The Gold Rush in West Africa

Amongst other things, Africa is well endowed with natural and mineral resources. Many regions house world-class deposits of oil, gold, iron ore, bauxite, diamonds, phosphate, uranium and other untapped mineral wealth. When it comes to gold, there are over 10 African countries that are known to have this precious resource. Some countries have been mining gold since the beginning of time, whilst others are just starting to mine for this mineral.

Photo by Hugh Brown

Beginning of the Gold Rush

The first African Gold Rush officially began in 1886 from the discovery of the Witwatersrand gold fields in South Africa, which is alleged to be the most important and famous of all the nineteenth century discoveries. The South African gold mines have supplied a large proportion of the world’s mined gold. In recent times, South Africa’s gold industry is shrinking due to geological challenges from exploiting the one of the world’s deepest mines. As with the California Gold Rush in the US, the Witwatersrand Gold Rush had very extensive social and political implications in South Africa, many being detrimental. The Witwatersrand Gold Rush was a major factor leading up to the Second Boer War (South African War).

With the steady decline of gold mining at the Southern end of the continent, West Africa is becoming the new frontier for gold mining, with “significant investment opportunities.” In truth, we all know what that really means: West Africa is the next African region to be exploited for their gold minerals for the benefit of the Western world and their economic gains. As the demand for artisanal gold increases, so too, does the number of people dying in poorly constructed mines in search of their pot of gold.

The Reality

People who embark on this journey are holding on the hope that they will earn enough money to support themselves and their families through mining. Desperate times calls for desperate measures. An advantage that is often argued is that gold mining has over farming is that gold can be dug year-round, while the latter only provides seasonal earnings. The mining of gold is unregulated and often hand-dug pits in West Africa, which results in it being a deadly occupation, but one which many impoverished people in the region are pushed into by necessity, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso are three of West Africa’s biggest exporters of gold. Many people from neighboring countries are migrating to these countries in hopes of supplementing their meager income through mining.

Photo by Aïssata Fofana via International Organization of Migration

Contrary to popular belief, men are not the only ones who travel to gold sites, children and women can be found scattered across the mines. Many women travel to these sites alone or with their children in search of the gold to transform their current reality. It’s more than economic freedom, it includes women empowerment and freedom to exist as they are. These women seek to break away from the patriarchal and discriminatory systems that prevent them from having autonomy and financial stability like their male counterparts. Unfortunately, among them are women and girls who are trafficked for sexual exploitation at the gold sites. 

The Resource Curse

The current gold rush in West Africa is the same story, just with a different natural resource. Exploitation of African resources and its people is not new. It has reared its ugly head with diamonds, chocolates, oil, iron, cash crops, even land. The continent holds natural resources worth trillion dollars, but the population is blighted with extreme poverty and violence. You can’t help, but ask, “Why does the wealth of Africa not make Africans wealthy?”

Photo by Aïssata Fofana via International Organization of Migration

The paradox of the resource curse continues which states that “the countries with an abundance of natural resources, tend to have less economic growth, less democracy and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer resources.” When it comes to gold, a similar discourse has happened and is happening, only this time it’s in the West. International mining companies are permitted to invest in gold and build wealth through the gold mined by desperate Africans seeking to improve their life. 

Not All That Glitters Is Gold

This business does not just affect gold diggers, it also affects the local communities, local authorities and the environment. Though, mining can be seen as a source of wealth, there are other negative effects such as land destruction and degradation, drug abuse, poor health system, food insecurity due to lack of farming, and death. 

Photo by Hugh Brown

The tragedy of the gold rush and most of Africa’s resources is that the exploitation cycle repeats over and over again. When will it stop? Have we not had enough yet?

Written by:

Crystal Anokam is a Nigerian-American portrait photographer and writer based in Philadelphia, PA. Crystal's work resolves around themes of blackness, identity and community. She is dedicated to capturing authentic narratives that transcend time, connect with people and move culture forward.

1 Comment

  • Vanessa Chandler

    Dope article Crystal!! You continue to bring light to the various unheard news stories of Africa in a deliberate and informative way. I love that you pull from a variety of resources, I'll definitely have to do some follow up on the Second Boer War (thanks for the link!). Another great example of a young African mind remaining connected to their roots. Can't wait to read the next one!

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