- Mining is a family business in some poor communities in Ebonyi
- Encouraged by their low rates, artisanal miners often engage child miners to work during school hours
- Some of the children working in Ebonyi mines and granite sites are orphans
- Ebonyi solid minerals ministry is handicapped, can’t effectively curb child mining
- Children working at the stone crushing sites are susceptible to tuberculosis, kidney disease, and lung cancer.
- A number of children have drowned in pits abandoned after conclusion of mining activities
The middle-aged man struck continuously at the big stone as the girl-child, armed with a mangled metal carrier, waited for her turn to fetch broken granites and climb up the makeshift steps of the uneven large pit to hand it over to another boy whose job was to ferry it to the next carrier, an adult.
It was around noon on a Friday and while their peers were learning in school, children — parentless and poverty-stricken — were in the belly of a granite pit working to make a buck — because if they do not, food will elude them back at home or wherever it is they retire for the night.
Some were there out of necessity; for some, it was compulsory; for most, it was circumstantial. But the children have two things in common: they are missing out on an education and are being exposed to hazardous substances which portend grave danger to their health in years to come.
To silent, discreet observers, it was a sad sight to take in but for them, it’s a reality they must live, a routine they’ve become accustomed to.
This is the story of disadvantaged children and orphans who work side by side adults in lead mining and granite crushing sites in Ebonyi, bereft of protective gears and air-purifying respirators — in a bid to eke out a living, help their mothers, and put themselves through school.
Shall we begin?
Despite posing as a buyer, this reporter was keenly watched and his movement was closely trailed. Artisanal miners are cagey and can be violent because most of them are operating illegally, hence the apprehension and paranoia that accompany their interaction with strangers.
Journalists, on the other hand, dare not introduce themselves, else they’d be asked to leave and failure to do so will attract a hostile treatment.
Standing atop the mine at Okposi Umuoghara in Ezza North LGA, and looking down at the granite pit from over 80 feet above, you could never miss the figures of children consumed in their tasks. With forlorn faces, they carried out their tasks with the precision of workers who have plenty practice.
At the lowest edge of the pit, one of the children – a young girl – bared a half-smile that faded almost as swiftly as it appeared. After failing to get reciprocity, she looked away.
A group of mothers observing their rest had noticed the non-verbal interaction with the child. One shouted in Igbo, “give me money for pure water”.
Women and child labourers in lead mines and granite crushing sites are paid between N200 and N500 per day, depending on the power of negotiation – if any.
Later, the Eze of Okposi, Anthony Njoku, said the situation – where mothers bring their children to work in mines – is a direct result of abject penury and the need to find a way to make money to eat.
“There is serious poverty around here. People are suffering. Some of these women take their children to the mine so it is like a family business,” he said.
“You cannot tell these women anything about education or that a disease will kill them and their children in 20 years when they have nothing to eat today.
“Some of the children working in the mines. Most of them are orphans.”
THE WHITE-FACED ORPHANS
Njoku was right.
Some of the children who interacted with this reporter at granite crushing sites in the village said they had neither mother nor father.
Child labour is illegal in Ebonyi but young boys and girls, whose faces were covered in white granite dust and whose headscarves were discarded T-shirts, worked with the dedication of adults.
Three boys in their early teens said they were working to raise money for school fees.
Chima, Obinna, and Monday had been deeply consumed with their work so it was initially difficult to engage or prise them away.
Despite being in Primary 5, they struggled to converse in English. Obinna had the best grasp of the English language.
Our rushed conversation played out thus:
Reporter: Nna, bia (Young boy, come). Wetin be your name?
Obinna: My name is Obinna.
Reporter: What class are you in?
Obinna: Primary 5
Reporter: Why you no dey school?
Obinna: I don’t have money
Reporter: What of your parents?
Obinna: My daddy has died
Reporter: What of your mummy?
Obinna: My mummy is dead
Reporter: You no go school for Monday?
Obinna: No, I no get money.
Reporter: How much is your school fees?
Obinna: My school fees na N3,000
For Akah Friday, who had tagged along with his mother that morning as he had been doing for weeks, it was a different story.
With his rosary beads dangling out of his shirt, and seemingly in a haste to return to his job, Akah reluctantly granted a brief audience. He is the co-breadwinner of his family and the job must be done, he said. Of course, Akah would love to be in school, but there’s no “ego” (money) for that.
Akah is just one of the young boys who had accompanied their mothers to the site.
A granite dealer, who spoke under the assumption that he was addressing a potential buyer, painted a picture of the plight of the children when probed.
“They may decide to go to school either two days a week and use the other days to work to get something to sustain them in school,” he said.
“For you to be in school, there should be something to sustain you there. Some of them have no resources. They sometimes sneak out, do this job and go back to school.
“This is the way to survive.”
Across the road in the centre of another stone-crushing site was an emaciated child, not more than three years old, whose wailing was competing with the loud grunt of the machine.
His mother was busy with work, therefore, the toddler’s cry for attention, irrespective of his reason, was an exercise in futility. His mother was one of the women saddled with the responsibility of delivering big stones to the heavy-duty machine for crushing.
On a closer observation, another woman had an infant strapped to her back as she journeyed back and forth, even as the haze of granite dust swirled around her.
Like the toddler, the infant was crying but the mother could not be bothered. The task at hand, it seemed, was more pertinent.