We Are Here in Darkness

Posted by Kara Downey and Aaswath Raman

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Though the distance traveled was only a few miles, we had been bouncing along a rough dirt road for over an hour when the village came into view.  The paved roads and streetlights of Freetown that we had left before dawn seemed a world away from this chiefdom, whose head, or paramount chief, we had just visited.  The village consisted of dozens of low-slung houses tinted red-orange from the mud that formed their walls and the rust that dappled corrugated metal roofs.  As we later learned from residents, the village had no electricity, toilets, access to clean water or a mobile network.  Fifteen people had recently died from a cholera outbreak.  An attempt to buy refreshments for those gathered nearly failed because village ‘shops’ were mostly empty.

On the hill overlooking the village sat a gleaming, high-walled compound of modern buildings with bright electric lights shining, even though it was the middle of the day.  This compound was the administrative center of a gold mine operated by a large foreign company.   The only evidence of the company within the village itself was a poster branded with the company logo that warned of the dangers of illegal mining by quoting a Wall Street Journal article about South African mines.

Around a hundred men, women and children were gathered at the barrie, or meeting place, where they had been waiting in the blazing sun since morning.  A visit from outsiders to this isolated village was extremely rare and, as we quickly learned, was eagerly anticipated by the community. Given the size of the crowd gathered and our limited number of translators, there was some initial trepidation as to how needfinding interviews could proceed. But, those present were extremely eager to share their stories with us, facilitating a very successful visit. After introductions by our Timap partners and the section and town chiefs, we split the group up according to their individual roles in the community.

Rural Sierra Leonean society is very hierarchical and organized.  The paramount chief is the “custodian of the land”, and theoretically has the final say in all questions of land ownership.  In practice, the degree of influence the paramount chief has on land concessions varies significantly; in some of the communities we visited paramount chiefs seemed powerless in the face of decisions made by the national government and foreign companies.  Section chiefs, town chiefs, and a variety of other community leaders form the lower layers of the hierarchy.  In addition to these community leaders, heads of landholding families and former employees of the mining company were also present.

First we met with landholding families, who were angry that the mine had taken over their ancestral, productive agricultural land and the richest gold deposits nearby, but paid appallingly low surface rents for their use (around two dollars per acre per year). These rents were negotiated directly with the paramount chief, and did not include them. They were also frustrated by the mine’s failure to make good on its early promises to improve the community by providing toilets, clean water, and electricity.  One town chief gestured towards the mining compound and said with disgust and despair, “The company compound shines brightly at night, but we are here in darkness.” This searing image was at once heartbreaking and instructive. Moreover, the boundaries of the mining company’s concession are not clearly demarcated and contain far more land than is actively being used.  Armed security guards prevent villagers from accessing this land.

The ex-miners we interviewed next were also angry, but for different reasons.  Employment, rather than surface rents, was their primary concern.  Most were men, but there were also a few women who had worked as cleaners.  Given the desperate conditions in the village, earning money was an overwhelmingly priority, but our discussions revealed that employment was about more than making ends meet. The ex-miners felt a deep sense of personal responsibility to provide for their families, and were ashamed that they could no longer fulfill this role.  When we asked about the families they cared for, they gestured to the crowd that had gathered around the porch where we were meeting—their families were all there listening to our discussion and hoping for change.

Particularly frustrating for the ex-miners was the company’s not hiring local workers, even for unskilled positions. All present believed that this practice was due to the mining company having something ‘dubious’ to hide. Most local workers were fired before they reached the three-month mark that would allow them to become permanent employees and earn a higher salary and a wider range of benefits.  However, while they strongly disliked the company, they would – without exception – immediately take jobs there again if they had the chance.  The farming and illegal small-scale mining in which they currently engage is nowhere near enough for them to survive in the long term.

Though the landholding families and the ex-miners had somewhat different points of view, they were united in their deepening resentment of the company’s neglect of the village and evinced a growing sense of desperation as living conditions worsened.  All segments of the community were keenly aware of their current poverty, and demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the broader political and economic system, using words and concepts like ‘corporate social responsibility’ with fluency. Violence has already broken out in several mining communities in Sierra Leone, leading to several deaths, and the town chiefs of this village recently defused a protest.  Sierra Leone’s civil war was rarely mentioned directly, but the burden of that recent history was felt in the nervousness people expressed about a return to violence.  Nonetheless, the risk of conflict between the company and the villagers will continue to grow if conditions remain as they are.  As one resident put it, “They can trample upon [us] as much as they want but when the day comes, you will have to kill [us].  We have patience, but there will come a time when enough is enough.”

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