The black hole opens on the bowels of the Earth, unfathomable. Mohamed Bayoh, a 26-year-old Guinean, goes there and disappears, caught in the darkness, in the hope of finding the nugget of gold that will change his life.
He is one of thousands of West Africans who have ventured into eastern Senegal in search of the precious metal. Gold mining has transformed this border region with Mali and Guinea, a factor of opportunities and risks.
The landscape around Bantakokouta is like Swiss cheese that stretches as far as the eye can see, bathed in a dusty mist. Around each cavity, small groups, protected from the sun by shelters of branches, crank up the rock extracted from the ground. A little further, women sort the rocks and throw the bad ones on mounds.
Every day, it's the same gestures, with no guarantee of success. Mohamed Bayoh says it: "Working here is like playing the lottery, you are never sure of winning". But he will stay "until he finds the gold".
Bantakokouta miners settle for a few days or months, and then leave. They are there to earn money without dragging on, send it to their family, or invest in their country.
Mohamed Bayoh hopes "to find a lot of gold. Not a little... A lot. To start another life in Guinea". After six months, his income allowed him to buy two motorbikes. With one gram of gold, he says he earns about 30,000 CFA francs (45 euros).
The risks are many. Landslides kill regularly. Indian hemp and tramadol, a risky painkiller, are consumed "in shambles", says Diba Keita, head of a community vigilance committee.
Populated by a few dozen souls twenty years ago, the village has become a city of several thousand inhabitants, entirely focused on gold.
Activity is authorized there, unlike several sites in the region. Other areas are occupied by large companies, sometimes at the origin of land disputes with the populations.
In the city, the alleys are strewn with garbage, traversed by goats and sheep. The majority of huts are rudimentary constructions, made of bamboo and horsehair.
In his workshop, a Burkinabè, Souleymane Segda, passes the already crushed stones through a machine that spits dust and takes up almost all the space. There are no toilets. The 20-year-old is covered in dirt. His workplace is also his bedroom.
"I can earn up to 50,000 CFA francs per day (75 euros). I return (to Burkina) as soon as possible and when I have earned enough money, I will definitely leave," he says. .
The gold flakes are recovered after washing. The use of mercury, hazardous to health and banned due to its toxicity, is widespread, polluting waterways.
You can now find almost everything in Bantakokouta: machine tools, electronic products... The city is home to places of worship, a health post, but also nightclubs and video game rooms.
"Gold brought wealth. In the past, we went to get our products from Mako", about twenty kilometers away, says Waly Keita, born in the village 63 years ago. He remembers with nostalgia "moms" who went to dig in the river to find a few nuggets while the men went into the bush to hunt and collect honey.
Gold has brought its dark side, "banditry", and "conflicts", he laments.
If the coexistence between the communities is going well overall, incidents do exist, such as in 2020 when clashes broke out between Senegalese security forces and Guinean gold miners, resulting in the death of two young men.
In a square a little away from the shops, a young woman, in tight blue shorts and a red T-shirt, is talking on the phone. "No it's not good. It's not enough. I'm not going to do anything with you," she said in broken French.
Like dozens of others, she found herself trapped and forced to sell her body. "I don't like my job," she says softly, a veil of shame on her face.
"Prostitution has become a major problem," explains Aliou Bakhoum, head of the NGO La Lumière in Kédougou, the regional capital. "These young women, mainly from Nigeria, often minors, are victims of very organized trafficking and a very powerful network".
Her association has taken in around forty young girls, some of whom are around fifteen, and helps them to return to their country. Mr. Bakhoum recounts their broken lives, the lies of the traffickers who lured them with the promise of a job, the crossing of West Africa and the pressures they face to remain silent.
Faced with the upsurge in trafficking, the state has invested heavily in security and intelligence, explains a senior administrative official who wishes to remain anonymous.
The State has also intensified operations to secure the border with Mali. Preserved until then, Senegal fears the jihadist contagion by its neighbor.
"Eastern Senegal would be a very interesting territory for jihadists, not necessarily for attacks, but for recruitment and financing. Gold panning sites are ideal for finding frustrated young people who want to earn money, and gold is very easy to hide and trade," said a Western diplomat on condition of anonymity.
Bantakokouta has dozens of counters run by Malians, where gold is bought and then smuggled across the border, illegally.
A 2021 report by the Timbuktu Institute emphasizes the socio-economic frustration of young people, a primary cause of radicalization. The Kédougou region has more than 25% unemployment and a poverty rate of more than 70%. School dropout is reaching worrying proportions.
The recently accelerated deterioration of living conditions is pushing young people to come earlier and earlier to try their luck in the mines. But many are disillusioned, threatening to resort to other expedients.
28/03/2023 09:21:06 - Bantakouta (Senegal) (AFP) - © 2023 AFP