In the Enyigba area of Ebonyi State, children aged 10 to 14 in lead mining. The youngsters, Weekly Trust observed, were obviously oblivious to the dangers that they are exposed to as unskilled miners. They speak on their experiences.
Mining the soil with bare hands and no visible tools around, each child dug through the earth bringing up palms full of elements covered in mud which they dumped into stainless steel or plastic bowls. The motion was repeated several times until they filled the bowls.
Positioning themselves in semi-squats or sitting on the ground in front of a shallow pit filled with rainwater, they showed a certain dexterity that they knew how to find what they are looking for as they gently swirled their bowls around rinsing the mud off the stones and other unwanted elements until only lead remained. This, they poured into sacks or polythene bags a hand stretch away.
At intervals, they take time off to play and chitchat. Welcome to the world of child miners in Enyigba area of Ebonyi State.
In their characteristic nature as children, Weekly Trustobserved them play with one another rubbing their muddy hands on each other's bodies. They also tease themselves as to who had worked hardest for the day, obviously unaware of the danger they are putting themselves through.
"What those children are doing is obviously a suicide-mission," Mrs. Donna Aimuiwu, an environmentalist with the Federal Ministry of Environment, told Weekly Trust.
"Basically, any exposure to lead is lethal and can lead to several disease conditions including lead poisoning," she warned.
A medical doctor, Mariya Muktar Yola, a Consultant Paediatrician at the National Hospital, also warned that excess lead in the body could cause anemia, skin irritation as well as affect the central nervous systems, leading to brain damage.
Findings by Doctors Without Borders, otherwise known as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), revealed that between March and June 2010, about 400 children died from lead poisoning in Zamfara State.
Startling as these facts maybe, Precious, 10, Mesioma, 14, Ifeanyi, Chike and Obi who are all 11years seem to be oblivious of the dangers their money finding ventures pose to them.
"Mining lead has been very profitable for me because it is through this I have been able to gather money to pay for my education," said Ifeanyi, who excavates lead with his friends from a site in Enyigba.
"I don't fall sick so I don't know if my parents know there is any danger in mining lead. Even me, I don't know if there is any danger because I have not heard of anything happening to anybody who is doing this," said Chike.
"My family is poor and my parents can't afford to send all of us to school, and buy uniforms and books. So when I started coming with my friends to work here, and the money was helpful at home, they were happy," said Precious who though shy and a little hesitant to talk, stressed that she was capable of working as hard as the boys did.
With customers from 'all over' as they described their clientele, the children feel the need to meet their daily targets of between 25 to 50 kilograms of lead daily to satisfy the demand for their wares.
"People, men and women come from different places to buy lead from us," they said, adding that "We are not working for anybody in particular but for our education. The money we get we use to pay school fees."
For the hard day's job, they get paid N3000 per fifty kilogram of lead. For such an amount, the unskilled miners say their parents do not mind them being involved in the activity. "My parents don't object to my mining as long as when school begins I face my studies squarely," said Mesioma.
Our reporter was drawn to the scene by the many pits which began from the top of the road down to a distance as far as the eyes could see.
Located about 20 kilometers from the capital, Abakaliki, the small mining site is littered with several pits most of which are full of rainwater. There are also cemented portions constructed in tray-like shapes which our reporter learnt are used in the dry season to dry the lead and separate them from the debris.
Obi said he had been mining since he turned 10 and found it to be very profitable. Ifeanyi also started mining at 10 and was introduced to the business by his elder brother.
Precious said mining was something she had always seen done around her. "When I realised I could make money from it as well, I decided to join the others."
For them, mining is a lot more convenient than hawking items on the street and other such businesses.
When asked how long they had been on the field that day, they said, "Usually we work from nine to four." But at the time our reporter visited them it was already 4.35pm and the end to the day's job didn't seem like it was anywhere around the corner.
After further prying further from our reporter, Ifeanyi said, "Today is a very rainy day. Our work slowed down a bit because we had to take shelter when the rain got too heavy. So we will work extra till when it begins to get dark. I want to try and do a lot because I will soon resume school and not be ale to work long when I start."
Mesioma also explained that "When we go to school, we are not able to work for long. Some days we don't even work at all because of school work we bring home."
As to whether they had suffered any ill-health, they chorused, "no, only tiredness."
A member of the community who spoke on anonymity said child mining is a common feature in the area and is accepted by many families. "In spite of news about the Zamfara incidents, where many died, nobody, individual, government or non-government agency has actually come here to educate the people on the dangers that these activities pose to them and their children and the ripple effect that this can have if things like the water sources get contaminated.
"As a member of the community it is hard to convince parents to dissuade their children from such. When you try, you hear comments like, 'you no get pikin na im make' or 'when you get pass us how you no go say make me no reach your level'. So many have decided to look the other way and let them continue."
Just as photographs were being taken a passerby who heard the clicks of the camera emerged demanding for ground fees as the location is a tourist site.
Ebonyi state commissioner for Commerce and Industry, Dr. Ifeanyi Ikea, spoke to our reporter on the matter. He said though there have been no reported cases of lead poisoning in the state, "Even before the Zamfara incidence broke out we had gone on enlightenment campaigns in the lead mining areas across the state, while I was special adviser on Mineral. One of the places we visited was Enyigba mine. We also advised them against drinking the water. Boreholes were drilled after soil test to ensure the areas are lead free. The government also made education free up to secondary school level. This was to discourage parents from sending their children to the mine fields."
On water contamination tests being carried out, he said, "I know there are researches being carried out in the university (Ebonyi State University). But I don't know if the state funding of the university extends to these researches."
Regarding the monitoring of mining activities, Dr. Ikea said this is one area where the government is still looking for help. "I went to visit Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, who promised to send a team to work with us. We are working hard towards building a lab because we need one to be able to carry out the analysis needed."
When confronted with the issue of children mining openly in the state and with no form of protective gear, Dr. Ikea insinuated that it was common to see children mining and a general practice for miners to work unprotected. "Even the adults we gave protective coverings threw them away and went back to using their bare hands. We have been going on enlightenment campaigns. We are yet to streamline our monitoring and fish them out so they will know we are helping them. The impression many of them have is that we don't want them to feed. We know it isn't what we can achieve at once but we are doing our best to see that we make impact."
When asked if there was an age restriction on what defines an artisanal miner, he said, "Usually it should be adult."
"NAPTIP has helped us with campaigning against this and chastised them, but poverty is making people look for money anyhow. But we are discouraging them and chase them out of such places when we go there. The children also when they see us take to their heels," he added.
Ikea said the state's first lady, Mrs. Josephine Elechi, had stringent measures on parents whose children were caught in the act. He however added that it was a challenge to implement policies made.