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Miners emerge from a 12m-deep hole in which they are searching for gold Andy Hall/Oxfam

Column ‘Women are digging up anthills for the tiny grains inside’

Children mine for gold in home-made pits, while parents risk their lives for food – Jim Clarken describes the harrowing scenes as a crisis unfolds in west Africa.

ONCE FERTILE AND full of crops, the soil outside the village of Koutoula-Yarce in Burkina Faso has turned to dust and sand. But the severe food crisis unfolding in West Africa means children and adults – some of whom have walked more than 100km to get here – desperately dig deep holes in the hope they will find a scrap of gold to help them survive.

There I met Sana Abdul Fataw, 9, who is missing school to dig for gold. He is one of the lucky ones as he didn’t leave empty-handed that day, mining an amount worth €3. Many are not so fortunate.

A woman we came across had just found a piece of gold no bigger than a small crumb. It was her first find in a long time and would fetch her a few cents. Amid the dangerous conditions and baking heat, there is very little gold to be found.

This is not the only such gold mine in Burkina Faso. In the Sirguin region, Moussa Koboura, 12, searches for gold in pit that is 5ft deep, while little Balguissa Simeam, 7, walks from school to the gold washing site to help her mother, Zana Zonema.

Balguissa looks after her baby brother, Abdul Rahuhi, so that Zana can concentrate on searching for gold.

“We are looking for gold here. We are doing so because of lack of food. We cultivated the land, but it hasn’t rained so we haven’t been able to harvest,” says Zana. “So we come here because we don’t have anything to eat. We haven’t any tô [a kind of dough made from sorgum or millet] … We began to miss meals three months ago.”

Back in Koutoula-Yarce, I saw the now dry and sandy soil being dug by children and adults in a desperate attempt to find gold that people believe exists here.

Young children and adults alike carry out the dangerous tasks in handmade pits, hauling rocks to surface and washing them in a pan in the slim chance that they will find a scrap of precious metal beneath.

Column: ‘Women are digging up anthills for the tiny grains inside’
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  • Scenes from a crisis in west Africa

  • Scenes from a crisis in west Africa

  • Scenes from a crisis in west Africa

  • Scenes from a crisis in west Africa

  • Scenes from a crisis in west Africa

  • Scenes from a crisis in west Africa

  • Scenes from a crisis in west Africa

  • Scenes from a crisis in west Africa

  • Scenes from a crisis in west Africa

  • Scenes from a crisis in west Africa

It is a real sign of how desperate people are that they risk their lives for a lottery chance of finding enough to feed their families.

I’ve been spending the past week travelling in Niger and Burkina Faso, where I’ve met brave people doing everything they can to try and cope with the very difficult situation that they now face.

Across the countries of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal, 15 million lives are at risk as the food crisis worsens.

These are extraordinarily resilient people who now need our support more than ever.

The rain never came, meaning that the soil dried up. Once alive with crops and livestock, the drought and insect infestations have now destroyed this vital source of food and income.

I’ve seen babies so weak they can no longer cry for food, children digging in vain for gold, parents forced to find tiny grains in anthills and farmers losing the crops and livestock their communities rely on to survive.

In Sarou, Niger, village leader Ayouba Wakasso told me how the men have left their homes in the uncertain hope of finding work in other countries. The women remain and are forced to seek out grains from anthills to make a weak porridge called fonio that has little nutritional value. This is difficult work and they may have to visit four or five anthills before they get any grain at all. Some come home with nothing.

Sarou is one of many villages where malnourishment and infant deaths are increasing. If support for the people of Sarou and other affected villages across West Africa does not arrive, we could face a catastrophe and thousands of needless deaths.

A delay in responding to the crisis will see a repeat of last year’s East Africa emergency.

Oxfam is working in the affected regions of Niger, Burkina Faso and across West Africa to provide vital food aid, cash-for-work schemes, water and sanitation and support for farmers’ crops and livestock.

We urgently need the support of people at home. It’s not too late to stop this food crisis from becoming a full-scale humanitarian disaster.

Jim Clarken, the CEO of Oxfam Ireland, is in Burkina Faso. You can donate to Oxfam Ireland through or by calling 1850 30 40 55 (Republic of Ireland) or 0800 0 30 40 55 (Northern Ireland).

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