It’s a little before 7am on a bright, airless morning, and already Abdullah Idriss Isaac has been hard at work for hours.
Swishing his aluminium pan back and forth through a waist-deep pool of brackish water, he wearily scrutinises its contents for glimmers of gold. With the sun beginning to beat down, the young miner splashes handfuls of the liquid – laced with mercury and cyanide to separate gold from unwanted rock – on his face to stay alert.
Around him is a scene like something out of Mad Max. Overseers set truck tyres alight to soften ground that’s been baked solid by the fierce Sahara sun.
As the flames relent, newly arrived workers step in to blast away chunks of the weakened turf with homemade explosives. A series of muffled bangs ring out across the desert encampment. “Watch out!” the miners shout at one another.
Amid the chaotic pall of chemical fumes, Isaac sticks to his duties as a gold “cleaner”. Since fleeing his home city of Nyala in western Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region, he has scrimped tirelessly to try to repay the cost of his tools and turn a profit.
Now, this sparsely populated hinterland to the south of the Egyptian border is beginning to show promise. He says the terrible conditions will not dash his dreams of striking it rich. “There’s no work elsewhere, so what choice do I have anyway?” he says. “It’s this or nothing.”
The government in Khartoum faces a similar dilemma. After growing at roughly 8% a year during the 2000s, Sudan’s economy now lies in tatters after South Sudan’s secession in 2011 deprived it of 75% of the income from oil reserves.
There are conflicts in seven of its 18 states. With El Niño this winter sure to bring further drought, authorities have realised the urgency of reviving the economy and are trying to boost an industry that had been in the shadows for decades.
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