The tallest and eldest of the siblings tripped up on a half-buried stump as he tried to avoid a group of children who suddenly ran across them. His mind went back a few years as he saw those children playing; he might have had a child of his own. A feeling of guilt welled up inside him as he recollected how he denied ever sleeping with her, let alone impregnating her. A small tear streaked down his face as the look of anguish in her eyes suddenly rushed back to him.
His name was Obiri, he was young and immature back then, and had escaped his responsibilities as a father. That was the last time he’d seen her. She had probably moved to one of the neighbouring villages.
The other two trudged along behind him, machetes slung over their drooping shoulders and with those sturdy rubber sandals carved from old rotten car tyres covering their dust cracked feet. Beyond the horizon lay the mountains where they were headed.
Back home, in the confines of their old mud hut lay their sick, weak and poverty- stricken parents. Times were hard; even these once fertile lands could no longer bear fruit, not even if their battered old frames could bring themselves to cultivate them once again. They had borne three strong sons in their youth and now it was time for them to pay back the debt.
The three made the same journey most days of a week; through forests, over hills, and across dry perilous lands, towards the valleys of the south. Unsure if they would even make it back for the night, but desperate that they at least brought home another meal, each time they wandered back into the unknown.
Their mission was simple, to dig; to mine for gold, but alas! They were not real miners, they had neither safety gears, nor any proper tools; just pickaxes and mallets.
They had no assets, no annuities, not even allowances; self-employed they were, and each day they worked on the brink of life and death.
They were “galamseyers”.
They consorted with deadly surroundings, hitting mercilessly at those hard unforgiving rocks, which bit back just as hard, eating huge bits into their unprotected hands.
Deep trenches marked the boundaries around the steep inclines, which were their almost daily confines.
Digging around them, were other groups of young men. Around the edges of the clearing, where the bushes lay, young children and their mothers cracked endlessly at huge boulders blown away by the dynamites. They came from the many villages around and were paid about a cedi each for a bucketful , which could be considered quite a good return but only if, you ignored the fact that a single bucket could sometimes take a whole day to fill up.
They had been digging for quite some time now and yet to no avail; that was the life of a galamseyer; some days you got some, other days you got nothing. For them it was already beginning to look like one of those days you did not, and it had begun to drizzle too.
Just a few paces behind them from within one of the pits, a muscular young man suddenly emerged screaming with delight. He had struck a monstrous patch of rock which seemed to glisten with the yellow powder. That was that for the day then, together with two others, they proceeded to break the rock up into smaller bits. That was their survival ensured for another month at least.
It was growing dark, and with nothing to show for all the hard work, and with the rain now pouring, they ran for shelter under an old abandoned shed together with about four or five unlucky others. It was too late to start the treacherous journey home now. If they weren’t attacked by those marauding bandits who prowled the night bushes looking to ambush one of the nearby mine company’s trucks, they might just find themselves as supper for some lucky wild species of animal.
And with nothing to show for all their endeavour today, they might as well stay and dig in the early hours and hope to quite literally, strike gold. The next day was a market day and they could hope to trade the raw ore with some merchant and get supplies to take back home.
It was an old shelter, used by the miners who ran shifts in the nearby shafts of the Ashanti gold mine, so there were a few old blankets lying around. The men dragged some benches together and lying side by side they shared the blankets between them.
The rain pattering down on the aluminium roofing sheets above was soon drowned out by the heavy snores of the dreary young men who took shelter beneath its comforting shade.
There was a stinging sensation on his chest, he hit out to swat that troubling mosquito, but then it surfaced again, this time on his shoulder, he hit out again, then again on his left toe. Suddenly there was a shrill scream from the far corner. Ogyam, the second of the three siblings had leapt off his bench furiously scratching on his scrotum…”so.. so…soldier ants” he blurted out as he ran off into the gloomy dusk ahead. One or two others threw off the blankets and sure enough there was an entire colony of the deadly claw-headed ants marching up around them.
That was no mosquito, Kofi quickly realised, and jumped up writhing in agony as he pulled off a struggling ant which had sunk its mandibles deep into the folds above his eyelids.
The first roosters had begun to awake, and their drawling hoots pierced the skies just as they did the ears of the drowsy miners.
They grudgingly pulled their axes out, and trudged out into the dark dawn, rubbing furiously at the small bumps tattooed on them by their tiny oppressors as they went. The rain had soaked the ground so they had to take gentle steps to avoid slipping up.
Obiri, led them out from their encampment. They could barely see a thing in this light, but they trolled on. Obiri had spotted a clearing a few yards out from where they and the others had been working the day before.
That area used to be a concession of the mine company. It had been abandoned a year back because the environmental agency had deemed the pits unsafe.
A little further ahead, on a little hill, near the bushes, a mother and child who had defied the rains, and most probably worked through the night and bitter cold, could be heard chipping away at the rocks. This was a cruel life; his belly protruded from lack of nutrition, his hands were chapped from the many nights hitting out at those stones. He was so young but already so exposed.
The mother wore a hard, tired look on her face, and her child, he had no father.
It happened about four years ago, she didn’t talk about it anymore; the memory was too painful.
Her son was all she thought about now, it pained her to have to bring him along to work with her, but that was the only way they could survive. She was young but already too weak. Years of hard work had taken its toll. Her legs were weak, her back already bent over.
She cracked the bigger boulders with her mallet, she then pushed the smaller stones to her son, who broke them down even further, and then gathered them in a metal bucket between them.
Back where the miners were, some cocoyam grew wild. Two of them had started a fire, and had begun roasting some of the small balls of fibrous whiteness which grew within the brown skins of the tubers. In and around the grasses and roots, there were small shallow holes. To the untrained eye these were probably just as they were…holes, but to the trained eyes of most of these village folks, those holes were food in the purest, rawest form. Those were rat holes. Not the sewer species, the bush species. They called them kusie.
A couple of the lads were poking around in some of these holes to see if they might catch the lazy rat who hadn’t woken up early enough.
Luck struck all of a sudden when in a blaze of brown rush, a ton of a rat scurried out of one of those holes…the chase was on. Abandoning all other things, these young men leapt over branches, dived through thorny bushes and skidded across muddy patches. The rat, not to be outdone by these incredibly athletic men did a few acrobats of its own; hurling its relatively tiny body over huge paces in single leaps and somersaulting through tiny gaps between hedges. The rat must have felt like a fugitive in a police chase; here it was being hunted by what must have been at least seven men. This was perfect flight, but it was soon brutishly cut down, stopped in mid-flight by a savage blow to the head. Its twisted little body suddenly froze and came tumbling down to earth with all the grace of a felled log of timber
A huge roar rose amongst the men of the chase, axes and machetes raised in triumph. Now they could eat, but for the small detail that the rat was still uncooked. Their joy was soon cut short however; before they could start cooking the poor little beast, from behind the joyous melee, a sudden piercing scream rang out. The birds abandoned their perches high up in the trees beyond as the echoes of the shrill cry reverberated across the plain. It had come from the gentle hills up ahead; from where the young mother and her child had been cracking stones.
The men ran towards the noise, abandoning all as they raced up towards the hill. At the foot of the slope, just before the hill began its steep undulating climb, the young mother, tears welling up in her eyes as her shoulders heaved heavily, was on her knees clutching a small frame close to her chest. It was her young boy a thick patch of blood soaked the earth beneath where he lay …he had fallen front first on a stump of a felled tree. Its edges were still sharp and they had pierced the boy through killing him instantly. It was a quick death; he would have felt no pain. He still had clutched in his little fingers, a long stick; his weapon to hunt a rat. He had heard the cry of the men and had leapt to join in the chase, and most probably tripped up on a loose piece of grass.
The miners slowly gathered round now, all other things forgotten and abandoned. Tears flooded their eyes as the mother grieved for her son.
Obiri pushed his way to the front of the pack, he recognized that face, but could not bring himself to look in her eyes, his shoulders heaved heavily as he bent down to cradle the small lifeless body. She pushed him away, “He is not your son”, she managed to snarl through the tears.
He turned away, his shoulders heaving even more as the tears streaked down his face.
This mother had a child no more, and he had no son.