Thursday, February 22 1:30 p.m.
Kouroussa is proving to be by far the most atmospheric and pleasant town I’ve encountered in Guinea. I set off on my bicycle early this morning when it was still cool for an exploratory ride. The sky stayed overcast almost the entire time which made it even more enjoyable. I first checked out the main road to Kankan and even had a nice chat with the soldiers at the barrage. The housing in Kouroussa is made up predominantly of traditional thatch-roofed huts and despite Kouroussa being a mid sized town the activity was very much of a village waking up as people blew on embers to start fires or swept the dust and leaves out of their courtyards. Everyone greeted the Two Bob.
I knew the Niger River was right beside Kouroussa and thought I’d see it very quickly upon leaving town but it was nowhere to be found. I turned around and cycled back into town and out the other side through the administrative quarters. The roads were tree lined and the branches of the mango trees often joined overhead to create cool and pleasant shade. The buildings all looked to be of the “epoque colonial” and were in various stages of disrepair or total ruin. As usual I couldn’t tell the difference between buildings still serving a purpose and those totally abandoned. The few people around were engaging in that most popular of Guinean activities “hanging out” and served as unreliable clues. The business of administration took place not inside buildings across desks but in brief encounters on the shady lanes between men on scooters.
When the pavement ended at what I suspected was Monsieur Le Prefect’s house I followed some paths and just about when I was going to give up I saw the vast Niger River Valley below me through a gap in the trees. The river was much wider than I expected and all that water was a shock to the system after so many weeks of relative dryness.
I would have ridden down the rugged trail to the river’s edge but while cycling around people kept asking me if I’d seen the bridge yet. I knew nothing about any bridge but assumed they must be talking about an old railway bridge and that would be an ideal vantage point from which to view the river. So I turned back again, this time sure of the river’s proximity to Kouroussa, to locate the railroad tracks and follow them to where they must meet and presumably cross the river.
I found the tracks then followed the path beside them till I reached an impasse, a solid wall of huts and houses. I might have turned back in weeks past but with more Guinean experience under my belt I knew no one would care if I cycled through the courtyards around the various huts. And no one did care. They simply ca va’ed me to death as I passed by.
When I found the bridge I was surprised at its size and length and pleased to see that though trains didn’t use it anymore, foot traffic flowed steadily across the walkway on the side. On the other side of the Niger were many villages and the land was alive with women walking to the Niger with loads of laundry and dirty dishes on their heads. I rode my bike out to the center and from there could see large groups of people in both directions clustered at the river’s edge bathing and doing their laundry.
On the far side I found a large and well maintained trail that appeared to follow the train tracks. That trail promises a small bit of adventure for tomorrow because I plan on following that trail and seeing if it can get me to the town of Baro and then onto the main road to Kankan. It makes sense that it will because the train tracks go to Kankan. The main road takes a twenty-six kilometre detour to the new bridge across the Niger and then comes south another eighteen kilometres to where it joins the road from Baro. By going cross country I not only see a more interesting landscape (I’m told the trail passes through lots of villages) but could cut as much as twenty-five kilometres off the distance. The main problem is that there is another Niger tributary, the Niandan, in the way and I’ll have to cross it somehow. I’ll either be able to use the old railroad bridge just like here in Kouroussa or use a local canoe. There’s also a chance the river bed will be dry or nearly dry. The only way to find out is to try.
Back in town I ran into a man from Ghana who I’d met briefly the previous evening. He spoke fluent English and I eagerly accepted his invitation to join him for a coffee, the very thing I was in search of myself. He’d mentioned the previous day that he was involved in a partnership between a private company and a local cooperative (what he called an NGO) made up of gold miners. I assumed I’d misheard but as he explained over our coffee the land around Kouroussa was filled with gold, that after a rain you could even find gold in the streets. (A city whose streets were paved with gold? I guess it isn’t just a myth.) He was the local representative for the private company which he didn’t name and he explained how he’d gone through the local chiefs to set up a vast network of village organizations. He gave them 12,000 FG per gram of gold and a ten percent stake in the company and its profits. 12,000 was less than the 14,000 15,000 they could get in Kankan or Conakry but when you took into account the transportation costs, the ten percent and the sense of ownership in the company it was a good deal and even he was surprised at how quickly the organization grew.
Gold mining and panning for gold is I guess nothing new in this area. The local people have been doing it for centuries, mining a vein that Goldminer said stretched as far as Ghana and has been well known throughout history. A village elder who joined us later, the secretary treasurer of the NGO, told a story of once finding two diamonds amongst a sample of gold. Goldminer explained that gold and diamonds were always found together. When there was a lot of diamonds there would be some gold. When as in Kouroussa there was a lot of gold there would be some diamonds gold encrusted diamonds he called them.
Goldminer was quite proud of the way he’d used his knowledge of the local Malinke society to build up his network. This society, he said, was feudal in structure with a noble class tracing its origins to the great Mali empire of the 14th Century. Indeed as we talked a violent argument erupted at a neighbouring coffee stall. A man stood with outrage on his face and loudly berated a seated man who cowered and apologized. Goldminer who understood French and Malinke explained that the angry man was of a noble family and felt the other man, who was of an inferior family, had insulted him. One always had to be aware of this caste system Goldminer told me and when he came here years ago he didn’t begin his work with the local government officials but went straight to the village chiefs and nobility. Each family, he told me, had gold stashed away, sometimes kilograms of it. They sold it only when the family needed money, for example when there was a marriage and a dowry was needed. What Goldminer needed to do was tap into that social structure. To that end he lives with a local family in huts on the other side of the tracks where locals and goldminers lived (my hotel is very much on the side where outsiders live) and never wears shoes, only flip flops, and leaves his suits in Conakry.
His organization which he showed me is equally low key. We walked across the road which he said divided the town between locals and outsiders and down several wide streets to where he slept and had his office. On the way we stopped to chat with the local man who made his “spoons” out of sheet metal, spoons which were used to separate the gold from sand and dirt. The impure gold was placed in these wide spoons and heated over a small fire. The sand and dirt, already lighter than gold, became even lighter and by judicious heating and blowing the impurities were blown away leaving pure gold dust and granules.
At his “office” we found a teenager lounging on a bench with a low table in front of him. On the table was a cardboard box (to prevent the gold from blowing away in the wind) and a tiny set of scales and weights. This teenager Goldminer said was his expert. He worked there from early morning to mid afternoon and then again at night taking samples of gold from villagers, assessing them and clearing out impurities, weighing them and then paying the villagers for them based on the measured weight. Goldminer used to have another teenager doing this work but his measurements were often off by just a fraction. This new guy had been recommended to him by a village chief, knew gold inside and out, and had “the touch” when it came to measuring the weight of gold.
As we talked a young girl about twelve years old appeared with a vial that originally held vitamin C supplements, the preferred local container for gold. She had some gold and wanted to know how much. The expert took the plastic vial, unscrewed the top, and poured its tiny contents into one of the spoons. He looked at it carefully and then took a small magnet wrapped in plastic and moved it around the spoon. The magnet sucked up various bits of iron and other metals which he carefully scraped into a second spoon. Then he examined the sample visually and removed two or three microscopic grains and added them to the metal bits in the second spoon. This he offered to the girl to examine in her turn. She looked at its contents carefully and pointed out one tiny grain which she argued was gold and not sand. The expert gave in gracefully and moved the one grain from the impurities spoon back to the pure gold spoon. This he weighed and told the girl she had two decigrams of gold. This was poured back into her vial and she went off happily, a little girl with a tiny vial of pure gold.
Goldminer said she would wait till she had a full gram before cashing it in, that she probably had her eye on a brand new dress and was saving up her gold till she could afford to buy it.