When the children in Dori run, they catch dust in their eyes and their throats. The arid landscape is pockmarked with crumbling holes leading deep into the ground. There are artisanal mines clustered all over the flat earth of this village in Burkina Faso.
Many kids here are pulled out of school after their seventh birthday to spend their childhood in the dark, in the mines.
With little more than a bucket and a frighteningly thin piece of rope, they’re lowered into the suffocating tunnels and told to chisel away at the cracked earth. They are hoping to find gold. Not huge clusters like you’d envision from a romanticized gold rush era. They’re looking for any infinitesimal flecks, often as small as pencil shavings.
Once they’ve hacked away buckets of earth, it’s sifted, heated and combined with dangerous, hot mercury in a makeshift extraction process to ready the gold for sale.
This is their life for as long as they are small enough to mine.
But now the child miners in Burkina Faso are finding an unlikely escape from the gold mines. It’s called football, though in the US you might call it soccer. Aid workers here are teaching locals how to coach and play, as well as read and write, in an effort to offer safe alternatives to unregulated mining.
It’s not easy to turn away from the precious metal, though.
The west African nation is experiencing a 21st century gold rush, and more and more children work in the mines to support their families. The United Nations Children's Fund estimates more than 20,000 children are employed in the gold mining sector across the country, many in unregulated, artisanal mines. The mercury used for processing the metal is highly poisonous and often leaves kids with rashes and sores. Up to 40 feet deep, the dark mines can collapse, leaving the children trapped.
Ansonzou Hawma started mining four years ago when she was 12. “I can fill up to four or five bags a day with rocks. If there is any gold in the bags, we sell it. I make a little money and that is good,” she says.
Ansonzou has never been to school. She went to the gold mines to support her family, who all work in the mining industry, too. Every West African franc she earns goes to her family to buy millet, rice and maize for them to eat.
But organizations on the ground are trying to train and educate Burkina Faso children to get them out of the mines. They’re drawing kids away from the dangerous labor with soccer, and a few other skills, too.
One group with the Coaching for Hope initiative is training adults in Dori to become coaches and educational ambassadors to child miners.
The program is run by UK-based international development charity Skillshare International, one of the organization’s latest efforts in 10 years of working to improve education in Africa and Asia. They’re one of a number of groups known as “sport for development” charities that use coaching to connect with communities in developing countries.
It doesn’t take much to get the kids excited. Soccer is already hugely popular in Burkina Faso, as it is across Africa.
In the village of Dori, there are no designated soccer fields to speak of, so the kids spread out across the dusty ground to kick the ball around, many of them barefoot.
Even a simple soccer ball is a luxury here. Without the coaches, the children might never get to play with a real one. The kids often fashion makeshift balls out of plastic bags filled with dirt, sand and trash. So the organization sees the ball itself is a great conversation-starter with the kids, to get them to leave the mines and play.
After soccer practice, aid workers and volunteers give the children literacy lessons to help them continue their education and hopefully find a lasting way out of the mines.
Parents and relatives of the children who normally spend their days in the mines are invited to watch them play soccer and cheer them on in support. Afterwards, the coaches talk to the parents about why it is so important that their children keep attending soccer sessions and continue learning to read and write.
Their message is clear: Education is even more valuable than gold. For many, it’s the only way out of a dangerous and unregulated mining industry. For those who can read and write, the hope is that other local career paths open up — to become, say, a welder, dressmaker or carpenter.
Yet, financially speaking, some struggle to see the potential longer-term benefits from an education keeping pace with the immediate income from mining and selling gold.
Abioye Fayama, 42, is a laborer in the artisanal mines in Dori. His 9-year-old son Roma and 8-year-old daughter Bintou also work there, sifting for gold. He’s concerned about what both children leaving work for studies would mean for his family.
“The mine is the only place we can make some money. We get by with the gold we find to pay for our food,” he says. “I want my children to go to school, but we cannot survive without the mine. I cannot keep both of my children in school from what I make alone. There is not enough gold that we find to pay for it."
But besides developmental benefits from not forcing kids to work from such a young age, research suggests the wait is financially worth it. UN statistics show that in developing countries, every year spent in education can boost future income by 10 percent.
It’s a slow process, like many development issues, but Ansonzou, who has been playing soccer for almost six months, is hopeful.
“I like playing football and I’m learning to write more. For a girl that is very special,” she says, wearing a bright blue soccer shirt caked in dust. “I hope one day to be a football coach too.”