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Processing gold without modern machinery is leading to “worst lead-poisoning epidemic in modern history.” More than 460 children have died.
BAGEGA, NIGERIA—Every day, a white-dressed figure wanders around the gold-mining site of Bagega, a village in northwestern Nigeria. Lean and middle-aged, perfectly dressed in traditional attire, his black-and-white leather shoes in stark contrast to the bare and dusty feet of the miners, he inspects every piece of gold extracted by the hundreds of men who work under him.
In a space as big as two soccer fields, scores of young men crush, grind and wash gold stones, sheltered from the scorching tropical sun by makeshift, wooden sheds. Some as young as 5, they work from eight in the morning until sundown, united by a common dream: to “hit the jackpot” and become as rich as the “white man,” Alhaji Adamou Tsiko, chairman of the Bagega Gold Miners Association.
Until five years ago, Bagega was just one of the many countryside villages dotting Zamfara, one of the northernmost and poorest states in Nigeria. With nothing more than a rural clinic, a school, a mosque and a few hundred mud houses, the village’s 8,000 inhabitants relied on subsistence farming to feed their children.
“Everyone knew there was gold in the region, but people didn’t care,” says Alhaji Jibril, the village chief, sitting in his “office,” a simple mat under a big tree in front of his house. Then, the economic crisis hit and the price of gold started climbing. In a matter of months, Bagega was at the centre of a new gold rush.
Ibrahim Abubakar, 22, came close to realizing his dream when he and some other miners discovered 330 grams of gold in just a few days, earning more than $9,300 to be split among eight families. It is a huge amount of money in a region where 70 per cent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
“Life was good then,” he says of the time two years ago. “We even managed to buy a pickup.” Then his 20-month-old son Abdelmajid developed a high fever and started having convulsions. The next morning, he was dead. In less than a week, seven other children died after experiencing the same symptoms.
Bagega had discovered the dark side of gold.
Sitting in the courtyard of her house in nearby Abare, 25-year-old Asuya Surajo is cooking cassava. On her lap is 4-year-old Naimaatu, wearing a black and blue dress. She is blind in her right eye and her limbs are lifeless. There is a thread of saliva coming out of her mouth. “She got paralyzed in just one night, when she was 18 months old,” says Asuya, who has lost six children because of miscarriages and early deaths.
Naimaatu is among the few survivors of what Human Rights Watch has called “the worst lead poisoning epidemic in modern history.” Since the beginning of 2010, about 460 children under the age of 5 have died in eight villages around Abare and Bagega. Another 5,000 have been affected by exposure.
When the death toll started to rise, the villagers thought they were victims of an evil spirit. It took a team of experts, led by the medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), to determine that the deaths were a direct consequence of the gold extraction.
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