Under the radar

I read with great sadness this week of another boat load of asylum seekers drowning off the coast of Christmas Island as they attempted to make Australian soil. But this week, the news in Ghana has been dominated by what is much more effectively ‘illegal immigrants’.

News agencies from the New York Times to the BBC have reported on the illegal Chinese miners who have been variably gaoled, deported, and on the run from Ghanaian immigration authorities. (Both links are well worth looking at, the New York Times article is very emotive, while the BBC link shows an excellent video of a mining camp.)

Coming from Australia, where one in four people were born overseas, it is one of many multitudes of culture shock moving to a country where immigration forms a very, very small percentage of the population. As such, some of the laws can seem discriminatory to non-Ghanaians; but ultimately attempt to protect Ghanaian interests. Small scale mining is such an example, where only Ghanaian nationals are allowed to operate small scale mining concessions. In another example, foreigners are prohibited from owning property in Ghana. There are, of course, ways and means around this, mostly taking a Ghanaian partner in business. But in a poor country, all foreigners are deemed wealthy, simply because they are foreigners. There is often a level of frustration around foreign-run enterprises. Combine this with the environmental rape which constitutes small scale mining, and the level of frustration and anger can escalate rapidly.

Small scale mining is very common in Ghana, and the majority of which are run by Ghanaians. But the number of Chinese, and their resulting conspicuousness, has, until these last few days been on the significant rise. When you visualise small scale mining, take away all thoughts of shovels and gold panning. Replace these quaint notions with giant yellow excavators which rip apart river beds in search of the elusive yellow metal. Of gold won by mercury extraction. This is alluvial mining at its worst. And when the river has exhausted its supply of gold, the excavators move on, leaving a path of destruction, silted rivers which spoil water supply, and water courses which will take generations, if ever, to recover.

Locally this small scale alluvial mining is called galamsay. Which is one of those wonderful words which has slipped between the accents and become its own word, with it’s own, variably negative connotations. Say “gather and sell” with the long, melodious vowels of a Ghanaian accent, and it becomes galamsay.

I have seen Ghanaian-run alluvial mining operations in the area around where my husband works. Visualise 200 people thigh deep in mud carrying buckets on their head, mud streaming down their bodies, to be pushed through the sluice to be concentrated. Excavators nearby digging new pits to be exhumed. I have never seen such backbreaking work. And the pay apparently is reasonable. But there is none of the accountability, or even data collection which professional mining operations adhere to. Nothing preserved for the future but a destroyed river bed. The town immediately adjacent to where my husband works has an area population of 60,000 people. For several weeks their water supply was lost as the galamsay had silted up the river which provided the town with water.

While it is the Chinese miners which have been under the spotlight in recent weeks, over 200 foreigners have been arrested. These include nationals from Togo, Nigeria, Russia and  the United States. Gold has been luring people for centuries, and a gold rich country like Ghana can seem like easy pickings. Local officials, traditional authorities and business people encourage the operations because everyone can get a cut of the action. And galamsay operations employ a lot of people. The (small) mine my husband works at, even at it’s peak, employed fewer people than the local galamsay operations. The mine provides services to the local community, but perversely, not the same volume of employment. And now we are in the wet season, with a high water table, many operations have temporarily closed; I’m sure adding to the frustrations of the local galamsay and their communities.

The area where we live in Kumasi, indeed the very complex we live in, is at the heart of Chinese living in Kumasi. On a typical day you would see more Chinese on the roads, in their ubiquitous twin cab 4 x 4s; than you would white foriegners. For the last several months Chinese businesses have been springing up every few weeks in the area. I wonder what impact this exodus will have on the local economy. A large service industry has sprung up to cater for the miners; Chinese restaurants, casinos, grocery stores and even, I’m told, Chinese prostitutes.

In our complex, four of the six houses are tenanted to Chinese. Since the deportations began their numbers, both where we live, and on the streets around us has swelled massively. Two nights ago I counted 15 people sleeping in the house next door.

I try to empathise with them, but it is difficult. They squat, literally on our door step, in their yellow flip-flops, chain-smoking and discarding the butts on the ground. Some staring at their smart phones, others staring into the middle distance, or staring at us as we come and go.  There is not a lot of conversation, but an overwhelming sense of waiting. Initially perhaps hiding, now waiting. Waiting to sell their 4 x 4s on the cheap, waiting to board the plane and go home. I understand many are miners from rural China, trying to escape their own poverty. There is talk the Chinese government will pay for their return tickets home to avoid prosecution. Here they are breaking the law, and with little or no English language skills, they live parallel to society. Living opportunistically, and I think that is cause of much of the chagrin; there is not a sense of giving back, just take.

The New York Times article reads very emotively, and while I do not condone the manner in which people have been treated, I think it would be profoundly naive to think it would have happened much differently. There have been repeated violent clashes between local communities, authorities and the Chinese galamsay over (at least) the past year. While not every Chinese person in Ghana is here illegally or operating beyond the law, there are many who run businesses. But overwhelmingly these businesses are here to serve the galamsay community, so they have been tarred with the same brush.

The big questions, of course, remain to be answered. How did they enter Ghana? What will stop it from happening again? How large a hole will be left in the local economy? And  most importantly, when will the small scale operations stop being the cash cow of the local economies and be forced to run with a sense of environmental responsibility?

[The internet and I are having troubles today and I can’t manage to upload any photographs. Sorry for that, but have a look over at my Instagram feed where I will post some].

4 responses to “Under the radar

  1. Hello,

    Good Day.

    I closely follow your posts on the internet on regular basis.

    Thanks for bringing the issue of immigration and the presence of Chinese nationals in Ghana. As an immigrant and a person who has lived most of or entirely all of my adult life as an immigrant in Europe, I find discussing immigrants and immigration a very difficult thing to handle. I know what it feels like to be at the receiving end of laws that are made against ones presence in another country whether implicitly or explicitly.

    I will start by saying that I am not writing to criticise your position, defend the Government of Ghana, express an extreme right-wing position towards immigrants or show an anti-immigrant position of any sort. To be honest, I have an extremely very liberal position on issues relating to the subject of immigration but I cannot vouch the same position on behalf of every Ghanaian.

    Firstly, it is not entirely accurate that foreigners cannot own property in Ghana. There are certain categories of property that foreigners cannot own. There are many Lebanese, Indians and other Africans who own property in Ghana and have owned these property for many years. Yes, I agree that some of these people may have married Ghanaians, perhaps have dual nationality or have other family links with Ghana but it is not the situation with every case.

    Secondly, regarding the issue with Chinese Galamsey miners, I have to be honest that we (Ghanaians) have never been comfortable with the practice and activities of these small-scale miners, be they foreigners or Ghanaians. Just like prohibition of alcohol in America that failed and led to some form of legalisation, the government of Ghana reluctantly had to accept the reality of the issue of small-scale miners (Galamsey) and provide some legal framework for their operations some years ago when I was a kid. However, that was when small-scale mining was done with simple basic tools with very little impact on the environment. Now, what we have with the presence of ‘external investments’ in small-scale mining is severe degradation of the vegetation, pollution of water sources, destruction and contamination of the topsoil and the spread of serious diseases from the inappropriate use of dangerous chemicals such as cyanide etc. These are serious issues that a financially poor country like Ghana is already struggling to deal with before the recent arrival of foreign interests in this sector.

    I agree that there are Ghanaians involved but if I have to be honest with you, most Ghanaians would like mining to be ceased (large and small-scale), as we as a country do not see the benefits of it that outweigh the consequences of such mining activities. To be honest, there are Ghanaian conspirators involved in these activities. I admit this.

    Regarding Chinese people living parallel lives, I do not think that is an issue. Most foreigners in Ghana do live parallel lives to most Ghanaians, anyway and that has never been an issue. That is fine with most Ghanaians. It is not the best situation but then Ghanaians are not overwhelming the most receptive group people in the world. Besides it is not a big deal. This has always been the case from the days of colonisation to date with regards to parallel lives of some foreigners and Ghanaians. There is not problem with that at all.


    • Hello Felix, First I would like to thank you for you thoughtful and insightful comment on the blog. And I do sincerely appreciate being corrected on any errors I make about life here. And you are completely correct about all of us foreigners leading parallel lives. I think this boundary is somewhat overcome when a foreigner marries a Ghanaian, but perhaps never in it’s entirety. As you say, it is a difficult thing to discuss immigrants and immigration, particularly in a non-judgemental way, even more so when you don’t agree with the practices of the immigrants. And as a Ghanaian national in the UK I am not surprised, although very disappointed that you have experienced implicit and explicit discrimination. It is a topic often discussed with newly arrived expatriates in our community the (probably first) experience of discrimination. And to the galamsay. Such a difficult thing to stamp out when the price of gold is still at record levels (albeit slightly fallen), and as people continue to benefit directly and indirectly through the process. I don’t think small scale mining will vanish from Ghana for a very long time. The country is so richly endowed with gold, and gold holds a lure and a promise (real or otherwise) of wealth that is difficult to resist. The solution lies in strong government monitoring of the activities, and (as with everything) education as to the detrimental effects on the environment and the people doing the work (I’m thinking here particularly as to mercury use). The perfect example of short term gain over long term loss. Again, thank you for your time and thoughts Felix. As a foreigner in Ghana I do really appreciate your viewpoint as I know I see only a fraction of the real story. KInd regards, Chrissie


  2. Chris, i read this article and was going to forward it to you by coincidence today. Thanks for your input and follow read. I can’t believe how Ghana and its activities are part of my life because of you and your blog.


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