Flanked by fields of millet and groundnut, the northern Nigerian outpost of Bagega is so far out on the periphery of the global economy that when the financial crisis struck in 2008 few residents had any idea it was happening. And no one in a village without cars, electricity or tarred roads imagined it would end up indirectly poisoning hundreds of their children.
“We knew there was gold around here, but most people didn’t care. We have always been farmers here,” said Alhaji Jibril, the white-haired village chief, sitting in the gnarled roots of a tree in front of his house, which he calls his office.
But when western financial markets went into meltdown, gold provided investors with a haven from the turmoil, sending its price rocketing. For the first time, it became profitable to mine the ore on which the village sits. “We thought [the gold boom] was a good thing at first,” said Jibril. So did thousands of itinerant fortune seekers, who beat down the dust trail leading to the village, swelling its population.
Shortly afterwards, officials from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) received a phone call from local health workers. “They told us their children were dying, and they didn’t know why,” said Michelle Chouinard, the medical charity’s country director. It was, in fact, the beginning of what Human Rights Watch called the worst incident of lead poisoning in modern history. Gold is extracted from lead, which accumulates in the blood and can severely damage the nervous system.
By the time the rush subsided, Bagega, and seven other villages dotting the Zamfara countryside, had been ravaged by the deadliest lead poisoning epidemic in modern history. At least 460 children died and nearly 2,000 were poisoned. “Lead poisoning can make adults infertile, but its most severe impact is on children. So we were seeing children who have been blinded or paralysed. Some have neurological damage, and that is not usually reversible,” Chouinard said.
After three years of official dithering, some of the $5.4m (£3.25m) pledged in government funds released last year allowed international organisations to begin cleaning the worst of the contaminated areas. Yet, with few alternatives, thousands continue to mine in perilous conditions.
For the three extended families that live in Soweba’s compound, mining provided a much-needed boost when their farms suffered from erratic rainfall, partly linked to climate change. Three years ago, her 14-year-old son began bringing rocks home. Soweba and the other women would sift through them, looking for glints of gold dust. A gramme could bring in up to 7,500 naira (£27) in a state where 70% lived on less than $2 a day.
Then, one by one, the children in the compound were struck by convulsions and sweats. “There was a herbal concoction which we used, but it didn’t work,” said Soweba, a slight woman with almond-shaped eyes. Her two-year-old toddler died first. A few weeks later, another daughter died. Even cattle – drinking from contaminated waterholes – began to die, further diminishing the family’s earnings.
“We thought it was a genie, an evil spirit,” she said, cradling a surviving daughter during a weekly visit to a clinic run by MSF. Still, her husband continued to allow their son to go mining against her wishes. “He says it is the only way to feed the surviving children. They just leave their [contaminated] clothes outside the house when they come back.”
Health workers also worry about a potential crime boom. Lead poisoning is linked not only with learning difficulties, but also with violent crime.
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