It has been more than five years now since 30-year-old James Yemouk alias Boutique fell in love with his current profession of skimming for gold in the belly of the earth at Gbane, a farming community in the newly created Talensi District in the Upper East region.
Although Boutique can attempt quantifying the value of his more than five-year toil beneath and on the earth, he told the GRAPHIC BUSINESS that he has lost count of the number of people who died in his presence while chasing gold underground.
Death, he said no longer scares him and his colleagues engaged in galamsey activities at Obuasi, one of the mining sites at Gbane named after the country’s largest mining city, Obuasi, in the Ashanti region.
“A lot of our colleagues have died from collapsing pits here. I cannot tell the number but I know that death is now normal to all of us here,” he said in Taleng, the dialect of the Talensi people.
“We sometimes pull the dead aside and continue the work because the work itself is a ‘do and die affair,” Boutique added.
LEARNING THE TRICKS
Boutique is one of the young energetic folks from the district and beyond who have taken to the pursuit for gold using manpowered tools. Information from the Minerals Commission showed that their areas of operation are within some gold reserve sites mostly found in low lying areas across the Talensi District, the region and the entire country at large.
There, the methods used in extracting the gold plated rocks from about 85 meters down the earth are rudimentary and man powered.
Except the underground drenching and blasting of hard rocks where diesel powered drenchers and blasters are sparsely used, Boutique said everything from digging on the surface to breaking hard rocks at about 60-85 meters down the earth is done using a pick axe, shovel, chisel, hammer and moil – a manpowered drill.
Given the destructive nature of their practice on the environment, the concessions of licensed small scale mining and on their lives, various personalities and institutions have for long mounted pressure against them and their activities.
Less success has, however, been achieved as the practice continuous to rise.
Although dozens of Boutique’s colleagues have died attempting to scoop gold from the earth, nothing shows that the spate of illegal small scale mining, popularly referred to as ‘galamsey’, will ease soon.
The Ghana National Association of Small Scale Miners (GNASSM), the umbrella body of licenced small scale miners once galamsey operators, currently boasts of over 8,000 members nation-wide. The association’s General Secretary, Mr Oliver Rivers, recently told the GRAPHIC BUSINESS in Accra that there are twice as many of its members presently engaged in illegal mining nation-wide.
More people are joining than exiting the job at Gbane, said Boutique who spends his day plotting strategies to use in scooping gold underground.
“When I first came here some five years ago, less people engaged in this activity. But now, the number is increasing and almost every young person wants to mine for gold. That is obvious because the prospects are good,” he said.
Recounting his first days in the business to the GRAPHIC BUSINESS at the site, Boutique who is married and a father of two, said “going down to mine for gold is like boarding a plane at first.
“It is scary at first, very dark and the temperature, abnormal. You often wonder if you will be able to come out again but once you return to earth from your first trip down, then you heave a sigh of relief and yearn to go down again.
“After two or more successful attempts, then everything become normal to you such that you even wish to be doing it more often,” he said smiling.
REAPING THE GAINS
According to Boutique, a daily hustle at the site can return “more than GH¢1,500.
“You can also labour for nothing such that you will have to borrow to eat that day,” he added.
On the benefits of his job, Boutique said “because of the work, I have money and can eat whatever dish I desire.
“Whenever I get to the house, my children and siblings run to me and I am able to give them money for their school items and upkeep. That alone gladdens my heart,” he said soberly.
Thanks to his bravery and skill to descend crudely dug mine pits, Boutique added that he has been able to build and roof six mud houses for himself and his extended family.
In most parts of the Talensi District and other communities in the region, a zinc roofed house is an asset cherished by all, especially the young uneducated. Mud-thatched houses are considered colonial and thus despised.
DYING FOR GOLD
Although Boutique admits the risks in his profession, he said he is not willing to quit as long as he is energetic.
At the site, energy is of essence as much of the job is manpowered. The guys there were tough in body and openly displayed their muscular shoulders and chests
On the issue of death, Boutique said “this is my job from which I eat.
“If I refuse to work, I will have to go begging and that is not good for a young man like me,” he added and disagreed that his previous job of carrying loads for people in return for money popularly known as ‘kayayei’ was better than the current.
“There is no money in kayayei yet people use to despise us a lot.
“Here, just 0.8 grams of the ore fetches about GHC60 to GHC80. That is a lot of money and could have been my one or two month’s earnings as a Kayayei person down south.
“The only thing with this job (galamsey) is the fear of being killed or injured but that is okay because if I die, I die for money which is the gold,” Boutique said laughing.
PREPARING FOR RETIREMENT
However prosperous the illegal gold mine business is, Boutique said he would not allow his children into it given the need to educate them.
“It is risky and unwise. People have been cheating me because of my illiteracy. I do not want that to happen to my children again,” he said.
Boutique also admitted that he would one day retire from the work as his energy cannot carry-on forever.
But before doing that he said he would have to find a permanent source of living for himself and his family of eight of which he is the bread winner.
Although he admitted the need to regularise galamsey operations in the district, Boutique said his current financial stand was not strong enough to start a joint process towards owing a concession.
He thus appealed to the government and other interested parties to help them with capital and implements as “most of us have fallen in love with the job.
“We do it with our hearts and if they help us, the business will improve and we will be able to mine more gold for the country,” he added.
On his nickname, he said “it is because I only wear dresses bought from the boutique that is how come my friends call me Boutique.”