OUAGADOUGOU (AFP) – Dust and toxic fumes billow from a cavernous, ashy granite quarry in the centre of Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou.
A giant crater located among the roads, houses and administrative buildings of the city’s Pissy neighbourhood, the mine has been dug by hand over 40 years.
Artisanal miners toil in the bowels of the earth, with men engaged in back-breaking labour as they smash rocks into smaller chunks with hammers and chisels.
Women, often with only flip-flops for footwear, ferry the granite up the steep mine walls in pans weighing several kilogrammes balanced on their heads.
Some workers sell granite blocks at the bottom of the hole, while others are paid to haul them to the surface for women and teenagers who crush them into small pebbles before selling them.
The granite is used to make buildings, paving stones or roads, but the fruits of the workers’ labour amount to a pittance – usually EUR1-2 per day.
“With this money I have to feed the children, pay for their schooling – it’s really tough,” Abarat Nikiema told AFP.
“I’ve been here for 10 years and until now I haven’t got by. It’s really sad.”
At 9am, a crowd of women, some with babies on their backs, hasten to empty their laden pans for buyers, collecting a few CFA francs to feed their families.
Piles of freshly mined granite litter the ground surrounding the mine as a couple of male workers recline during a hard-earned break.
An acrid stench of burning rubber emanates from the pit as miners set fire to old tyres and scrap metal over days to break up dauntingly large slabs of granite.
Maxime Sidibe works with his two-year-old daughter by his side, despite being all too aware of the perils of his trade.
There is no sign of a mask, helmet or protective equipment, even as the workers inhale toxic smoke throughout the day.
“There are serious injuries, people cut up by pebbles, a hammer blow, shards in their eyes,” he said.
“There are people who slip going down and a lot of illnesses too.”
Last Sunday, the miners heard gunshots in the neighbouring Lamizana military camp that heralded a coup by Burkina Faso’s army.
But not even the start of a mutiny disrupted the workings of the mine.
“We were scared, but we continued – we have no choice!” said granite seller Marcel Koala.