Partners

The mine was interested in sponsoring local people to attend technical training classes on welding, plumbing, electrical work and carpentry.  If you send a cohort of 20 people out for training it’s a positive addition to the community: they learn a trade, get a certificate of completion at the end, and the mine can hire two or three of the top performers and train them as apprentices.  I was dispatched to meet with potential training partners and assess their capacity.

One of my colleagues had driven past a brand new polytechnic school on the outskirts of the nearest large town, and recommended that I start my search there.  I got the number of the school’s founder and called him.   I explained briefly that I worked for the mine, was exploring potential training partners, and wanted to visit the school and see their facilities and learn about their training courses.  He was effusive.  “Our workshop—gorgeous.   Absolutely state of the art, cutting edge equipment, all the newest gear.  Bilingual education in French and English.   Internationally educated teaching staff.  What programs are you interested in?”   I told him briefly, and at each one he told me that there was no finer school in Burkina Faso, possibly the whole world, to teach those subjects.  “Our curriculum is flexible!”   he said in closing.   “We can design our programs to meet any of your requirements.”   This last line should have tipped me off to what was coming, but I’m a bit slow and just assumed he was enthusiastic.

The town isn’t far from our site on the map, but the roads are terrible and it takes two hours to drive there.  I went with a colleague who had to do other errands, and he dropped me off at the school on the outskirts of town and we agreed to meet again in the late afternoon to return.   The building was simple but brand new, with a sparkling concrete wraparound porch and fresh paint.

I walked into the main office to find the secretary asleep literally facedown on her desk.  Her arms dangled by her side and her forehead was balanced on the teacher’s directory.  I coughed a few times but she didn’t stir.  I scraped an iron chair across the floor.   She raised her head and squinted at me.  I told her I wanted to speak with the founder, and she gestured to the door behind her and then replaced her head on the desk.

I opened the door to find a middle-aged man sitting in a dim room staring at me as if he had been waiting all week for my visit.  The desk didn’t have anything on it—not a pencil or a scrap of paper—but the walls of the room were lined with binders and papers in crenellated mounds up to two feet high.  I asked him if I had the pleasure of addressing the same gentleman I had spoken with on the phone two days yore, and he shook his head mournfully.  “The founder lives in Ouagadougou,” he told me.  “Our General Director has been traveling for the last two weeks, and our Principal recently accepted a position as an accountant on a poultry farm.   I am the Adjoint General Director.   You are most welcome.”   I was a little shaken by this news, but I sat down and launched into my list of questions.

I asked how many students were enrolled in the school currently, and he reached behind him, located a piece of paper that had been torn from a lined notebook and consulted it.  “156,” he said.  “I just walked past a few classrooms and there was hardly anyone in there.  And it’s a Friday.” I said.  He nodded slowly.  “Last Friday was a holiday, and not all of the students own calendars.  Perhaps some of them think it is last week.”  This didn’t make any sense to me, but I moved on.   I asked what equipment they had…welders, mig/tig/acetylene, circuit boards, solar panels, plumbing supplies, etc.   He rolled his chair to a different stack of paper on the floor and handed me a printed list.  “This is all of the equipment for our workshop.   The founder plans to place an order tomorrow.”   “But you don’t have any of this stuff now?”  I said, “I need to know what will be available to any students we send here.   What do you have?”   He blinked and then said slowly, “That’s a procurement list.  When the equipment arrives here and is installed, it will be available.   Everything on that list that is delivered here will be available.”   I asked about the bilingual education, and was told that one of the teachers had lived in Ghana for a bit and understood the lyrics to several Michael Jackson songs.

The office was making me claustrophobic and I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing much.   I asked for a tour of the facilities.  He nodded ruefully as if he was a man who was born to suffer and give tours of facilities, and then pushed back his chair and directed me past the sleeping secretary.   We walked past the classrooms, all of which were brand new and barely used.  The blackboards had the kinds of equations you see in New Yorker cartoons; figures that fill whole panels and Greek symbols.  Some of the boards made references to Computer-Aided Design programs, another listed building code regulations in France.  Another board explained that triangles can be identified because they always have three sides.  Out the window I could see rice fields.

I asked to see the workshop where students did hands on training.  He led me around the corner of the building and pointed without irony at a large field where several cows ripped hunks of grass from the stony ground.   “The students will build the workshop themselves, thereby learning structural engineering, welding, foundation construction and plumbing and electrical connections,” he said.   “We are awaiting a partnership that will give us the funds to buy the equipment and materials to construct the workshop.  Then the teachers will come, because they will be impressed by the project and ready to work hard to ensure their future at the school.  Then the students will come, because the teachers will inspire them.   Other enterprises will want to partner with us when they see the quality of students we will produce.  This will be the greatest technical school in Burkina Faso, if not the world.”

I thought carefully about the verbs the school’s founder had used over the phone, and it occurred to me that he never said that any of these facilities existed yet.  I thanked the Adjoint General Director for his time and shook his hand.   He thanked me for visiting, then asked if the mine was hiring, and if so, how could he submit an application?

The Beautiful Game

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death.  I am very disappointed with that attitude.  I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”  

                                                                                                            -Bill Shankly

On Wednesday night Burkina Faso faced Egypt in the semifinals of the African Cup of Nations.  The winner of this tournament is crowned champion of all the national soccer teams on the continent, and since Africa usually makes the news for coups and humanitarian crises, this is a rare bright moment for international acclaim.  I had watched the Burkina Faso Stallions play live during the qualifying rounds for this tournament—I was present in the national stadium when we spanked the Comoros Islands 2-0—and I turned up a solid 15 minutes early to watch the game at the bar outside the camp gates.

By that time there were already dozens of motorcycles strewed around haphazardly.  This was the only place within 15 miles showing the game live, and 150 people were clustered around a TV the size of an iPad.  I looked around the crowd and noticed that there weren’t more than ten women present, and maybe half of those worked for the bar.  I also saw that not more than a quarter of those assembled were drinking beers or sodas that they had ordered there.  At a dollar a bottle a beer represents several hours working wage, and is an extravagance for all those who don’t work in the mining camp, as illegal gold diggers or as merchants in the town.  Nevertheless, no bartender could be heartless enough to chase away his fellow citizens when the national team are playing.

The game kicked off and it was clear throughout the first half that Burkina had the advantage.  Their passing was far sharper and more incisive than that of the Egyptians, and the stalwart defense soaked up pressure and then launched cunning breakaway attacks.  At halftime the mood was optimistic, but early in the second half the Egyptians nicked a cheeky breakaway goal.  There were no groans or complaints of foul or offside—just silence in the bar as people craned their necks to see what had happened.  Within ten minutes the Stallions surged forward and equalized.  I’ve never heard such deafening silence as when Egypt scored the opening goal, but when Burkina equalized the place erupted.  Beer bottles smashed to the ground, and as Aristide Bancé controlled a pass with his chest and smacked it into the net the crowd went wild.  People honked motorcycle horns and flashed their headlights, five different people shook my hand, and the bartender poured shots of rum for everyone, including some kids who didn’t look more than 14 years old.

I felt a sense of pure joy in the bar that night, but more than that, a sense of true connection.  Our link to the game was distant…the village where I work is 10 miles from the Côte d’Ivoire border and 15 miles from Mali, so we are about as far out in the country as you get while remaining on Burkinabé soil.  The TV we were watching was powered by a series of car batteries linked with twisted wires and charged during the day by a solar panel; the color commentary of the match came from a studio somewhere in France.  The action on screen lagged several minutes behind real life-whenever a team scored my phone vibrated 2 minutes before the play occurred on screen.  Nevertheless the fans around me were glued to every single pass, substitution, and throw-in of the match.  They cheered the loudest for players who had come from the Western region of Burkina Faso.  Everyone watching, young and old, screamed advice in Dioula and Senoufo at players who were playing a game two minutes in the future.

I first became hooked on watching soccer in Hoima, Uganda.  I was living in an outbuilding made of cinderblocks with no running water just outside of the office where I worked, and soccer matches provided me with a sense of community and international connection.  I would visit the Hoima Resort Hotel to watch Manchester United and Chelsea and Arsenal clash with each other in the Premier League, and I’d wonder if Wayne Rooney ever knew that kids in rural Ugandan villages saved their shillings to buy his jerseys, and screamed his name whenever he scored the winning goal.  I wondered if Arsene Wenger knew that old men in Hoima scoffed at his tactical setup, mocking him for relying on delicate attacking midfielders when his team was clearly lacking some backbone in defense.  I wondered if Luis Suarez knew that when Crystal Palace came back to draw 3-3 with Liverpool in 2014, grown men cried along with him.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that they didn’t know this.  Premier League teams are so globalized that the players and managers can’t imagine every village in every country on every continent in the world watching them.

That’s the joy of watching the Burkina Faso national team.  All of those players are boys who grew up in the villages, and played on stony soccer pitches like the one where I play after work.  When they score a goal they can see the people leaping for joy next to the straw-thatched huts in the village bars, and they can hear the whine of motorcycle horns in the starry night.  They really do play for the people, and the people can see that.

Burkina Faso lost to Egypt on penalties, 4-3.  After the match the bar cleared out instantly.  They played well, their resolve was strong, and they lost due to bad luck.  There’s always the World Cup in two years, and the African Championship two years after that, and then…

Jobs I Have Done

I looked over my resume and saw that, although all the information there is accurate, it does not adequately present the full scope of my employment history.  I am now a quarter-century old, and I realize that work has been the driver for many of my experiences and adventures over the last few years.  In the interest of context, here is a list of Jobs I Have Done that don’t necessarily appear on my resume.

2011-2012: Hustler.  My mate JW came back to college from Christmas break with a great idea: he, myself, and PM would start a franchise of a textbook buyback company to compete with the bookstore.  Textbooks are heinously expensive, and basically useless after the course is complete, so there’s a significant market to buy popular textbooks in good condition and resell them at a markdown as used books the next year.  We signed ourselves up to be buyers for the Haverford branch of BT Books, and a week before finals started Sal showed up on campus to train us on the business.  If you imagine a guy named Sal who runs a textbook purchasing business covering Eastern Pennsylvania out of the trunk of a beater Toyota Camry, you can visualize him pretty well.  He showed up on campus, gave us bar code scanners, canvas bags, and a wad of $5000 in small bills, and told us to get to work and hit our quotas.  Throughout finals week we were constantly on call: people would take their finals and then call us to come, scan their books to figure out the price, and then pay cash on the spot.  Cheerfulness and flexibility were the hallmarks of this company, and at one point I was called to hike off-campus to buy a stack of economics textbooks from a lacrosse player so that he could duck into a liquor store and convert Principles of Free Markets into Beer.

The job was exhausting but we got paid a lump sum.  We signed up again to do it, and the next year Sal was driving a white Cadillac Escalade with big rims.  Halfway through finals week the Haverford bookstore, which ran its own buyback program, got wind of the fact that we were competing with them for sales.  We were summoned to meet with the director of the bookstore, who was polite yet furious; a terrifying combination.  We called up BT Books to explain the situation, and the first thing they told us was that we should keep buying—if the school tried to intervene again, they would sue.  “Look, guys, you don’t understand,” we said, “this is a small school.  We have to live here.   I gotta buy my ramen noodles and pencils at this bookstore.”   We quit after that.  I calculated afterwards that I made roughly $3.50/hour doing this job.

2011: Medical Lab Technician.  After my sophomore year of college I received a grant to go to Uganda and do good works there.  I got an internship working for a non-profit that did HIV/AIDS testing, counseling, and medical treatment.  On my first day there I was told that I would be most useful working in the medical lab: performing AIDS tests, drawing blood samples from HIV-positive patients, and making microscope slides to scan patients for malaria and tuberculosis.  I pointed out that I was 19 years old and had no medical training at all, but I was assured this wasn’t a problem.  The head doctor rolled up his sleeve, I drew a vacuum flask of blood from the crook of his arm, and I was pronounced proficient.  Clinic days were on Mondays and Wednesdays, and I estimate that I drew blood from over 700 people that summer.  On Thursdays we packed into the back of a Land Rover to do clinical outreach, and I bounced along laterite roads deep into villages to do the same work on tables wobbling on the gnarly roots of the mango trees we sheltered under.  “Hey,” I thought to myself, “How cool is this?  This might be the life for me.”

2012: Microfinance Operations Manager.  In 2012 I applied for another grant, and was sent to Senegal to work for a microfinance operation that was establishing itself in Dakar.  My only coworker was a bodybuilder from North Carolina who lectured me on the importance of maintaining proper amino acid ratios during the dry season, but didn’t give me a whole lot of insight into evaluating, monitoring, and collecting loans.  Every morning I woke, ate a greasy fried egg with bitter coffee, and hailed a beater taxi to meet with the aspiring entrepreneurs of Pikine, Parcelles Assainies, Mermoz, Yoff and Grand Dakar.  During this job I was blessed by a witch doctor, mugged on the edge of a cliff at machete point, doubled the number of borrowers subscribed to the NGO, and learned how to take care of myself.

2014-2016:  Goatherd.  In 2014 I worked on a goat farm in France on the German border, and loved the experience so much that I returned there in 2016 with my friend PM.  The two of us were backpacking through Europe, and had recently been robbed by a Hungarian taxi driver, stayed in a hostel called the Jetpak Alternativ in Berlin, attended a party of 5000 people with inflatables and strobe lights in a natural hot spring, grown appropriately scruffy beards, and climbed across an avalanche zone to a chalet perched in a col of the Swiss Alps.  The goat farm seemed like a change of pace, and we told my friend the owner, GS, that we were willing to do whatever work needed doing.  We rose at 6h30 every morning and after feeding the goats, shoving them into the milking stocks, and changing their straw we did a different assignment every day.  We drove a Bobcat to shift 500 pound haybales, used sledgehammers to sink splintery fenceposts into the mountainsides, squeezed chunks of whey into molds to make cheese, and built a trapdoor in an attic.

One day GS told us that the electric fence had shorted somewhere in the lower meadow, and we were to herd the flock of 100 goats down there, stuff them in the pen, and then fix the fence.  It took us an hour to flog the uncooperative goats down the hill and shove them into the pasture.   Neither of us had ever worked with electric fences before, and a single trailing wire touching the ground or a wet branch could damage the system.  It began to rain sideways as we checked the fence perimeter for the problem, and each of us was convulsively shocked several times.  The goats figured out that the current was flickering and began to slither under the wires, stampeding up to the barn.  PM and I were flipping out: soaked, electrocuted, and trying to control a flock of rowdy goats.   Before my eyes I saw a bleating goat fall into the root cellar of a long-abandoned over grown cottage: it was like the apocalypse, panicked livestock being pulled to the center of the earth.  I had driven a utility truck down the meadow with our fencing equipment, and the wheels spun in the mud for ten minutes before I finally got the tires to catch and the truck to churn up the hill.  We wrangled the goats back up to the barn and told GS that we’d look at the fence the next day.  His house smelled of cookies; his wife had been baking.  “Come on guys,” he chided us, “Is it really so difficult?”  For this job I was paid in pork chops and sausage, and I enjoyed myself enormously.

2015-2016: Cross-Country Ski Instructor.  I’ve always loved cross-country skiing, and I took a winter job teaching skiing at a groomed course 15 miles outside of Boston.  During the days I waxed and repaired skis, boots and poles, and when called upon I went out to teach lessons.  My students varied enormously from day-to-day, from hour-to-hour even.   I taught a pair of 5 year old Swiss twins who only spoke French.  I taught rangy young racers honing their technique to qualify for the state team and beat our perpetual foes, Vermont.  I taught tourists from India who came in groups of twelve or more and wore jeans, two parkas at a time, and no gloves.   I taught a family from New York who skied down a shallow slope, took their skis off at the bottom, and then hiked up to repeat the cycle again, leaving deep dents in the carefully groomed parallel trails.  I taught a 60 year old woman who took three breaks for hot chocolate in a one hour lesson.  I taught a weekly series with a group of kids from the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester who had grown up in Boston but never done a winter sport before.   I loved it.

I’ve learned the most from jobs where I’ve earned very little money and worked long hours.  A lot of these positions don’t appear on my resume.  I’ve been told to present a coherent career arc that demonstrates my aptitude for my desired post; a string of continuous achievement that leads directly to the exact job I seek today.  The experiences above were all vivid and meaningful to me, and instilled me with a sense of adaptability, curiosity, and hard work.  I’ll have more jobs in the future, but I’ll always carry these jobs with me.

A Line in the Sand

A team of auditors came out to the project site to visit some of our community investments in the field. We had installed shipping containers in project-impacted communities that they could use as social and educational spaces, then came with soda and paints and paintbrushes for community members to paint the containers and make them their own. I was asked to take the auditors on a tour of the containers, so we packed into the truck and were on our way.

There are no paved roads within 20 miles of the site, and what remains are only roads in the sense that people don’t actually plant crops on them very often. Sometimes the road takes odd doglegs if someone has decided to build a house on this flat, pre-hardened stretch of land, and several times I’ve seen pits sunk a meter deep into the path because someone’s metal detector beeped as he crossed the road. At different times of the year the same stretch of track can be a pit of gluey mud, a tunnel between walls of eerily whispering grass, or a sandbox that boils into dust at the slightest disturbance. When I left the site six weeks ago the terrain was lush and people were harvesting their crops, but now the land is prickly, dusty and dry. I knew where all the sites I wanted to visit were except for one, and I asked my colleague to refresh me on the directions. “Just drive past the mango grove on your right and turn left after the village counselor’s compound.” he said. “You can’t miss it.”

Well he was wrong, because I could miss it. We drove past farms that looked like all of the others in the area; scattered karité and cashew trees standing alone in fields coated with delicate black ash from where farmers had burned off groundcover. I suddenly had the feeling that I didn’t recognize these trees and we were in the wrong place. I checked my satellite GPS and sure enough our little blue arrow had nudged over the border of Côte d’Ivoire. We had overshot the village by a kilometer and ended up in a foreign country. We did a quick K-turn and returned to Burkina Faso, and the rest of the trip passed without incident.

Even though none of the airlines will ever allow me into their executive lounges, the fact is that I fly a lot. Crossing the border in an airport or an international ground checkpoint is a big deal, and the situation is handled with appropriate gravitas. You fill out a waxy ink-resistant form with your place of birth and occupation, the border control agent frowns at you through the glass and checks your passport, yellow fever vaccination and visa, and finally with a satisfying CHUNK she stamps your documents and sends you on your way. Often there’s a line painted on the ground, and as you cross it you feel the air become thicker or thinner or lighter or warmer or heavier, somehow DIFFERENT, from the air of the country that you have just technically left.

This time I felt none of that. One moment I was traveling through the sooty cotton fields of one nation, and the next moment I was in another sovereign state. As we visited the sites on the checklist I reflected on the fact that the border I had just crossed had been drawn by some unknown Frenchman in the 1800s—both Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso are former French colonies, so the line between them is recent and arbitrary. If his hand had quivered as he laid the ruler on the page to draw a line I may never have entered Côte d’Ivoire at all, or perhaps I would have driven 2 kilometers into foreign territory before realizing my mistake. The people native to this region hardly make a distinction between the two nations: they cross the border at will to attend markets or visit family on the other side. Six months ago I spent an 14 hour stretch in the Abidjan airport sleeping on a bench under fluorescent lights because I had an unexpected layover and no visa in my passport to pass through the sliding doors where good food and hotels awaited me. Same country, different border crossings, different result.

The solution is simple. Burkina Faso must build a beautiful, tremendous wall on its southern border. This will be unprecedented for Burkinabé engineering, because it will come in ahead of schedule and under budget. Send the bill to Mexico.

 

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This is how the container looked when I found it…

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…and this is what I found inside.

The View from Ground Level

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Selfie with my wheels

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Concert in Ouaga

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Burning brush on the road to the village

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Standing room only to watch Cameroon vs. Burkina Faso in the African Cup of Nations

Snapshots

The drive from the mining camp to Ouagadougou takes eight hours. There are frequent police checkpoints along the road, and the closer you get to the capital the checkpoints become more professional and organized. Whenever you travel by road on official business in Burkina Faso, you need to have a document called l’Ordre de Mission. It’s a holdover from the French colonial era that somehow exists to this day: a clean sheet of paper marked with the dates of the trip, the names and occupations of the passengers in the vehicle, the purpose of the trip, and then a lot of signatures and stamps.

At the first checkpoint we reached after leaving camp, an officer got up from his lawnchair and demanded the Ordre de Mission and identification for everyone in the vehicle. He glared at mine suspiciously and then said that we could not continue. The problem was that the Ordre de Mission listed Sam Gant as a passenger, and my drivers’ license identifies Gant, Samuel. “These are not the same person!” he cried, “What is written on the page must be the same as what is written on the identification. These are different people. Where is Sam Gant? You have no proof that he is in this car.” We sat there for 20 minutes before he relented and waved us on. At the next checkpoint we were stopped by another soldier. He also scrutinized the Ordre de Mission and declared it unacceptable. “This is dated for November 30th. Today is the 29th. You can continue tomorrow,” he said. “Excuse me sir,” the driver said, “but today is the 30th.” The officer checked the calendar on his cellphone, shrugged, and waved us through.

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I took my motorcycle to the mechanic to have my oil changed, and he pointed out that there was a small crack on the exterior of my gas tank that should be welded. He said he could do it right away and I sat down in the shade to wait. To my shock he fired up an acetylene torch right there and began to approach the bike. “Whoa!” I shouted, “What are you doing? Take the tank off the bike before welding it. Are you seriously planning to do welding on a tank that’s filled with fuel? Drain it dry, weld it, and then put the fuel back in.” He and his apprentice giggled as if I had told them to wear a helmet while inflating tires with air. “It’s just a tiny crack,” they said, but I held firm. They drained, detached, welded, reattached and refueled. The whole process took about 45 minutes. When they had replaced my fuel I checked the tank and saw that it had gone from nearly full to a quarter full. I pointed this out and asked where the rest of my fuel went. “It evaporated,” they said.

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My friend Momo and I went out to a local bar one night. They have an old TV there that shows films on the Burkina national broadcasting channel, and as we walked in Momo said “oh, I’m in this movie.” I looked. He was right. There on the screen he was dressed as a security guard, chasing some miscreant through a vacant lot. I told him I thought it was pretty cool to go out to your local bar and see yourself onscreen on TV. He said he had been in four movies total, all local productions made by directors he was friends with. For the most part the pay was low, but he got paid 700 dollars for one movie where he was only onscreen for five minutes. This sounded like a good pay day, but he explained that in that movie he was playing a cheeky suitor who got slapped by the object of his affection. “We don’t have any special effects here,” he pointed out, “so I just had to get slapped a lot. I insisted on bonus pay. The movie wasn’t even that good in the end.”

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I went to an artisanal crafts market to buy Christmas presents before flying home. I found a guy selling batik prints on local cotton and hand-forged bronze figures. His wares were spread out on a rickety table made of unsanded planks. I asked if he had made the prints himself and he said he had, showing me the pencils and wax blocks he used to sketch out his designs. “Wow,” I said, and put a few prints aside to buy. I asked him if he made the bronze statues as well and he said he made those too, showing me a small forge and clay molds behind his table. “Cool,” I said, and put some bronze figures aside as well. I got out my wallet to pay and he leaned towards me carefully. “I made the table myself, too.” he said, hopefully.

Dancing

On Saturday nights they play live music at the bar outside the mining camp.  A bar in Burkina Faso is a very simple affair: all you need is a big refrigerator, a lot of chairs and tables, and a field to put them in.  The bar is open every day of the week from morning until the dead of night, and people arrange their tables in the shade of trees or underneath the stars and pull up on their motorcycles at all hours to drink a beer.  When you want another one you whistle at a low pitch and the barman will unfold himself from the shadows beside the refrigerator and shuffle out to your table to take your order.

On Saturday nights a band assembles with their instruments.  The balafon in an instrument that looks a bit like a xylophone—it’s composed of a row of planks of various sizes over hollow gourds that resonate the sound—and it’s roughly the size of a pool table.  It’s played by a guy who whales on it with a pair of sticks stripped of bark, and he’s backed up by three drummers, one kid who rings bells when the mood strikes him, and a man who plays a harp-like instrument called a kora.  This orchestra is amplified by a pair of six-foot-tall black speakers.  There is no electricity in the village, so the speakers are connected by cables cannibalized from other equipment to a set of 6 car batteries knit together Frankenstein-style by irregular lengths of frayed wire.  The refrigerator at the bar is also hooked up to a car battery, and the barman plugs it in from time-to-time to keep the beer a few degrees below the ambient temperature.  Instead of paying up front for every beer I settle up at the end of the night, because, as the barman puts it, I’m easy to recognize.

On Saturday nights they plug in the speakers to play dancehall music and Malian love songs long before the band comes on.  The jerry-rigged assembly of cables and batteries sends screeching feedback whistling through the amps, and people begin to assemble when they hear the electronic moans of the system echoing through the village.  The bar has two lightbulbs which are plugged in only on Saturdays, and as night falls people assemble their tables in a loose circle just outside the perimeter of where the light falls.  People sip their tepid beers in the shadows around an open oval of space roughly 25 by 10 yards, and as people assemble the contours of the dancefloor become more defined.  The band begins tuning their instruments, which is not a complicated exercise if you play a pair of chunky iron bells.

On Saturday nights the youngest kids begin to dance first.  Knots of children between the ages of four and fourteen, boys and girls indistinguishable with their shaven heads and handoff clothes, start stomping and swaying in the dusky circle as the drummers and balafon player begin testing out different rhythms.  Even at such a young age they mimic the motions of the older dancers in an uncanny way; the boys all move with quick feet and languorous torsos in perfect rhythm to the unpredictable music, and the girls have the same confident shyness that their older sisters display on the dancefloor.  At a certain point the bandmembers flick away their cigarettes and begin playing their instruments with both hands, and the children are shunted off the dancefloor to make room for the adolescents and the youth.

On Saturday nights every dancer creates fluid adaptations of a rigid central style of dancing.  First we see the traditional dance of the Senoufo people.  Both men and women slice on to the dancefloor in quickstep, fastfastfast, typically advancing from the dark end of the oval and moving across the open space towards the band in a line.  Everyone holds their back straight, their head upright and straightforward, elbows bent, but their legs move in a mad jig.  The feet patter across the ground many times per second, and the dancer creates variations on this style by shifting forwards or sideways and occasionally splitting their legs wide or tightening their gait even further.   Ranks of boys and girls slip across the open field towards the band and then, feet away from the throbbing speakers, peel off to the sides to make room for the line advancing behind them.

On Saturday nights boys from the village do the traditional hunting dance, where the hunter crouches low and shuffles forward with swaying shoulders, pops up occasionally to scan the horizon, and then recreates the thrill of the kill by suddenly leaping into a series of whirls and whoops with the arms flung out like a dervish.  People applaud the dancers who fall after a minute of reckless spinning, overcome by a combination of centrifugal force, tradition and palm wine.  The women dance in concert swaying their hips in unison, and the boys clear the dancefloor respectfully.  The band does not play a setlist of songs, but rather shifts from one rhythm to another without pause.

On Saturday nights some drummers began to drop off from exhaustion and are replaced by those who do not yet have swollen hands and bloody nails from slamming the goatskins for two hours.  One dancer was an old man who took a long time to rise from his seat and stride slowly to the center of the circle.  Nobody else set foot on the dancefloor as he rose; he was the only person to dance alone.  The band began to play a sharp and rhythmic beat.  The harp player had abandoned his post and all that was left was percussion and the occasional pealing bell.  The old man slipped off his shoes and began to move.  He was thin and small and couldn’t have weighed more than 120 pounds.  The lights refracted off of shafts of smoke from all of the people smoking cigarettes and the charcoal of a grill where a few women braised chickens.

As the band layered complexity onto their rhythm the old man danced in the powdery dust of the arena.  He danced with the plumes of dust as if the disturbed earth was his partner.  He would stamp his foot and step forward thrice in quickstep, leaving three clouds of dust floating and dispersing behind him to show where he had been.  As the tempo quickened he would sweep a foot in a broad arc beside him and then leap through the wall of dust he had created, or patter his bare feet like pistons before gliding backwards through the cloud he had created like a squid through its own ink.  The dancefloor was dry and loose and he was alone out there, crouching and leaping and scraping.  I didn’t know whether to watch him or the dust.  He would kick at the ground twice and as I watched an X or a perfect circle bloom from the ground he would already be in a different part of the oval hatching new clouds.

On Saturday nights the concert ends when the car batteries run out of juice.  Eventually the speakers groaned and the lights flickered and died and we were left under the bright light of the waxing moon.  As I walked back to camp I left a trail of dust that drifted to leeward and settled behind the tread of my heavy boots.

Up up and away

I recently had to take a flight that left from Ouagadougou International Airport. It’s a strange place. When it was originally built in the 60s it stood just to the south of the city, but because Ouaga sprawls outward rather than growing upward the airport is now smack in the center of the capital. Whether you travel from north-to-south or east-to-west you have to skirt this massive flatland area to get to any of the busy neighborhoods around it. A staple of conversations in bars around the city is the “Ouaga Pause,” where people stop mid-sentence as a plane roars deafeningly overhead, and then resume exactly where they left off 20 seconds later when the noise has passed. Having an airport right in the middle of everything is wicked convenient for travelers but bad for everyone else, especially when you think about the fact that the majority of Ouaga citizens are not frequent flyers. There are vague pans to build another airport 35 kilometers out of the city, but they’re on hold at least in part because Muhammar Qaddafi, the Patron Saint of Ouagadougou Infrastructure Development, is not sending checks anymore.

My friend G gave me a ride to the airport to catch my most recent flight. Gate security was tight due to a recently foiled coup attempt in the capital, and grim soldiers manned machine gun placements at the door and beckoned cars one by one through a serpentine of concrete barriers. They checked ID of everyone in the car before we were allowed to drive to the passenger drop off point.

I took my bags over to the first checkpoint, just inside of the terminal. Here I had to present my passport, empty my pockets, pass through a metal detector, and then I was frisked by hand, although oddly no one looked inside my bag. I walked 15 yards to the second checkpoint, where armored soldiers checked my passport and visa before waving me through. I walked up to the gate agent to get my boarding pass, and handed over my passport for a fourth time. She printed my ticket, handed it to me, and then asked me for my ticket so she could register my cabin baggage. I handed over the document, still hot from the printer, and she ran it under a special scanner to ensure that the paper she had just printed for me was not counterfeit. I did not say anything about this, because I know better. My documents were found to be in order, and I was allowed through.

I filled out a departure card and passed through immigration, where the officer inspected my visa, scanned my fingerprints and photographed me. He asked me to note the address of my headquarters office, because I had simply noted the location of our mining camp on the card and it doesn’t have an address. He stamped my passport, an agent checked my boarding pass, and then ushered me into the line for security.

After a long wait I arrived at the scanning belt, where a security agent checked my passport, exit stamp and boarding pass. Signs in block letters instructed passengers to remove your jackets, empty your pockets, take out laptops and liquids, but DO NOT remove your shoes before passing through the metal detector. I removed mine anyways and the guy scanning bags told me to put them back on. “These are steel-toed boots,” I explained, “they’ll definitely set off the machine.” He looked at me with the expression that I use when explaining to someone that it’s impossible to get stuck if your truck has four-wheel-drive, and said “this is a special machine. It does not require you to remove your shoes.” I shrugged, walked through, triggered alarms, and was sent back. The agent on the other side of the gate demanded that I remove my glasses and walk through again. More alarms. “Have you had any knee replacements or prosthetic limbs?” he asked. The line was backing up behind me. He crossed his arms and glared at me. “Your problem is that you are wearing your boots!” he announced. I put them on the scanning belt under the baleful gaze of the agent on the other side of the gate, passed through the detector, and was through.

After passing through the metal detector everyone’s bags were searched by hand on the other side. The agent searching bags demanded to see my passport, and I pointed out that to get to this point my passport had been checked 6 times already. He shrugged and said “Maybe they missed something.” He began unpacking my bag asking me if I was carrying any Sumsung Sivins. I couldn’t figure out what this was–a drug, a weapon, an endangered species?–until I realized he was asking about those Samsung phones that occasionally spontaneously caught fire. I promised that I wasn’t.

My boarding pass was checked again before I was allowed into a shuttle bus, and after a 30 yard journey to the aircraft it was checked again at the base of the stairs to the plane. The stewardess checked my ticket for the final time before pointing me towards my place, and I sank down into my seat. The engines hummed and then roared, the plane gathered its forces before rocketing along the smoothest section of pavement in Burkina Faso and sliding into the night sky. Ouaga twinkled below me like a golden doughnut, the scintillating lights of the city interrupted only by the black hole of the airfield in the center.

Mud Season

I grew up accustomed to a certain cycle of seasons: winter is followed by spring which is followed by summer which is followed by fall which is followed by winter etc.  Then I went to Africa and everything changed.  Here in Burkina Faso there are only three seasons: hot and dry season, very very hot and dry season, and rainy season.   Right now we’re on the cusp of the hot and dry season.  It only rains once a week as opposed to daily, the wind picks up, and the sun beams out of a cloudless sky every day.

Two weeks ago I was out at the mining camp, and I decided to take advantage of my half-day off to drive to the nearest town to have a look around.  There is a long spine of bizarre rock formations there that look like they were poured onto the earth from great height.   Big boulders are perched on narrow towers of sandstone and the wind whistles as it rips through the narrow canyons.  If you climb up into the cliffs you can find shards of pottery from civilizations that took refuge in this natural fortress hundreds of years ago.  The sedimentary rocks are a reminder of a time when Burkina Faso was beachfront property, and it’s a strange and interesting day trip.

The town is about 15 miles from the camp, which means it’s an hour away if all goes well.  The Burkina countryside resists road construction the way a wild horse resists being saddled for the first time.  The place is geographically challenging.  Surveyors come out to from the capital to try and plan roads along a route that may have knotty granite outcroppings at one point and then marshy rice fields a few miles later.  In Western Burkina Faso there are riverbeds everywhere which swell and recede depending on the season and even the time of day, so a stream that washes away a car in the morning may find women washing laundry in that same spot in the afternoon.  Roads are built to connect towns, obviously, and a lot of these communities were established back when footpaths and donkey bridges were the only transportation network out there.  Typically the government will build roads that run right through streams and rivers.  They pour a concrete base in the riiverbed, and then you just shift to four-wheel-drive and hope that your truck lumbers out on the other side.  I’ve been driving out there and traversed streams that flow across the road from left to right, and then in a few miles you’ll pass a stream that flows right to left.  It’s tricky countryside.

I set out to look at the rocks with a colleague from the camp.  It had rained the night before and the road was a bit sporty, but I was driving a 4X4 pickup and I thought we could make it.  The first miles were slow.  The ground was saturated and the dirt roads were slick, and in some areas water had just flowed along the hard-packed laterite.  The shocks thumped over riffles where the water had run and the truck lurched over gouges in the road where the boreen had washed away.  After 45 minutes of careful progress we were within a few miles of the town when we hit the mudfields.

The road ran between rice fields on either side, which made the ground marshy.  This was a low area with no drainage, so even when the rest of the countryside dried between storms this area was still soaked.  Massive trucks had churned through the mud leaving furrows, and as I sat in the truck thinking about crossing a motorcycle arrived at the other side and decided to try his luck.  The engine whined as his rear wheel fishtailed under him, and the tire spun up a roostertail of black clods.  He managed to battle the machine across.  I decided to try as well.

I shifted into low four-wheel drive and began to steam across the mud patch.  The truck swayed a bit from side to side but was firmly aligned in the ruts of the trucks that had gone before.  I glanced in the rearview mirror and the pickup was actually leaving a wake behind it; the mud rippled and flowed to fill the tracks of our passage.  Two-thirds of the way through the mud patch I felt the wheels lose traction, and our mission ended, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

I got out and sank up to my shins.  We hadn’t bottomed out, we hadn’t snagged anything, we were just stuck.  I tried everything.   Put the floor mats under the tires and then tried logs when that didn’t work, lowered the air pressure in the tires, rocked the truck back and forth, nothing.  There was no winch.  Like many outdoor enthusiasts have before me, I reflected on the fact that four-wheel drive doesn’t prevent you from getting stuck, it just allows you to get stuck deeper in more remote places.   I got back in the cab to see if time had solidified the muck or perhaps a friendly sorcerer had taken an interest in my predicament, but the vehicle was becalmed on a sea of black mud.  It was like trying to ice skate across a swimming pool filled with marshmallows.

Then Salvation chundered over the horizon.  A little Nissan minibus spluttered down the hill, daring to take on a mud patch that had snared a 4X4.  The driver stopped at the edge of the patch and gazed at it as if wondering what fresh hell this could be.  Then he clapped his hands three times and ordered everyone out of the bus.  It was a fourteen seater machine that had been retired from Europe or Asia when it began to fail emissions tests or be deemed a safety hazard, and now at least 30 people unfolded themselves from the inside of the bus.  The men stretched, lit cigarettes, looked at us with no particular surprise, and began rolling up their pant legs.  It was a practiced gesture.  20 men waded into the mud, lifted the pickup from the ground, and shifted it to a solid position I could drive it from.  I had had enough shenanigans, and I reversed until I was on the side of the mud patch that led to the camp.   Then the driver got back in his bus and arranged the cohort of men around him.  He popped it into first gear and then charged into the muck.  The bus tires were totally bald and the clearance was half as high as the pickup truck, and because it was high and motos and baggage were strapped to the roof, it swayed alarmingly.  The engine groaned and spewed black smoke and all of the men pulled and pushed, at times digging under the sides to lift the bus bodily and lighten the load a bit.  It cleft the mud like a boat, and the mud oozed easily over the tracks it left behind.

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On the other side the pushers suddenly relaxed and broke into grins and laughter.  People lit their other cigarette, washed their legs, and rolled their pants down.  One man had lost a shoe in the mud, never to be seen again.  A woman took advantage to sell him a pair of flip flops from a bag she carried on her head.  People compressed themselves into the bus again and it roared on to the next mud patch.   The truck was fine, and I got back to camp with no problems.

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How Mining Works, Volume II

We last left the Reverse Circulation drill out in a waterlogged field in Burkina Faso.  It’s 3 AM.  Night and day the drill chews through the soil and rock, manned by a crew of six drillers who station the rig at pre-identified GPS coordinates, drill to the depths and angles desired by project geologists, and then retract the drill rods to move on to the next hole.   At each borehole they leave behind orderly rows of sample bags containing samples from 30, 60, 120 meters deep.  The crew wears earplugs to protect themselves against the relentless hammering of the air compressor, and they work under the blazing beam of projection lights whose halogen beams banish shadows from the work zone.  These are probably the brightest lights in a 100-kilometer radius.  You cannot see or hear anything that is not within a 50-meter radius when you are next to a drill rig at night.  The crew moves across the dark fields leaving behind narrow boreholes, tracks from the massive tires of the drill rig, and orderly rows of sample bags that will be sorted by field crews in the morning and then transported back to the mining camp.

And then suddenly another light comes to life in the fields.  A motorcycle cruises along the laterite road, lights low, orienting itself towards the distant glow of the halogen lights, and pulls over into a field of knee-high sesame plants bending to earth under the dew.  Two men get off and one of them strides over to the neatly arrayed sample bags of a fresh borehole, pulls a pair of bulky Starsky and Hutch era headphones over his ears, and flicks a switch that brings the metal detector to life.  The red light blinks.  He runs the pad of the machine over the sample bags until it starts to whine in his ears, and the two men pull out the sacks of samples from meters 28-31 and wrestle them on to the back of the bike.   They spin around, carry the bags back to their camp, and then head out to chase the drilling crews again.  At dawn they’ll sleep, then later sift the stolen samples to see if the geologists were correct in identifying something interesting.  If their night goes well they can get a few grams of gold.

These men are orpailleurs.  It’s a French word that’s tricky to define, but it means prospectors, sample thieves, hopeful opportunists, career gold diggers, journeymen, and former cotton farmers.  They are men and women and children that look for gold flakes wherever they can be found.  They sieve for gold in riverbeds, dig narrow shafts by pick and shovel 15 meters into the ground, use metal detectors to search for surface gold and lift sample bags by dead of night.  Wherever the mine is, the orpailleurs can be found.  I see them on every trip that I take out to the field, typically riding in a peloton of three or four motorcycles with two men on each, one guy steering and the other guy holding the metal detector and shovel and picks.  Some of them search hopefully in low areas or exposed fields looking for a lucky find, and others are clustered in camps that have found a deposit and work tirelessly to pull it from the ground.  Conservative estimates suggest that there are hundreds of them on the concession, which is not atypical.  Similar to people brown-bagging liquor on a hot day, out of courtesy they wrap their picks and detectors in sacks as we drive by in our Land Cruisers, but they know who we are and we know who they are.  You can’t hide a 15-meter mine shaft.  They wave to us.

Even 800 years ago spotty plague victims in Europe might have heard about the riches of Timbuktu, where women’s ears drooped under the weight of massive gold earrings.  Salt and gold used to be key West African exports, although the salt market ain’t what it used to be.  Gold, meanwhile, has kept climbing steadily, and modern estimates suggest that 12% of the new gold brought to market annually has been produced by informal miners.  Most of the orpailleurs are people who don’t have a lot of alternatives to gold hunting.  Many of them are from the Mossi ethnicity of central Burkina Faso, which is the majority group but suffers from living on extremely flat and arid land.  Some of the orpailleurs are local people who were forced to find new revenue when the bottom dropped out of the lucrative export market for cotton a few years ago.  Others are Malians or Ivoirians who come to Burkina to seek treasure while escaping political unrest in their own countries.  A lot of factors influence whether people become orpailleurs: rainfall in central Burkina, the market price of cotton, the results of the presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire.  Interestingly, the number of orpailleurs doesn’t seem to fluctuate much according to the global price per ounce of gold itself.  All other commodities rise and fall, but gold is always worth its weight in gold.

Objectively, it’s not an attractive line of work.  Orpailleurs either strike rich or go destitute, and there is no in-between.  It’s an absurdly dangerous occupation.  They dig unreinforced shafts into the mud, which can flood or collapse instantly.  The ore that they extract may contain gold flakes amidst the dirt and rock, but to separate and refine it they run the ore through a bath of mercury or cyanide to separate out the heavy metals.  Their picks and metal detectors are fronted by suppliers who demand a heavy percentage of the orpailleurs take, so steel shovels are repaid in gold.  Those who don’t repay or hide discoveries are killed sometimes, and there’s no lack of pits for the bodies to disappear in.  A walk through an orpailleur camp is a study in hazards.  Children under ten smash rocks with sledgehammers, women sieve muddy rivers with the same bowls they’ll use to make dinner, men descend crooked shafts into the muck, and blue tarps line depressions in the ground where ore dissolves in brilliant blue pools of cyanide to be raked through later.

Like any good story, there’s a plot twist.  Although neither side likes to talk about it, there is a peculiar symbiosis between the formal mines, like where I work, and the orpailleurs.  People have been hunting for gold around here for centuries, but modern orpailleurs watch exploration crews closely and learn from them.  They observe what areas of the terrain are the most promising to scan with their metal detectors, and it didn’t take them long to learn how to snag sample bags and get access to deposits that may be 100 meters beneath their feet.  The other night I had a beer with a geologist and I asked questions about the timeline for how a gold exploration project develops.  Advanced exploration stages make sense to me: when you’ve identified the zones where gold is present, you must drill a lot of samples to determine where those deposits are concentrated and what are the most viable methods of extracting them.  But how do you know where to start exploring in the first place, in a region that has never been commercially mined before?  He explained to me about the belts of subterranean rock that have characteristics suggestive of gold deposits; but these belts are massive and can run from northern Mali down to the Atlantic coast.  How do you know where exactly to start drilling to explore in earnest?  Basically, he told me, they look to the orpailleurs.  Areas that have a high concentration of informal miners are likely to have promising deposits that can be mined at a large scale.  For all of the geological studies and diamond core drills and ground penetrating radar at our disposal, the initial decision to buy a concession and launch an exploration project depends in part on the guys riding through the sesame fields with metal detectors.

 

 

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Burkina Faso 2009

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(I got these photos from here and here and here.  All are public domain pictures of orpaillage sites in BF.  For various reasons I won’t upload pictures from my work site.)