Gap Year good, Gap Yah bad

Gap Yah

Great ‘Viewpoint’ piece by Daniela Papi on the BBC website this morning, entitled Is ‘gap yah’ volunteering a bad thing? At the time of writing, Daniela’s piece is both the ‘Most Read’ and also the ‘Most Shared’ article on the BBC site. Her criticism of the gap year industry has clearly touched a nerve.

Papi argues that gap year volunteering is designed to make gappers feel good about themselves, that the opportunities to serve are contrived, and that we are encouraging unskilled, inexperienced, clueless volunteers to dabble in development work, with results that are at best neutral and at worst damaging. We are setting ourselves up for monumental failure.

The article is well argued, a devastating critique of the ‘gap yah’ abroad. As a one-time ‘serial volunteer’ herself, Papi does not doubt the good intentions of those volunteering. But she thinks it could be done better if the emphasis were on learning to serve rather than on serving. “It’s a small change in vocabulary,” she writes, “but it can have a big impact on our futures.”

Here are a few disjointed comments by way of response. I write as someone who took a ‘gap yah’ myself, and now as a long-term crosscultural worker in West Africa who regularly receives and mentors ‘gappers’.

  • I once talked to a lad who grew up in Mexico. He said he dreaded the arrival of gap year volunteers. When they left, he and his friends would have to tear down the wall the gappers had built and build it again – properly this time!
  • British nationality – or any other kind – does not qualify us to save the world. Being an influence for good is more about your heart than your passport or your education.
  • Cross-cultural exchange is valuable in and of itself.
  • I like receiving gappers. They bring energy, inspiration and fresh perspectives. Nothing keeps me on my toes like continually being asked ‘Why did you just do that?’
  • My friends and neighbours in Djibo like receiving gappers. It’s true. Koyngal woni endam (lit. The foot is fellowship – Being visited is honouring).
  • The best gappers have been those who helped with the washing up and played tag with kids in the yard and asked millions of questions, many of which I couldn’t answer.
  • All the long-termers I have met in Burkina Faso started out as short-termers. Clued-up-ness grows from cluelessness.
  • Effectiveness is born out of uselessness.
  • Gappers who come humble leave wise. Those who come wise leave jaded.
  • As Daniela says, training is essential. Often this means learning how to learn. The World Horizons training programme (brief plug!) is excellent for ‘learning how to learn’ language and culture.
  • I question those in the comments section below the BBC article who say ‘Stay home and donate your gap yah funds directly to charity’ – it seems like wisdom, but it is monochrome, reductionist, armchair wisdom of the worst sort.
  • A woman once anointed Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume, and Judas (of all people) got upset and said ‘That perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor.’
  • Perhaps we need to develop a theology of waste. Perhaps we should we smile a little less knowingly and talk a little less condescendingly about those bright-eyed young things washing cars to raise money for their plane tickets.
  • Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up (1 Cor.8:1). ‘How will it look on my CV?’ puffs up. ‘How can I stay involved?’ builds up.
  • Not one of our gappers have ever said ‘And then I chundered everywhere’. Yet.

A Fulani engagement party

A Fulani engagement party is the ultimate exercise in playing hard to get.

It starts with the man and his friends/uncles turning up at the mother-in-law’s compound and being served a cornflour drink with lots and lots of salt in it. The man and his comrades have to demonstrate their good intentions by drinking the calabash dry.

Salt ordeal

Then a series of women are brought out, covered by a big piece of cloth. The man has to say whether each one is his girl, or not! For each wrong guess, he has to pay 5000 Francs.

Spot the fiancee

The sun is getting hot, and the man has still not found his loved one. He remonstrates with one of the girl’s aunts, who says ‘Not my problem!’

Not my problem

More decoys…

Find the Bride

Finally, the girl is guessed correctly and revealed for who she is. Now the real negotiations can begin.

Fatimata appears

The friends of the man go to the formidable aunts on bended knee to beg on the man’s behalf for the girl’s hand in marriage.


An accord is struck, and the dancing begins.

Lobbo dancing

Finally, the happy couple can be said to be engaged. The wedding will follow in a few months, and this time the cornflour drink will be sweet, not salty.

Fatimata and Hamidou

Leaving the Sahel

At the dedication of the Fulfulde New Testament in Ouagadougou
At the dedication of the Fulfulde New Testament in Ouagadougou

We have been back in Africa for nearly two months now. The troubles in nearby Mali made us decide to leave Djibo, so we have moved to a town in the south of Burkina Faso.

We never intended to live in Djibo the rest of our lives – we probably would have relocated sometime this year war or no war – but I’m missing it all the same. I miss the sand and the cows and the rounded grass houses. I miss our friends and neighbours. Most of all, I miss being able to understand what people around me are saying.

For the time being I am still working as West Africa coordinator of Christian mission movement World Horizons. And I’m still writing. Currently working on two adventure books – one set in Dakar and one in Victorian London. Very excited about both of these projects.

Meanwhile my wife Charlie is working hard finding wonderful bags and jewellery for Jam Shop – take a look.

The best weaver in Soum province, Burkina Faso

My wife Charlie has been working with Ussman for a couple years now. He’s the best weaver in the province of Soum, producing fine cushion covers and blankets on a loom made of twigs and twine. Now, thanks to his involvement with Charlie and SAHEL Design, Ussman is building a teaching centre to pass on the skill of traditional weaving to future generations.

Avocet’s Inata gold mine: Social Benefit

Accommodation for displaced people
Houses built by Avocet to accommodate displaced people

This is the fourth and last article in my series on Avocet’s Inata gold mine. In case you missed them, here are the others.

Part One: Introduction
Part Two: Environment
Part Three: Employment

‘Burkina Faso as a country does benefit from our presence here,’ says Richard Gray, Avocet’s Vice President of West Africa Operations. ‘Part of our job is to make sure that the social benefit of the mine outweighs its nuisance value, the increased traffic and the dust and so on.’

In the bad old days a gold mine could operate without much regard for the people on whose doorstep it was parked. But today such thoughtlessness earns companies disapproving glares and metaphorical parking tickets. Here are some of the areas in which Avocet try to sweeten the mining pill for the people of Inata and beyond.

1. The Djibo-Kongoussi road

The road from Djibo to Kongoussi (en route to the capital Ouagadougou) is in a terrible state. It is unsurfaced, rutted and potholed. People blame the President of Burkina Faso for breaking his 2006 election promise to tarmac the road, and they blame the mine lorries and tankers for their daily contribution to the road’s worsening state. In March last year they took direct action, blocking the road for two days and demanding that the government and the gold mine find immediate funding for a hundred kilometres of tarmac. It was an excellent non-violent protest, and I wrote about it at the time for the Guardian Weekly. Last week, twelve months after the original protest, the government announced that it had allocated funding for the new road. This is very good news.

2. The Gomde dam

Gomde dam Gomde barrage Inata

The village of Gomde, 7 kilometres from Inata, used to have a pond. Then the Inata miners arrived. They built a dam at Gomde to contain rainy season rainfall and provide water for the mine. In the place of the old pond is a vast body of water which at full capacity measures a staggering 120 million cubic metres.

Half way through my visit to the Inata mine, we drive to Gomde to see the dam at close quarters. Its clever ‘spillway labyrinth’ and giant pump house are pointed out to me and I make appreciative noises. In the middle of the reservoir, the roof of a school and the minaret of a mosque can be seen poking above the water, and I cannot help wondering how the schoolteachers and the local imam felt about the construction of the dam. ‘They were fine about it,’ says André, Inata’s Community Relations manager. ‘We built them a new school and a new mosque on dry land.’

Gomde school submerged in Gomde dam

There is more water in the dam than is needed for the mine, so various irrigation projects are in view. Year-round market gardening is one idea. A three-hectare ‘forest’ of fruit trees is another. Banana trees in the desert – I can’t wait to see it.

So is anyone unhappy about the dam? ‘Some Fulani herders grumble,’ says André. ‘The never-ending water supply has attracted herders from miles around, so the locals have more neighbours now than they were previously used to.’ He shakes his head and chuckles. ‘Those people are never happy.’

3. Pumps

Providing clean drinking water for communities is a sure-fire shortcut to White Knight status. Avocet have installed three pumps in Gomde, one in Sona and one in Inata. Four of the five are powered by solar panels, the last one is powered by teenage girls jumping up and down. Here is one of the solar ones.

Solar pump at Sona near the Inata gold mine

4. The Foundation

Avocet’s charity work is organized by FAB – Fondation Avocet pour le Burkina Faso. For every ounce of gold that Avocet take out of the ground, they drop a dollar into the Foundation’s piggy bank. Last year they mined 160,000 ounces, so the Foundation had $160,000 to spend on philanthropy. They bought an ambulance for Aribinda hospital, refurbished a school in Filio and started planning a clinic for Gomde.

Aribinda ambulance - photo from Avocet website
An ambulance for Aribinda - photo from Avocet website

The committee which allocates Foundation cash is composed of miners and mayors – specifically the mayors of the three nearest towns, Aribinda, Koutougou and Tongomayel. They receive begging letters from all over the country, but prioritize local projects.

‘We are open to the advice and suggestions of local voices and local NGOs,’ says Richard Gray. ‘As for transparency, you are welcome to come and sit in on a meeting of the FAB committee, if you like.’

The conundrum

Alla andinaay gujjo de bangi munaafiki,’ goes the Fulani proverb. Literally, God did not warn the thief that he was marrying a gossip. It is a proverb about uneasy alliances, and alliances don’t come much uneasier than those between NGOs and mining companies. There is nothing like a marriage proposal from the corporate mining sector to make a development worker lose her sleep. ‘Is this an opportunity or a sellout?’ she mutters to herself as she turns her pillow once again onto its cool side. ‘Is this a new humanitarianism or an old heresy? Is this positive influence or probable influenza?’

Samantha Nutt poses the dilemma neatly in her article Should NGOs take the corporate bait? Here is a quote:

The central tension is whether NGOs are serving as bagmen, advancing Canadian mining interests by appeasing local communities with gifts of health care and education, or whether they are simply piloting a new model of co-operation that might positively influence corporate behaviour overseas while simultaneously addressing development gaps.

I tend towards pragmatism in such matters. As things stand, miners and mayors are meeting at Inata every six months to dispense hundreds of thousands of dollars in development aid. They (the miners) are ‘open to the advice and suggestions of local NGOs.’ So they should be. And for their part, experienced local NGOs should engage with this challenge rather than spurning it. Not because they need the cash, but because the cash in a funny sort of way needs them.

‘You can not antagonize and influence at the same time’ (John Knox). I hope that nothing I have written in these four articles has been unnecessarily antagonistic and I hope to keep channels of communication open to all those who live and work at the Inata gold mine. If they have any corrections or comments regarding any of these articles, I will weigh and update as necessary.

May God bless Inata and all who dig there. May God bless and protect the land, the birds, the wildlife and the water. His will be done, on earth as in heaven.

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.

Avocet’s Inata gold mine – Cyanide and Safety

Inata tailings dam - AVM Avocet
The tailings dam at Inata gold mine

In this article I will be reflecting on cyanide and safety measures at Avocet’s Inata gold mine in the north of Burkina Faso. This is the second article in a series of four. If you missed the first one, here it is: A Visit to Avocet’s Inata Gold Mine

1. The tailings dam

Critics of mining activity usually end up talking about tailings dams sooner or later, so let’s get it out of the way. A tailings dam is where the mine’s contaminated sludge ends up, a veritable Gehenna of toxic waste. The reason environmentalists get upset about tailings dams is that if ever they spill, leak or otherwise fail, environmental catastrophe ensues. On average worldwide there is one big accident involving a tailings dam each year.

The best case scenario, of course, is that a mine’s tailings dam be so well designed that the cyanide, pyrites, xanthates and other miscellaneous nasties be confined in one place for all eternity. What is needed is the mining equivalent of Azkaban, a maximum security prison from which no dangerous prisoner will ever escape.

The tailings dam will outlast the mine. No one at Inata knows the day or the hour that the mine will cease to be profitable, but they already have a plan for when the End is near. ‘The sealing of the tailings dam is an important element of the mine’s closure plan,’ says Andy Mortimore, processing manager (and chief eschatologist) at Inata. ‘This closure plan was presented to the government as part of our application for the mining license.’

We drive up onto the top of the tailings dam. At first sight it reminds me of a meteorite crater in Arizona more than of anything manmade, but as we get closer I see giant water pipes running around the lip of the crater and plunging down its steep sides into an evil glistening slurry. Engineering Muggle though I am, I can appreciate that this thing is more than just a giant potty. ‘A tailings dam like this costs millions of dollars to build,’ says Andy. ‘It is designed to self-seal as it fills.’ Clever.

Could this tailings dam fail? Avocet’s vice-president Richard Gray for one has seen it happen before, not in Burkina Faso but in Ghana. He was at Goldenstar’s Bogoso mine in 2004 when their tailings dam leaked cyanide into the river Aprepre, killing hundreds of fish, crabs and shrimps and poisoning (but not killing) 30 people. ‘That was not a weakness in the dam itself,’ Gray explains. ‘It was a simple case of human error. A valve which should have been closed was left open. Contaminated water escaped.’

So in principle could the same thing happen at Inata?

‘No’ says Gray firmly. ‘The tailings dam at Inata does not have valves like the one at Bogoso. It’s a completely different system. And we have a backup system in the case of emergency. Say we have a catastrophic failure in our tailings pipeline for half an hour or an hour. The contaminated water will flow back down into our “event dam”, a smaller dam lined with a high density polymer. The problem will be contained until the pipeline is fixed.’

So there you have it. Even if the unthinkable happens at Inata, the truly unthinkable will not.

‘Having a tailings dam at all is something,’ muses Andy. ‘I spent a couple months at a mine in the Congo where they simply released the tailings into a local lake.’

TMI? At least Andy said ‘they’ and not ‘we’.

2. Delivery of cyanide to the mine

Ever since the July 2011 cyanide spill at Djibo dam, I have been communicating with Avocet about the safety of their cyanide deliveries. Legally, Avocet have always been in the clear. In 2011 Samsung was responsible for the safe transport of cyanide all the way from Korea to Inata. On 29 July they failed in this responsibility.

Morally, you might argue, Avocet are less in the clear, and in our meeting Richard Gray admits this possibility before I even suggest it. ‘Legal obligation is one thing,’ he says. ‘Moral obligation is another.’ That, presumably, is why Avocet dispatched its damage-limitation team to the scene of the accident as soon as they got the news.

And that is also why, more recently, they have changed suppliers. Samsung were spectacularly non-communicative after the accident, not just towards nosy English missionaries, but also, it now transpires, towards Avocet. Perhaps Samsung were worried about being sued for damages. Either way, they’re fired.

‘It is in our interests to ensure that our contractors are legitimate and professional,’ says Gray.
‘That’s right,’ says Andy. ‘We don’t want the Cohen Brothers Ltd delivering our cyanide or Basil Fawlty Inc delivering our caustic soda.’
‘Bit strange having Samsung delivering cyanide in the first place,’ says Gray. ‘They make TVs, don’t they?’
‘Who’s the new supplier?’
‘Sony,’ says Andy.
We all laugh.

Avocet’s new cyanide supplier is not in fact Sony. It is a Ghanaian company called Kamsak who supply mining chemicals across West Africa. And if first appearances count, Kamsak do not seem to be cowboys.

Transition was relatively smooth. Two of Samsung’s deliveries were cancelled and the first Kamsak delivery took place in February. The containers were brand new, according to Avocet’s maintenance manager, and the packaging on the cyanide was better than anything he had seen with Samsung.

A pickup truck travels ahead of the cyanide truck and acts as an escort, clearing the road of donkeys, children and other potential obstacles. A maintenance crew follows the cyanide truck in case of breakdown or emergency. There will be a dozen deliveries a year but Kamsak aim to deliver as much cyanide as possible during hot season so as to limit (if not eliminate) the rainy season deliveries. Less cyanide travelling across dodgy cement spillways in full flood has got to be a good thing.

The chances of another accident are very small. But I have to wonder if very small is good enough where cyanide is concerned.

Andy is keen to reassure. ‘People hear the word cyanide and it scares them, but you would have to spill a lot in the lake for it to have an effect on anything but fish. It takes a lot to kill a goat let alone a person. And it breaks down quickly in sunlight.’

‘What about cyanates?’ I ask. ‘I have read that cyanide reacts with other chemicals to create cyanates which are highly toxic and can hang around for a very long time in plant and animal tissues.’

‘Cyanates are present in nature already,’ says Andy. ‘People inhale cyanates every time they puff on a cigarette. Besides, we use plenty of other dangerous chemicals here. Caustic soda, sulphamic acid, sodium bicarbonate, hydrochloric acid, diesel fuel, you don’t hear people making a fuss about those, do you?’

Hmm. Not yet you don’t.

3. International Cyanide Management Certification

Okay, so this is a piece of good news which I have reported already. But it bears repeating. Avocet have set in motion the longish process towards signing up to the Cyanide Code, which is an internationally approved way of promising to play nice with their cyanide. The Code covers transport, handling, usage and disposal of cyanide. It is a significant hassle because all documents need to be presented in a very particular style and format – lots of procedure checking and box ticking involved. Well done Avocet for initiating this process. Andy is hiring a consultant from South Africa to come and advise him how best to prepare for their 2015 Cyanide Code audit. The consultant will visit later this year to point out any weaknesses in Inata’s current systems.

4. Are there viable alternatives to cyanide?

‘I haven’t looked into it,’ says Andy. ‘But if there were a powerful laundry detergent that could do the same job as cyanide at a quarter of the price, don’t you think we would have heard about it and be using it already?’

Fair point, but I can’t help thinking about the Haber Gold Process, which claims to extract gold just as efficiently as cyanide leaching. I did not raise this question during my visit (because I forgot Haber’s name) but have since emailed Andy to ask for his thoughts about the Haber Process. I’ll post his response as an update here asap.

Tomorrow, Employment.