16-year-old Yakuba emerges from a 50-meter deep hole after another grueling 14-hour work day underneath the panorama of western Burkina Faso. Last year, his uncle and two of his friends died when a nearby mine collapsed. News? Not at all. In this part of Burkina Faso, this is just another day at the "office" for the miners.
Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet ranks fourth in Africa's production of gold. Much of the gold comes from small-scale mines, where children work alongside their parents from dawn to dusk. They only get paid for the amount of gold they find, and sometimes they won't make any money for weeks, even months. The work is hazardous. Mines collapse frequently, and the working environment is intoxicated with dangerous chemicals like mercury, used in the process of extracting gold.
Unfortunately, there is no gold for Yakuba and his team today. Sometimes it can take up to two weeks to find just the equivalent amount of gold used in one smartphone.
Thousands of Burkina Faso's youths live and work on these sites. Most of them have never been to school. For many of them, the mines are their only home. The International Labor Organization considers mining one of the worst forms of child labor due to the immediate risks and long-term health problems it poses with exposure to dust, toxic chemicals, and heavy metals—on top of back-breaking manual labor.
Men, women, and children dig the mines by hand, and while there are always ropes for the buckets of ore, there are not always ropes available for the boys who scrabble up and down the pits. Finding footholds and handholds in the dirt walls is not a given — but losing your grip can prove fatal. 13-year-old Nuru cannot recall how long he has worked in the mines. He has never been to school and does not know how to read or write. He believes that mining is still better than working on the fields back home where "you farm the land, but don't earn anything."
Government-approved dealers undoubtedly turn a blind eye to the children of the mines who suffer and die dreaming of their very own "El Dorado" for the sake of our smartphones.