The sand miners of Sierra Leone: working and waiting

“It is difficult as a young man here in Sierra Leone,” says 16-year-old sand miner Adraman Kamara, standing on the banks of the Sierra Leone River in a small village 20 kilometres east of Freetown. “We are told to work for our money and help our families. We are told by the government that we must build our nation. What life can we have here?”

Adraman lives and works in Bessberry village, a cluster of houses at the bottom of a steep dirt road, which diverges from the main highway that leaves Sierra Leone’s capital city. At the bottom of this road I notice three distinct things: the shores of the river; dozens of mounds of drying sand which have been collected from the ocean; and the lean bodies of the men shoveling this sand and sculpting the mounds.

Sierra Leone’s National Youth Programme just released ‘A Blueprint for Youth Development: 2014-2018.  In this document the government claims that by 2018 it will create ‘1 million decent new jobs, 2 million active young citizens and 300, 000 more youth in education.’ However, the young men engaged in the sand mining operations just outside of Freetown I spoke to complained of having no input into their development or support from the state up until this point. Not only has a government official never visited the (approximately) 200 sand miners that work here, according to the men interviewed for this article, the government knows about their activities but ‘pretends they don’t exist.’

Adraman, like many other young men in Bessberry village, has dropped out of school to earn money to support his family. Each day, without motors or paddles, these men arduously move their boats from the river to the ocean using long bamboo sticks to guide their trips. Once they reach the sea two of the three men aboard the boat dive overboard armed with cut-open jerry cans in search of the sand they sell to large construction companies. They will swim up to 10 metres deep to get it.

“The whole trip can take us four and a half hours,” says Adraman. “We dive up to 40 times into the ocean, collecting sand and then dumping it on our boat. Then we bring the boat and the sand back to shore and sell it to the trucks (construction companies). How else can a young man make money here?”

Adraman Kamara, who dropped out of school to earn a living as a sand miner, stops his work briefly for a photograph. Brandon Finn.

Adraman Kamara, who dropped out of school to earn a living and works as a sand miner, stops his work briefly for a photograph. Brandon Finn.

A local journalist, Ilyase Bea — who brought me to this site — explains the risks and rewards associated with sand mining for these young men. “They feel they don’t have another choice of work. Even though the capital city is only 20 kilometres away, their job opportunities are very limited. They risk their lives here each day. Sometimes boats sink. Sometimes there are terrible storms.”

Bea grows increasingly animated in his description of these men. “The government knows about them. They know that they want stronger boats, motors, fishing nets. What do they get? There is no hope for them to improve their lives as things stand.’ Bea’s pessimistic stance reflects the realities many young people living within or on the outskirts of Freetown face.

Abubaka Kamara is 24-years-old and is chairman of the ‘Youth Sand Mining Group.’ “I am the sole breadwinner for my family,” he says proudly. “This mining allows me to earn 80 000 Leones a week ($18) which I use to pay for my family’s rent, food and also foot the bills of my siblings’ schooling.”

Unlike his younger siblings, Abubaka dropped out of school in Form 3 to ensure the rest of his family could survive and become educated. “I hope one day to become an educator. I do not know if I can manage this. The main thing I lack is support. There are very few opportunities for us here.”

A common sentiment at this site in Bessberry are the contrasting notions between what these young men want in their futures, versus what they expect to receive. After asking a group of eight men who were getting ready to shovel sand onto a large truck what they wanted to do in the future they responded saying “doctors, engineers, drivers, plumbers and teachers.” However, Abubaka sums up this disjuncture when he says, “We are here waiting for help. We are not poor because we do not work hard — we work hard. We are poor because we have no skills and no support, we have nothing else that we can do.”

In an interview with Ngolo Katta, executive director of the Center for Coordination of Youth Activities (CCYA), he mentioned how Sierra Leone is battling to make appropriate policies that cater for the country’s ‘youth bulge’.

“We have a massive number of young people in the country; many of them now sit around doing nothing,” he told me in his office in Freetown.

"This is women's work", says Julius Silleh. He is taking a small break from mining to sell sweets and cigarettes. Brandon Finn.

“This is women’s work”, says Julius Silleh. He is taking a small break from mining to sell sweets and cigarettes. Brandon Finn.

The sand miners at Bessberry Village add a new dimension to the problems facing the country’s youth policy makers. These are not youths who are ‘doing nothing.’ In fact, these men are working incredibly hard and making great sacrifices to do such work. Katta’s description is not apt for these men (it may be for other youths in the country). While these men are hardworking and industrious, perhaps it would be better, given their current work, skill levels and opportunities, to describe them as working and waiting, employed but not improving.

The sand mining that occurs at Bessberry village represents several challenges facing young men in and around Freetown. Frequently tasked with having to bear the responsibilities of being (often the sole) breadwinner for their families, men like Abubaka and Adraman take large risks for minimal rewards. How might the government’s blueprint cater to the needs of these men and their families when they are not familiar with the precise hardships they face? How might the blueprint include them in future (very small-scale) development projects when they are unable to enroll in vocational institutions because if they do their families will be unable to pay for food or rent?

The sand miners of Bessberry are resilient but severely restricted. In order for them to improve their socioeconomic standing they will surely either have to mechanise their labour-intensive, dangerous work processes, or seek an alternative way of earning an income. Without relevant skills or education this seems a distant dream to many of the men working on the shores of the river. The gap between their current and desired professions shows the enormity of the challenges that the ‘Blueprint for Youth Development in Sierra Leone’ faces in reaching its targets by 2018. This gap further represents the distance between these men and their ability to improve their own and their family’s current socioeconomic standing.


Main image: Sand miners at work in Bessberry village, Sierra Leone. Miners sell the sand to constructions companies. Brandon Finn.

Brandon Finn has just returned from two and a half weeks in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He spent this time researching young men in the capital city with a focus on studying the mechanisms they use to earn an income, and the predominant hindrances that prevent them from doing so. In this post-conflict city, he found young men bearing the responsibilities of being the primary breadwinners for their families. Follow Brandon on twitter.

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2 Responses to “The sand miners of Sierra Leone: working and waiting”

  1. Nomvula

    Thank you for this article. It is both heartbreaking and informative. Even dedication and self – agency can become redundant in a degrading social and economic environment. Stories like these stress the urgency for government involvement in the lives of the people they claim to care about. Well done Brandon.

  2. Louis Marcus

    An incredible perseptive and insightful article Brandon.


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