Much more than the idyllic images of silhouettes of camel caravans walking at a slow pace along the undulating golden dunes at sunset, the Sahara is for many, the place to come to earn a living. In this vast ocean of sand, the abrasive heat, the harshness of the wind and the cruelty of the sun make it unthinkable that a place to work can be possibly found here. However, since the dawn of time, the Sahara has provided humanity with the metal it yearns for the most: gold. That golden glow that, from ancient Egypt to the China of the 21st century has blinded the world, leading millions of people to move in search of it wherever it may be found.
Picking up the crumbs
The thermometer reaches its 55 C mark (131F) by 10 am on any April's Sunday at Delgo's gold market. At first sight, the only thing that can be seen from the road is a distant front of corrugated steel stalls precariously set up. There, 300 meters inland, the buses that drive across the desert make their stop to rest. However, a 5 minutes walk on the sand to the back of the rows of tea houses and restaurants reveals a massive settlement of tents made of rags and tarps primitively held together with wooden sticks and ropes. Precarious, dusty, torn apart by the desert winds, overcrowded and compressed under oppressive heat, thousands of gold seekers coming from the most impoverished parts of Sudan and bordering countries, come all the way here with the prospect of making a living.
Old Toyota pick-up trucks overloaded with miners are seen disappearing and reappearing in and from the middle of nowhere. They travel crushed like sardins at the back of the truck to the most remote parts of the Sahara, to dig with picks and shovels 12, 15 hours a day under the abrasive sun. They go in search of new deposits of gold, but long gone are those days of prosperity in which one could stumbled with gold rocks while taking a walk. Today, they have to dig deeper in extremely remote places and yet, that does not guarantee anything. From the ancient Egyptian civilization to the modern-day Chinese mining multinationals, they all have come to take the gold from the Nubian Sahara, and of those golden rocks from the past, only a few crumbs are left. For many, this is the only hope for making a few dollars a week. Since the separation of South Sudan from Sudan, the country has been left without its other gold, the black one, the one that has traditionally been its main source of wealth. Today, the gold is mostly exploited by Chinese and Turkish mining companies and the rest is left to split between those who dare to venture to pick up the remaining crumbs. The government decrees that those who find gold shall become its owners. Delgo market, is the meeting point of those who come seeking this illusion. Here, all the rocks brought from deep into the desert are processed to extract the possible gold in them.The process begins at the grinding machines. They grind the stones until turning them into a very thin powder. The need to operate them manually has the workers working inside a permanent asphyxiating cloud of dust at temperatures that easily reach 60 C (140F).
After throwing the rocks in them, the machines spit out dust in all directions. Sometimes it is so much that nothing around can be seen. For many, it is so hard to breath within this thick cloud that, despite the heat, they need to wrap their heads up with their own rags.
Others cannot tolerate it at all. Their bodies fully covered in dust and their faces permanently frowning reflect the misery of every minute at their job.However, neither their rags nor their earmuffs made of cloth are enough to minimize the shrill sound of the rocks being ground against the metallic pieces of the grinder. It is a sound that deafens until insanity.
Through the rear of the machine comes out the result of the grinding, a man stands there holding the sack that stores the powder. The machines are so precarious that they frequently get stuck, at which point everyone around it has to run away from it. Metal rods, nuts and bolts of an overburdened machine shoot out in all directions like bullets in war when the mechanism finally collapses. Everybody has to escape however is possible until the machine stops itself completely.
Once the sacks are full they are carried over to the muddy water pools where the next step begins. Sitting with their legs half submerged, the men here have water but no shade. They spend the whole day under the crippling sun rays, it is the same sun that we find everywhere except that here, the rays seem to pierce like laser. They are the necessary evil for them to spot the shining any possible gold present in the sand.
The powder is then poured in small portions inside wide buckets that are later filled with water.
They are shaken time and time again in circular motion. Water is taken in an out while they keep shaking it. The objective is to try to make the gold powder slowly separate from the sand which is stuck to.
After several minutes, the water excess is removed leaving the wet dust at the bottom. A liquid separator is then added, and like its name suggests it, this plated liquid absorbs the particles of gold separating them from the mud. The bucket is shaken again so the separator reaches all parts of the bottom area. The gold sticks to it like a magnet and then the compound is poured back into a small bottle.
With the separator comes the moment of truth. Bottle in hand, the last link of this chain heads to the tents of the traders. Right in front of their tents they have the rudimentary heating system that is used to finally bring out the pure gold from the separator. Many wait all day for this moment. Crouching around a precarious coal-filled oven made of mud, the men add small bits of the magic potion into a scoop sitting on the burning coals.
They fan and wait patiently until chemistry does its job, they wait for the miracle. They wait for the moment when the silver finally becomes golden. The miracle, however, comes atomized in minute particles. From the golden rocks of the past, today only the crumbs remain. Much less than a full gram is extracted from each bottle of separator.
With extreme care, the ever-so-small resulting ball of gold is carried to the shop where the traders, anxiously sit all day waiting for the outcome of the daily harvest. They do nothing but waiting, a scale on one hand and money on the other, while they drink one glass of tea after another.
They are the rich here, they have the capital. Without them, it would be impossible for any of this hard-working men dedicated to this life to even think of profiting on his own. In April 2014, 1 gram of gold costs the equivalent to 33 usd in Delgo market but it could take days or even weeks for most of these workers to accumulate the necessary crumbs to complete a full gram. The traders, on the other hand, collect them one by one until they get a portion big enough to send it to the world market of commodities and financial speculation. Meanwhile, everybody here has to break his back for the few crumbs that will fill their plate at the of each day, but not much more than that. This is the magic, the magic of gold.
Life beyond hell
Delgo's gold market is much more than a market, it is a huge city of tents made of rags improvised in the middle of nowhere. A look at the murky horizon at the end of the sand streets provides images that resemble a ghost town; it is hard to imagine it houses thousands of migrants both local and foreign. Its nature is temporary, everything is as temporary as fever, the very gold fever that drives people all the way here pursuing the illusion of finding a brighter subsistence.
As long as the fever lasts, these people will live in this huge community of seekers. They come displaced by conflict, from humanitarian crisis stricken regions like Darfur here in Sudan and Chad, South Sudan, Central African Republic and others; countries devastated by drought, recurrent famines and the eternal tribal conflicts that are so inherent to their very existence. Paradoxically, they find in this furnace of hell the escape (or the perpetuation) to each own's personal hell, that of a life that seems to force them to live on the run, in perpetual transit, on a long march along an endless road that leads to a better life that never comes.
In Delgo, they find everything that they need except pleasures. There is no place for party, for vice; the access of women is strictly forbidden, as well as the permanence of minors. It is a massive community of men whose life has made them grow strong by force. They use that strength to work and stay on their feet, until that very same strength gives up and abandons them to fall exhausted wherever they might be. There is no sleep here, there's collapse; There is no resting here, there is temporary death between work shifts.
There are neither tyrannical bosses here nor regular working hours, because you work day and night when it is the dictatorship of misery the one who dictates the regime of life. Inside or outside, up or down, on one side or the other, there is no escape to the blistering heat that, under the sun it flays, under the shade it asphyxiates.
But no matter how hot it is, no matter what time of the day, there are always brave men working at all times. The images of work alternate with those of daily life.
Not only are the gold seekers those who find their sustenance but all those individuals who come to provide the workers with the essentials. Sellers of tea, fresh water from the Nile, snacks, wander the streets of sand defying heat in order to make a few cents.
Likewise, there are shops for tools, cables, machines, spare parts and workshops ready to repair all and each of the components necessary to keep this urban sprawl and its dwellers moving.
Transportation and delivery services are mostly carried out by animals, in wooden carts pulled by donkeys. It is the only luxury that can be afforded by those who are not willing to undertake the painful experience of walking long distances under the brutal sun. With a long bamboo stick, the riders whip their animals, who are equally exhausted by the heat, to make the go faster in this slow-paced land; meanwhile they shout out offering their services.
Child labour is strictly controlled and most of the time properly enforces, but even so, there are teenagers showing up here and there trying to find some privacy to take a shot at finding a few gold crumbs for themselves. They easily elude a handful of idle soldiers, who lying on a bed inside their control booths, they pretend to control what they do not feel like controlling.
Finally, the space to which many rigorously attend to five times a day without exceptions. The improvised mosque made out of thin corrugated steel sheets makes it feel more like a microwave oven rather than a spiritual shelter. Workers congregate there to find in Allah (God) the answers that they need to keep going day by day fighting for these crumbs of gold. Working hard, from their place in the world, the place that God has determined for them. No matter how hard the job is, paradise awaits at the end of the road...insha'allah (if God wants it)
From the perspective of many, this life is very hard, it certainly is for me as well. However, it was the dozens of encounters during my visit that showed me once again, that most of the time, the life we live and how we perceive it, definitely depends on the way we look at it. In the exchanges I held, sometimes limited by the language barriers, sometimes not; in the reactions to my presence, in the predisposition of most people, in the verbal exchanges and the gestures and looks as well; over and over again the feeling I got from the people was that of a spirit and strength that are founded in stoicism and not on lament; in integrity and not in collapse, in the spirit of struggle and not in resignation, in good humor and not in complaint, in hospitality and not in resentment. Finally, it is in the smiles that are drawn in their faces covered in dust, whenever they remove the rags that wrap them, where the real life lesson lies.