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Child Deaths for Gold Digging in Nigerian Villages

by Kathy Jones on June 11, 2010 at 6:25 PM
 Child Deaths for Gold Digging in Nigerian Villages

Kids are bearing the brunt of gold digging activities in Nigeria.

Mohammed Rabiu defies a rumbling thunderstorm and drizzle to say prayers before graves of his two toddlers who died recently in a lead poisoning outbreak in northwestern Nigeria.


Around him are 70 other freshly-dug graves of children in the village?s main cemetery, which polygamist Rabiu frequents to say prayers for his late 13-month-old son and 19-month-old daughter.

Rabiu paid a high price for the illegal gold mining he and many members of this poor farming and cattle herding community engage in to supplement their incomes.

"Initially we thought the disease was malaria until when the numbers kept increasing," said the local traditional chief Haruna Musa, sitting under a zinc-roofed balcony outside his mud house.

More than 100 under-fives have died in recent months from in this remote village in Nigeria?s Zamfara state after being exposed to high levels of lead from ore their parents brought home to sift gold.

"We lost around 100 children in this tragedy, we are a very closed community and the death of one child is a big tragedy for us, not to talk of losing 100 children in such a short period," said Musa.

"In the 20 years we have been mining gold in this village we have never had this kind of problem, this is the first time," said 35-year-old Rabiu, adjusting the sleeve of his faded navy blue kaftan.

Dwellers of this 2,000-strong village now face a dilemma of choice -- gold or their children's health, both of which they deem important.

"It is a hard decision for us to make: striking a balance between gold mining which is very important to the economy of this village and the health of our children," 70-year-old grey-bearded Musa said.

Its thatched mud houses, dirty children in tattered clothes, cow dung-littered dusty streets and the freshly-ridged crop fields surrounding it make Yargalma a typically poor agrarian village.

But for two decades most villagers have turned to illegal gold mining which has better returns than the traditional farming.

Despite his loss, Rabiu, a gold miner for 13 years, vows not to give up.

"I can?t imagine quitting gold mining which has been the main source of income for most of us, it has become part of our life," said Rabiu.

No adult has died from the poisoning in the village, according to Musa.

Traders buy a gram of gold at 3,500 naira (23 dollars / 19 euros) while 50 kilograms of millet, the area's major staple, sells for 6,000 naira (40 dollars).

"It only takes a few hours? work to get a gram of gold while it takes a whole rainy season (three months) to grow a bag of millet," Musa said.

With an increasingly dwindling crop yield due to lack of improved seeds and modern farming techniques, short or delayed rains as well as desert encroachment, gold mining is seen as an economic succour to Yargalma villagers.

Nigerian health officials said 355 people in five villages were poisoned in recent months, of whom 163 died, 111 of them children below the age of five.

Women and children are more vulnerable as they easily get into contact with the lead-bearing ore brought home by the men for processing. Women crush the rocks while children play on the grounds where the ore is disposed off, health experts said.

Out of the 48 children admitted for lead poisoning at a nearby Bukkuyum public hospital, 45 are from Yargalma, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF - Doctors Without Borders) doctor Andreas Haggstrom. Between 15 and 20 new cases come in daily.

Symptons are typical of malaria - fever, vomiting and convulsions.

Jenny Mackenzie, an MSF medic said lead levels found in children in were "incredibly high", at more than 10 times what would warrant treatment in the West.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week said the scope of the intoxication was unprecedented in its work with lead poisoning worldwide due to its severity, the numbers of casualties and the environmental contamination.

An environmental clean-up exercise is already under way.

Source: AFP
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