The View from Ground Level


Selfie with my wheels


Concert in Ouaga


Burning brush on the road to the village


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



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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.




Burkina Faso 2009


(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.)

Fever Dreams

I wouldn’t describe myself as a risk-averse person, but I am terrified of getting malaria.   I hate spending time in hospitals and even the thought of intravenous treatment makes me uneasy, so I take many precautions to avoid the possibility of getting infected.   I have a lot of friends who have gotten an inopportune mosquito bite, and they tell me stories of fevers that soar well above 100 degrees, spasms that cause muscle cramps, delirium and jaw chattering cold that causes people to roll under five layers of blankets in tropical heat.   It hurts to feel breezes on exposed skin.   I wear bug spray and long sleeves at night, I lay waste to my room with insecticide an hour before I sleep, and since I first started coming to Africa five years ago I have always and consistently taken prophylaxis.

Over the years I’ve taken a huge variety of anti-malarial drugs.  The pharmaceutical options for preventing malaria sound like planets from a sci fi cosmos…there’s Lariam, Atovaquone, Malarone or even Doxycycline for those who are bold of heart and thin of wallet.  These pills all need to be taken with strict frequency, and have the same side effects in varying degrees.  They all cause sun sensitivity, loss of appetite, night sweats, and crazy dreams.  To take anti-malarial drugs entails signing up to live in one world by day and another strange and unpredictable world by night.

Lately I’ve settled on Malarone as my drug of choice, because it’s cheap through my insurance plan and it’s effective at very short notice.  I get prescriptions from my primary care physician, Dr. Kremlin, a Russian doctor who I see for roughly fifteen minutes every year and a half but who knows my travel habits well enough to give me prescriptions over the phone.  The pills are flat, round and orange and must be taken daily.   I take them every morning after breakfast and they taste like nothing, but after a week or so I begin to feel the effects.

At first I begin to sleep fitfully.  It takes me a long time to fall asleep at night, and then I drift between unconsciousness and awareness, occasionally rolling over to check the time and seeing my watch advance from 12:41 to 2:19 to 5:06 and finally my alarm trumpets me awake at 6:30.  After a week of anti-malarial treatment I begin to have absolutely bizarre dreams.  The dreams are so vivid that it’s hard to disentangle them from reality; they’re hallucinatory and shamanistic but also feel completely plausible at the moment that I have them.  It’s not unusual for me to experience some indescribable scenario and then find myself on my back in bed somewhere in West Africa trying to parse out what’s true and what’s illusion.  The dreams are bonkers.

The other night I was riding a horse down a very wide boulevard that was bordered by low and handsome buildings and flanked with trees on both sides.  I had a lance and I was jousting with massive piñatas that came galloping at me over the horizon, but my aim was true and they crumpled and exploded before my lance.  Fleet shadowy people wove and whispered through the alleyways between the buildings either side of me, but I only saw them in my peripherals because I was focused on the next parti-colored target loping up to meet me.  Another night (or maybe the same night?) I had a terrifying dream that I was kidnapped by some separatist group who hid me out in the desert.  I must record a video that will be sent to my family and the rest of the USA to ask for ransom, and they made me speak French so they knew what I was saying.   I remember saying my date of birth and passport number in a calm, clear voice so that I could be identified, and when I slid into wakefulness a bit later I pulled out my passport and checked.  The number I had said in the dream was correct, although when I’m awake I don’t know my passport number.

Another night I was Lionel Messi and I was astonished by how easy soccer was.  I slapped passes and assists out to my teammates as easily as a pinball paddle slaps away ball bearings, and notched fine goals myself.  In one dream I was going to be flying out to Burkina Faso in the afternoon, and even though it was that morning I had procrastinated and not packed anything.  I don’t know why I delayed so much but eventually the stress was just intolerable and I knew I had to get my things in order NOW before my flight.  I came to consciousness in a shipping container in a village in western Burkina Faso, both feet out of bed and on the ground, ready to start throwing my clothes into a duffel bag.  Another time I was furious because my friend PM and I were herding goats in the mountains and whenever we got most of the group together one would shoot off, and then when I got him the rest of the flock had scattered.  I was in a bad mood for most of the morning, frustrated that the goats wouldn’t behave until I shook it off around lunchtime.

Look, I’m not losing my mind or anything like that.  These medications have little effect on me by day, and I know from experience that after I’ve been off them for 72 hours my sleep schedule goes back to normal.  I’ve taken anti-malarial drugs over 5 years in 8 different African countries, and by now I can anticipate the effects and keep it together when I wake up at 3 AM and need to determine if I’ve been kidnapped or if I’m in bed.  The distinction is harder to make than you might think.

I had the weirdest dream of all.  Much of it adhered to reality.  I was in Guatemala, a trip I’ve made twice before in real life, and I was going to visit my friend JW.  JW worked in a tiny village in the Mayan highlands, and the only way to get there was to take a boat across a huge lake that was rimmed with the crenellated peaks of volcanoes that showed smudges of lava at the peaks when the night fell.  This is true: in full control of my faculties I have made this trip across the lake and in the dream it was much like how I remembered it.  In this particular dream I wasn’t able to distinguish between food and language.  I had eaten a lot before I left the US and by the time I got to Guatemala I was full of Spanish, which was tasty and easily digested and reminded me of other dishes I’ve eaten in the past.  I shared some of the Spanish I’d brought with me with the people at the airport, and at the counter where I changed money, and with the bus driver who carried me up a winding road into the highlands.  By the time I got to the shore of the lake I felt lean but not malnourished.   I negotiated passage across the lake with the boatmen, and because I was unaccustomed to digesting Spanish and because I hadn’t brought as much with me as I had hoped, by the time we had settled on a price of 20 quetzals for the passage my stomach was rumbling and my vocabulary was exhausted.

I got onto the boat and took a seat at the stern, where I was sheltered by the tarps that protected passengers from the spray off the prow and from the everpresent mist over the lake.  I had snacked in the offing and was replenished with Spanish, but it was not on the menu on that boat.  I found myself the only gringo facing 5 rows of people wearing colorful cloth and eating a meal of Tz’utujil, the Mayan dialect, which they shared with each other in low voices.  Their food looked good but I couldn’t understand it at all, although it sounded flavorful and communicative to my tired ears.  Everyone else helped themselves to that common meal, and I didn’t mind that I wasn’t invited.  I understood, and I wasn’t too hungry because I could burn fat that I had accumulated during years of speaking English in a colder land that seemed very far away.  The boat took half an hour to chug across the lake, and I got off and walked up the cobblestones to the coffeeshop where JW was waiting for me and we shared familiar food in joyous tones.

And then I woke up.

The Sam Cam


Samples showing the progression of the RC drill meter by meter


Damage to the bridge after a wicked rainstrom


Laundry day


The village




The Sindou Peaks

How Mining Works, Volume I

OK, so.   Let’s say that geologists have carefully examined subterranean imaging of a particular area, considering how plate tectonics squish and shear mineral deposits underground, and are confident that certain coordinates on a map are likely to contain gold deposits deep underground.  The next step is to begin sampling that area methodically to determine exactly where the gold can be found and the quality of the potential ore.

On my particular site drilling crews use a rig called a Reverse Circulation(RC) drill to stab into the earth’s mantle to find out what’s underneath.  An RC rig consists of a tungsten-steel bit driven by a pneumatic reciprocating piston to bore into the earth.  An RC exploration setup looks a bit like a semi-truck with a suspension bridge perched on the back, and it’s coupled by high pressure hose to another truck that carries an air compressor and booster to power the machine.   The drill bit is attached to six-meter long hollow rods that are added as the bit penetrates deeper into the earth, and pressurized air is fired down the exterior walls of the rods before shooting the rock chips and soil clods of drill cuttings back up the center of the tube to the surface.  The pressurized air can be mixed with water or foam to ensure that even fine particles are captured and lifted.  On the surface these subterranean cuttings are gathered in a hopper.  Technicians fill a transparent plastic sample bag with all of the cuttings from the hopper that the drill recirculates to the surface, and a new bag is filled for every meter that the rig descends.   As the bit penetrates deeper into the earth the sample bags are arranged next to the borehole in orderly rows; it’s possible to walk 10 paces at ground level and see progressive layers of soil and bedrock churned out from hundreds of meters below the surface of the ground you’re walking on.  As the rig penetrates deeper into the earth the walls of the borehole are reinforced by a plastic sheath to prevent collapse.  These boreholes are no more than ten inches wide, but they are the first definite indicator that millions of dollars’ worth of gold may be lying placidly beneath the surface.

Once the rig has reached its desired depth the rods are retrieved piece by piece and the drill bit is retracted.  The drilling rig and its auxiliary trucks move on to the next coordinates to begin boring the next hole: these trucks are extraordinarily valuable, and they work 24 hours per day, under blazing sun by day and under arc lights dimmed by clouds of moths at night.  The sample bags are left orderly arrayed next to each hole and marked with indelible ink to show the progress of the drill meter-by-meter.  The next day a crew of local hires will come to sift the samples into smaller bags, pack them into a Land Rover, and the samples will be transported to Ouagadougou for analysis in a mineral lab to determine the most prosperous spots for additional exploration.

It’s a strange and incomparable feeling to stand with your steel-toed boots sinking two inches into the loamy soil of a cotton field nestled between the rolling green mountains of Burkina Faso and watch a drill that is gnawing through the planetary crust hundreds of feet beneath your feet and spitting Mesozoic samples of bedrock up to the surface.   I can watch a machine roar and sputter as it pulls up chunks of the earth that have not seen daylight in 300 million years.   Layers of the planet that took eons to rise, disintegrate and compress are aligned in rows waiting for technical analysis to see if any elements of the periodic table that we like more than others are worth pursuing in this exact spot.   If something valuable is found this area will become a gold mine that will supply wedding rings to enamored couples for millennia into the future.  If nothing is found then next year the farmer will plow the fields, plant corn, and someday tell his grandchildren about a truck that came by once and made a lot of noise.

I’m new to this industry.  My technical understanding of mining technology is roughly equivalent to how well a man soaked in a rainstorm understands the water cycle.   Please take all mechanical descriptions with the caveat that I don’t really know what I’m talking about.  I’m happy to be where I am and to be learning something new.  I’ll be paying attention to what’s around me; stay tuned for How Mining Works, Volume II.




I’m currently in the Paris airport waiting for a flight to Burkina Faso.  Air France cabin crews are partially on strike, which delays all boarding and limits amenities on the flights.  For a while I thought it was a rare coincidence that whenever I passed through France transportation personnel were protesting, but now realize that it’s unusual for everything to be functioning normally.  The Paris airport is run by dozens of union laborers working on crucial transportation jobs, so the work stoppages will continue until efficiency improves.

I’m going back to Africa to start a new job.  I’ve been hired as the Corporate Social Responsibility Program Associate on an exploration site that will be built into an active gold mine in the coming year.   I’ll help to maintain good relations with the community around the site and ensure that the project advances on schedule.  My future accommodation is a repurposed shipping container, and when I asked if there was anything in particular I should bring to the site I was told to invest in a pair of steel toed boots.  The site is 30 kilometers off of the nearest paved road, and an eight-hour drive from the capital city.  A year ago I was working on research projects for NGOs, and I had no inkling that I would transition into this work.  A year ago I had no idea that jobs like this even existed.

My motivation here is to try something new and learn something useful.  I’ve been working with non-profits since I first traveled to Uganda in 2011, and since then I’ve worked with major funders, program implementers and researchers to contribute to many different aspects of development work.  For some time now I’ve been interested in the overlap between development initiatives and the for-profit sector: how can businesses align their operations with social development objectives to make a profit AND make a difference?  The fact is that the mining sector is hugely influential on Burkina Faso’s economy.  From 2007 to 2011 gold accounted for 64.7% of Burkina’s total exports, and the figures have climbed since then.  There are internationally-managed mines in every region of the country, and small crews of informal miners scavenge the same sites for easily accessible gold veins.  In 2013 Burkina Faso had a per capita GDP of $684, meaning that at current prices an ounce of gold is equivalent to two years of earnings for the average Burkinabé.  This shiny metal is an immensely valuable resource in an intensely poor country, and there is potential for mining profits to drive economic improvement for a lot of people.

I’ll be here for the next few months learning and contributing as much as I can.  It’s nerve-wracking and exciting to be diving into a new industry, but so far all of my interactions with the people I’ll be working with have been positive.  I’m heading back to Africa and back to work.