end up doing unofficial small-scale mining. They will drug themselves with ‘bleu-bleu’ tablets to give themselves the courage to go down to the bottom of a pitch-black hand-dug fifty-metre shaft, and if they find even a speck of gold they will start to dig a horizontal tunnel. Collapses are common. ‘O yehi kange wartaay’ say the mothers. He went gold and didn’t come back.

A small proportion of fortune-seekers are lucky enough to find an Inata job at the end of their rainbow. A truck-driver at the Inata gold mine gets 300,000 CFA a month. Bear in mind that unskilled manual labour in Ouagadougou pays 30,000 CFA a month, and you will understand how coveted these Inata jobs are. All my friends here filled out applications to become drivers, machine-operators, security guards, boondoggles, whatever they could wangle.

You would think that those lucky few who found a golden ticket in their Inata chocolate bar would be skipping euphorically around their workplace from one fat paycheck to the next. Not so, apparently. Local newspapers occasionally carry ominous mutterings from anonymous sources claiming that all is not well at Inata. In April last year relations between the mine directors and their workers reached an all-time low, with strife and strikes the order of the month. I did not have the opportunity to speak to any of the junior staff on my visit to Inata last weekend, so I do not know the reasons for this low morale. Could it be that the golden Wonka-Wega tickets were landed by a rabble of dollar-eyed ingrates – the African equivalents of Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt and Violet Beauregarde? Or could it be instead that the tickets were never quite as golden as they first appeared?

I asked Andy Mortimore, Processing Manager at Inata, what he thought about the labour unrest last year. ‘Mining is a risk,’ he says, ‘and it is only fair that those taking the risk (i.e the directors and investors) should reap the rewards. When gold prices are high, everybody requests a pay rise. But when gold prices drop, you can’t lay anyone off.’

I have sympathy with both sides. I know all too well how a small interpersonal problem can explode into overt hostility when the thermometer tips forty degrees centigrade. I know how culture-shock can make people say – even think – things that they don’t really mean. How isolation can breed selfishness, how ignorance can breed contempt, how paranoia can breed fear, how a couple bottles of Castel can breed aggression, how jealousy can breed hatred and how internet share-price tickers can breed obsession.

It’s not just the European and Canadian miners who are culture-shocked, it’s the Africans too. You see, Inata is not Burkina Faso. Inata is Inata. It has its own atmosphere and its own strange gravitational pull. Inata is its own tiny planet, spinning in a golden void.

God bless Inata and all who dig there.

Tomorrow, the social impact of the mine.

Published by

Stephen Davies

Children's author: picture books, chapter books and YA novels

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