In stark contrast to the idyllic images of silhouetted camel caravans that walk at a slow pace along undulating golden dunes at sunset, the Sahara Desert is for many, the place they come to earn a living. Caught up in this vast ocean of sand — the abrasive heat, the harshness of the wind, and the cruelty of the hot sun make it unthinkable that a place of work could be possibly found in this barren environment.
However, for thousands of years the Sahara has provided humanity with the metal it yearns for the most — gold. The glow of this mineral has blinded the world, from ancient Egypt to the China of the 21st century, and has led millions of people to move in search of wherever it may be found.
Picking up the crumbs
The thermometer reaches its 55°C mark (131°F) by 10 am on any Sunday in April at Delgo’s gold market. At first sight, the only thing that can be seen from the road is a distant front of makeshift corrugated steel stalls. Here, 300 meters inland, the buses that drive across the desert make their stop to take a break. However, a five-minute walk on the sand to the back of the rows of tea houses and restaurants, reveals a massive sand-ridden settlement of tents made from rags and tarps, primitively held together with wooden sticks and ropes.
Precarious, dusty, torn apart by the desert winds, overcrowded, and compressed under the oppressive heat, thousands of gold seekers from the most impoverished parts of Sudan and its bordering countries, come with the prospect of making a living.
Every so often old Toyota pickup trucks overloaded with miners are seen disappearing and reappearing from the middle of nowhere. They travel crushed like sardines in the back of the truck to the most remote parts of the Sahara, to dig with picks and shovels for twelve or fifteen hours a day under the abrasive sun. The miners go in search of new deposits of gold, but long gone are the days of prosperity, when any miner could simply stumble on glinting golden rocks while taking a walk in the sun.
Today, the miners have to dig deeper in extremely remote places and even then, this does not guarantee anything. From the ancient Egyptian civilization to the modern-day multinational mining companies from China, they have all come to take the gold from the Nubian Sahara, and of those golden rocks, once easily found in a now distant past, only a few crumbs remain. And yet for many, this work is their only hope of making even a few dollars a week.
Following 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 be split between those who dare to venture out and attempt to dig out the remaining crumbs.
The government decrees that those who find gold are themselves the owners of the wealth. Delgo market is the meeting point of those who come seeking this illusion. Here, all the rocks brought from deep in the desert are processed to extract every crumb of possible gold.
This painstaking and exhausting process of extraction begins at the grinding machines, where the stones are ground by hand until only a very thin powder remains. The need to operate the grinding apparatus manually has the workers operating inside a permanent asphyxiating cloud of dust at temperatures that easily reach 60°C (140°F).
After the rocks have been thrown into the machines, they spit dust out in all directions. Sometimes the air is so filled with dust that it becomes impossible to even see the man standing next to you. For many of the workers, it is so hard to breathe within this thick cloud that, despite the heat, they wrap their heads up in rags.
Other workers cannot bear the heat or the claustrophobic rags. Their bodies are entirely covered in dust and the permanent frown on their faces reflects the misery of every minute spent at this job. However, neither rags nor earmuffs made of cloth are enough to obliterate the shrill sound of the rocks being ground against the metallic pieces of the grinder. It is a piercing, deafening sound that could drive you insane.
From the back of the machine the dusty result of the grinding spews out, and one man stands there holding a sack to catch the rock powder. The machines are so poorly made and over-used that they frequently get stuck, at which point everyone around it has to run away from it.
Metal rods, nuts, and bolts from the overburdened machine shoot out in all directions like bullets until the internal mechanism finally collapses. Everyone who is working nearby has to run away as quickly as they can, until the machine stops itself completely.
Once the sacks are full of the ground rocks 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 rays of the sun — and although it is the same sun we find everywhere, here the rays seem to pierce the skin like burning laser beams. And yet the sun’s glare is a necessary evil — needed to help them spot the shining bits of any gold present in the sand.
First the ground rock powder is poured in small portions into wide buckets, which are then filled with water. These buckets are shaken time and time again in a circular motion. Water is poured in and out as they keep shaking it. Their objective is to try and make the gold powder slowly separate from the heavier sand.
After several minutes, the excess water is removed leaving the wet dust at the bottom. A liquid separator is then added, and just as its name suggests, this plated liquid absorbs the particles of gold separating them from the mud. The liquid in the bucket is swilled around again so that the separator reaches all parts of the bottom area. The gold sticks to it like a magnet and the resulting compound is then poured into a small bottle.
With the separator comes the moment of truth, the one they are all eagerly waiting for. Bottle in hand, filled with renewed hope, they head to the traders’ tents. In front of these tents are rudimentary heating systems that are used to finally bring the pure gold out 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 balancing on the burning coals.
With extreme care, the ever-so-small resulting ball of gold is then carried into the shop where the traders sit all day waiting for the gold seekers to bring the outcome of their daily harvest. With a sets of scales on one side and money on the other, the traders do nothing but wait and chat the hours away, while they drink one glass of tea after another.
Life Beyond Hell
The gold market at Delgo is much more than just a market — it is a huge city of tents made of rags, improvised in the middle of nowhere. One look at the murky horizon at the end of the sandy streets presents an image that resembles a refugee camp, and it is hard to imagine that it houses thousands of migrants both local and foreign.
Delgo is by its very nature a transitory encampment. Everything about it is as temporary as a hot fever — the very gold fever that drives so many all the way here, pursuing the illusion of a brighter existence.
As long as the gold fever lasts, people will continue to live at Delgo, in this huge community of seekers. Many come displaced by conflict, from stricken regions like Darfur here in Sudan, but also from Chad, South Sudan, Central African Republic and others. Others come from countries devastated by drought, recurrent famines, and the eternal tribal conflicts that are so inherent to their very existence.
Paradoxically, the workers see escape in this furnace of hell. The reality is a perpetuation of their own personal hell — of a life that seems to force them to live on the run, in perpetual transit, always on a long march along an endless road that leads to a better life, but which never comes.
ere in Delgo, there is no place for pleasure, partying, or for vice — women are strictly forbidden from entering the settlement, and minors are not permitted to be resident here. It is a massive community of men whose hard lives have forced them to grow strong. They use that grit and strength to work and stay on their feet, until at last their bodies force them to give up, their strength abandons them, and they fall exhausted wherever they might be.
"There is no sleep here, there is only collapse. There is no rest here, there is only the temporary oblivion between gruelling work shifts."
There are neither tyrannical bosses here, nor regular working hours. Instead, the men work day and night, their time and misery self-dictated, controlling the regime of their own lives. Inside or outside, up or down, on one side of the camp or the other, there is no escape from the blistering heat. Out under the open sun it flays the skin, and even in the temporary shelter of shade it asphyxiates.
And yet no matter how hot it is, no matter the time of day, there are always brave men working at all times. These images of work interweave with those of daily life. At Delgo, it is not only the gold seekers who are attempting to make a living, there are also those individuals who come to provide the workers with the essentials — sellers of tea, those bringing fresh water from the Nile, and snack vendors wander the streets of sand, defying the heat in order to make a few cents by the end of each day.
You will also find makeshift tent shops for all of the tools, cables, machines, and spare parts, along with their workshops, ready to repair each of the components necessary to keep this sprawling settlement of workers functioning each day.
Transportation and delivery services are mostly carried out by animals, usually with wooden carts pulled by donkeys. It is the only luxury that can be afforded by those who are unwilling to undertake the painful experience of walking long distances under the brutal sun.
With a long bamboo stick, the riders will whip their animals — who are equally exhausted by the heat — to make them go faster in this slow-paced land, all the while shouting out to offer their services.
Child labour at Delgo is strictly controlled and most of the time properly enforced, but even so, there are teenagers showing up here and there, trying to find themselves a hideaway while they take a shot at finding a few gold crumbs for themselves. The young boys hiding out in the camp easily elude a handful of idle soldiers, who lie on a bed inside their makeshift control booths, merely pretending to control what they do not want to control.
Finally, there is the space to which many rigorously attend, five times a day, without exceptions. The improvised mosque is made out of thin corrugated steel sheets, making it feel more like the inside of a microwave oven rather than a spiritual shelter. The men congregate here to find in Allah the answers that they need to keep going day by day, fighting for these crumbs of gold.
They believe that they are 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 wills it).
From the perspective of many, this life at Delgo is very hard, and it certainly seems that way for me as well. However, the dozens of encounters during my visit showed me once again, that most of the time, the life we live and how we perceive it, depends entirely on the way we look at it, and on the choices that we may have.
In the exchanges I held, sometimes limited by a language barrier, sometimes not, in the reactions to my presence, in the predisposition of most people, in the verbal exchanges and the gestures and looks.
Over and over again the feeling I got from the workers was one of a spirit and strength founded in stoicism and not on lament, in integrity and not in collapse, in struggle and not in resignation, in good humor and not in complaint, in hospitality and not in resentment.
In the end, it was in the smiles that I saw drawn on the workers' dusty faces, whenever they removed the suffocating rags that wrapped them, where the real life lesson lay.