Isata Kamara never imagined herself as a gold miner in Koidu, Sierra Leone’s diamondiferous eastern province. Before the civil war erupted in 1991, the tall, elegant 60-year-old tended fields to support herself and her family.
“After the war it became too difficult to farm; much of the land had been mined out by these diamond diggers. I couldn’t get enough money from farming so my children taught me how to pan for this gold,” Kamara said, shyly pointing to a large pile of glistening gold flakes.
Women make up 90 percent of Sierra Leone’s small-scale alluvial gold prospectors, sources familiar with the mining sector say. Discrimination and lack of skills – less than 25 percent of Sierra Leonean women over the age of 15 are literate – prevent many women from entering the official workforce. They have a better chance of earning money as informal traders or as alluvial gold miners.
Spurred on by the need to provide for their families, the women doggedly pan the tailings of the diamond gravel with their kitchen calabashes and shovels. Whilst the men around them search endlessly for the winning diamonds that may transform their lives, the women miners always get money at the end of the day.
“It’s fine work,” says Kamara. “We pan for gold most days – there’s a lot of gold. We never go to bed hungry but people doing the diamond work often do as they don’t find anything.”
Unaware of international gold prices
Unlike diamonds, however, there is no official gold market in Sierra Leone. Ignorant of current high international gold prices, the women sell their gold either to the local chief or to Lebanese dealers. They have no say in the price. Under Sierra Leonean customary law, women’s status is equal to that of a minor.
But, if local geologists are correct, the women miners have stumbled on a potentially huge untapped resource, which could, if marketed and planned efficiently, provide them with a reliable source of income and financial independence.
“This gold could be a great way to empower the women of Sierra Leone,” said Sia Tongo, president of Kono’s 5050 Group, an organisation working for womens’ rights in the country.
“At the moment the people buying their gold are cheating them and they are being undersold,” she said. “But if they could form cooperatives, and if the gold industry is made more official, this could really increase their livelihoods and in the long run provide more revenue for the chiefdoms and districts.”
Government must regulate gold
The government however, is reticent to regulate gold. Despite gold being found in the north, east and south of the country, officials cannot provide any gold production or export figures.
Mineral sector observers say a lack of infrastructure after the 10-year civil war is just one factor hindering the regulation of gold. But they also point to high levels of corruption and a lack of political will to stop widespread smuggling into neighbouring Guinea and Liberia.
“Gold is being smuggled into Guinea,” said Alimany Wurie, director of Mines. “A lot of people don’t appreciate that when they get gold it should come through official channels – instead they prefer to take it out to sell and buy goods but we are trying to tackle the problem.”
Mineral experts say a properly set up gold trading operation with a public information campaign, as well as buying and selling offices, would allow people to see how gold could benefit themselves and the country.
It would also mean the beginning of financial independence for the many women of Sierra Leone.
“There is huge potential for women if gold is formalised,” said Tongo. “Things would improve for the women, for their children and for the communities as a whole.”