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.

Outlaw blog tour

How many guest posts constitutes a ‘blog tour’? Two? Three? I think my tour takes in three. Still, it’s been enjoyable and (cue elderly-man-being-discharged-from-hospital voice) everyone has been most kind.

First was the inimitable Bookwitch, who wants to run around town waving a copy of Outlaw at every potential reader she can think of. (Go on – I dare you!) She kindly allowed me a guest slot yesterday for some recent Ouagadougou news. If you are even remotely interested in children’s or YA books, Bookwitch is definitely one to bookmark.

Second stop on the tour was BookZone4Boys, which I have been reading ever since it first started. It has grown a lot since then and its author Mr H (a deputy head at a secondary school) is now being deluged with review copies of boys’ action adventures. So I was glad he was able to make time to read Outlaw – and even gladder that he liked it. Here are the links to the BookZone4Boys review of Outlaw and today’s follow-up interview, where we talk about MacGuyver, Robin Hood and running up walls.

Third up, either today or tomorrow, is a guest post on I Want to Read That. Its author Sammee works in a bookshop and knows more about YA (young adult) lit than most people alive. I’ll post the link as soon as it’s up. Update: it’s here: Stephen Davies guest post at I Want To Read That

Since blog touring is such fun, I am happy to extend the tour for a couple more days. If you have a dazzlingly well-followed blog, do get in touch.

Gretel the Gecko

Here’s a poem I wrote a while back. It makes me laugh – hope it does you too.

Gretel the Gecko was hanging about
In a grass hut in Guinea Bissau.
‘What’s that sound?’ Gretel said. ‘Is it just in my head?
Did somebody somewhere say MIAOW?’

Oh no! Who is that? It’s Zoro the Cat
On the prowl for a gecko to eat,
‘Prepare,’ Zoro growled, ‘to be disembowelled,
I do like a bit of raw meat.’

Gretel the Gecko zoomed high up the wall
And chanted a victory chant:
‘It’s easy to see, you will never catch me,
For geckos climb walls and cats can’t.’

‘Don’t be so sure,’ said Zoro the cat,
‘It depends on how peckish I’m feeling.’
With razor-sharp claws he scaled the wall –
but his prey scuttled onto the ceiling.

‘I am great, I am green, I’m an African Queen.
I’m a bigwig in Guinea-Bissau,
I gobble up flies without blinking an eye
and say ‘click’ without moving my mouth.’

‘You win,’ said the cat, jumping down to the floor.
‘You are pretty and witty and wise.
You are graceful and strong and your tongue is so long
It can reach all the way to your eyes.

You can climb, you can click,
Upside-down you still stick,
And you have a most gogglesome stare
But isn’t being sticky a bit of a drag?
Don’t you wish you could jump in the air?’

‘Jump?’ replied Gretel, ‘I jump all the time,
I bounce and I boing and I bound.
Not even a flea is as jumpy as me,
I’m the springiest creature around.

‘Show me,’ said Zoro and up Gretel jumped,
She forgot she was high off the ground.
If you hang by your toes you should never let go
Because upwards is actually down.

Gretel cried ‘CLICK! I fell for his trick.
I’m a goner in Guinea Bissau!’
She stammered and stared as she fell through the air
And landed in Zoro’s big mouth.

Gobbling flies is very unwise,
And licking your eyeballs is gross.
But here is the lesson most crucial of all:
If you walk on the ceiling don’t boast.