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Marco Oved’s Travers Reflection

It was 5:30 a.m. and we were sitting at a roadside stall eating a typical west African breakfast: scrambled eggs and bread with piping hot Nescafé.

The sun hadn’t risen yet, so it was only about 40 degrees out, and the pre-dawn light was just enough to see.

The streets were already bustling in Dori, northern Burkina Faso, the last outpost of civilization on the edge of the Sahara desert. From here, it’s a short 40km drive north to the notional borders of Mali and Niger (where Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler was kidnapped LINK: https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2009/09/08/fowler_says_he_was_shopped_to_kidnappers.html) and what can’t be bribed past a frontier guard can be easily driven through the desert.

Like many frontier towns, Dori is a crossroads where businessmen, smugglers and spies mingle. A half dozen languages are spoken and the white SUVs of the World Food Programme are parked beside pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back.

I had been warned that it was not safe to travel to this region. One year prior, the French army had been called in to quell an Al-Qaeda-inspired rebellion in Northern Mali and turned them back just short of the capital, Bamako. (LINK: https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2013/02/11/french_malian_troops_regain_control_of_gao_in_northern_mali_after_attack_by_islamic_fighters.html) But without a major battle, many of the rebel fighters had simply retreated back into the lawless north, just across the border from here. (LINK: https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2015/01/05/jihadists_launch_rare_attack_on_central_malian_town.html) Local missionaries had just been pulled out of their parishes after reports that their movements were being monitored by groups planning on kidnapping them for ransom.

The mine I was investigating, Essakane, is run by the Canadian company IAMGOLD, which has implemented strict security protocols. Employees and supplies are flown on a private jet directly into its heavily fortified compound just north of here. No one is allowed to exit the perimeter without an armed escort. But after a day trip in and out of the massive open pit gold mine, I knew I needed to go back to meet the people who lived just outside the fence.

It would take a five-hour drive through the desert to get there, and as my trusted driver, Yao Konan, told me, our strategy was to get in and get out before anyone had the chance to alert kidnappers we had arrived.

The previous day, Konan, my cameraman, Damien Koffi, and I had met local chiefs and driven out to the artisanal mines that are clustered around the perimeter of IAMGOLD’s industrial operation. We went down a hand-dug mine shaft with a barefoot miner to see their work conditions only a stone’s throw across the fence line from an air conditioned gymnasium built for IAMGOLD employees. (LINK: https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2014/12/01/burkina_faso_after_the_gold_rush.html)

We captured amazing images and conducted fascinating interviews for a report on the artisanal mine industry and I even had a chance to purchase some gold from a local trader that I would later make into my wedding rings. (LINK: https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2014/08/09/one_wedding_rings_journey_from_makeshift_mine_to_fiances_finger.html) But I wanted more. I knew there might be some children working in the mineshafts and if we found them, it would make an even better story than the one we already had.

So as I sat elbow to elbow with a couple of Tuaregs with full desert turbans covering their faces, I turned to Konan and suggested we go back for another day of filming in the shafts. He frowned and gave me the best piece of advice I got on my trip.

“Do you have what you need?” he asked.

I thought about it and confirmed that I did.

“Then it’s time to go.”


Marco Chown Oved is 2014 recipient

Reflections by other recipients