Soho Press will release my third novel in the Inspector Darko Dawson series, Murder at Cape Three Points, on March 18, 2014. The background is the new oil industry in Ghana. Each of the Darko Dawson novels takes some socio-economic issue in Ghana and plants a murder or two in the thick of it. The fourth book, which I will soon begin work on and is tentatively called Gold of the Fathers, takes as its backdrop the deadly business of Chinese illegal gold mining in Ghana.
Traveling in and around the mining town of Obuasi, I spent four weeks in Ghana in August-September 2013 researching illegal gold mining.
|Obuasi High Street|
With an accommodating crime officer and an excellent guide who knew the area, I saw and learned a lot, much of it shocking. But before sharing that with you, a little background is needed.
Chinese scramble for gold
After South Africa, Ghana is the second largest gold producer in Africa and is estimated to have at least 2 billion ounces of gold in reserves. Over the last eight to nine years, thousands of Chinese gold-seekers have streamed into Ghana, the major proportion from Guangxi Province in Shanglin County, where an age-old tradition of gold mining exists. When local gold resources dried up, Shanglin’s miners went looking for other gold-rich areas of China, but the government cracked down on unscrupulous mining, and private operations were banned. Seeking other sources of gold outside China, the miners focused on Ghana's rich resources and a mass exodus from China to the West African country was born.
But Ghanaian law prohibits small-scale mining by non-citizens. For that reason alone, not to mention overstayed visas, the Chinese miners in Ghana were engaged in illegal activity. Accounts emerged of tensions between locals and the Chinese miners, some of whom began to use pump-action shotguns as protection against armed robbers looking for cash and gold.
In May 2013, following the release of the Guardian article, Ghana’s President Mahama ordered a crackdown on the Chinese illegal miners. Ghana ultimately deported thousands of Chinese illegals, but indications are that some of the repatriated Chinese are finding their way back to Ghana to pick up where they left off.
Unlike the backgrounds of my other novels where the murder is entirely fictional, this time there were real cases of homicide. During my expedition to remote villages close to various mining sites, a chief recounted two violent death incidents. In the first, a fight over gold resulted in the exchange of gunfire, killing one Chinese miner and a Ghanaian policeman who was shot in the back. The second was a little more bizarre—and a scenario made for a novel. A Chinese miner apparently had a dispute with a Ghanaian worker, and as the worker crossed a flimsy bridge over a river, the Chinese man violently shook the bridge, causing the worker to fall into the water and drown.
Alluvial, artisanal, galamsey, open-pit, placer, surface, and small-scale are descriptors used to refer to the type of gold mining under discussion here, although the terms may not always mean exactly the same thing. Regardless of which of the different designations is used, the environmental crisis in which Ghana finds itself as a result of mining activities is the same in thousands of locations: destruction of forest cover followed by the ruinous scarring of the landscape with open pits. Gold deposits are commonly found mixed with sediments such as gravel. The essential activity in alluvial mining is to dig up as much gravel as possible, wash it, and look for gold deposits.
Many of the mining sites are in remote areas accessible only by brain-rattling roads. This is true off-roading, the likes of which the average American 4 x 4 vehicle will never see, contrary to what the TV commercials tell you.
As shown in the photo above, hardy Land Rovers in areas like these are used as passenger transport (called “tro-tros”) instead of the standard city-grade vehicles, which would not stand up to the punishment of these roads. The youth hanging nimbly but precariously on the back is the driver’s “mate,” who collects passenger fares.
Here is the very first alluvial mine that I saw. This one was deserted, abandoned by the Chinese miners. Remember that this entire area was once covered with forest.
The people at this open mine are displaying two different methods of gravel retrieval: old-fashioned digging in the foreground, and riverbed suction dredging in the background. Regardless of method, all gravel (which is really gold ore) must be washed to find gold pieces, which may be miniscule in size.
|Manual dredging open mine|
Here I get a short lesson in washing gravel in a sluice box, which is standard equipment. Rocks and pebbles will fall away, while gold and gravel will get caught in the washing blanket.
Above, one of our guides standing on a large, professional sluice box left behind by the Chinese. The payload from one of these is obviously much greater than the small, individual contraption of the type in the previous photo.
A rusted water pump left behind. Pumps must be used to either draw water from a river, or to remove excess water from a pit.
An adult, child and dog walk past a huge, abandoned pit. They are a serious drowning hazard, as they are often very deep and full of silt. Drowning deaths have been reported. The water here is heavily polluted.
This young man is using the oldest and simplest method of finding gold: panning. We talked to him and discovered he was just out of secondary school and trying to find enough gold to pay for technical college, where he intended to study . . . why, mining, of course.
In contrast to labor-intensive digging with shovels, this is an example of the monstrous excavators that wreak such havoc on the landscape.
An example of a mining quarters abandoned by the fleeing Chinese.
This is a tributary of the Offin River grossly polluted by gold ore washings, silt and toxic metals.
An example of the pump action shotguns used by both Chinese and Ghanaians for protection. The large machine in the background is a trommel, which can wash massive amounts of gravel in a single day. It is usually used in conjunction with one or more excavators.
|Pump action shotgun|
From my “Museum of Chinese Mining in Ghana,” a few shotgun cartridges that were left lying around at different mining sites.
Finally, to counteract some of all this gloom, here is a photo of a group of delightful kids that I took in the town of Dunkwa-on-Offin.
|Kids will be kids!|
Thank you - Kwei