The Other Miners

By Tao Tao Holmes

When Ghana arrested and deported 124 Chinese miners in June, Western news sources, for the most part, sketched the story as either good — Good riddance! The Ghanaian government has cast out the yellow peril — or bad — How cruel to make the Chinese abandon everything and send them home empty-handed and in debt.

But what I found last July when I visited Obuasi, one of Ghana’s main mining towns, could not be qualified as either good or bad. Over the course of several days, I spoke to policemen, hotel staff, cab drivers, hawkers, store clerks, and finally, miners, to gauge this “popular resentment toward the Chinese miners” that the New York Times and other outlets broadcasted. I didn’t encounter anything you could call resentment, though locals repeatedly blamed their government for corruption and failure to address rampant unemployment. If anything, Obuasi residents tended to believe that the advantage of the Chinese miners’ economic presence outweighed the disadvantages of the poor environmental practices they brought with them. While privileged outsiders may throw up their hands about shoddy business ethics, local Ghanaians were more concerned about paying for food.

Gold miners in Ghana (Courtesy of Creative Commons)
Gold miners in Ghana (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

Obuasi is in Ghana’s Ashanti region, just inland from what has been known as the Gold Coast by traders dating back to the 16th century Portuguese. AngloGold (AG), the pounding heart of the Obuasi economy, was first opened under British rule in 1897 as the Ashanti Gold Mine and has since passed through a series of South African and Australian hands. It now employs about 5,000 people, though the number fluctuates depending on mine production and gold prices.

Since AG owns all the land in Obuasi proper, Chinese miners who arrived over the past three to four years went to prospect property in nearby villages. The Chinese became a regular presence in the streets and shops of Obuasi, and their sudden absence is palpable to local Ghanaians, if only in the lighter weight of their wallets. The Chinese filled up hotels, restaurants, and transport, invested in housing, and to some men’s chagrin, fooled around with local women (“Too much sex!” shouted a smiling Obuasi lady when I inquired about the departure of any “Chinese boyfriends.”)  But this Chinese boost to the Obuasi economy, in addition to the many jobs they provided, evaporated with the government’s June directive.

Obuasi residents accuse the Chinese of polluting their waters and destroying their lands, and this seems an indisputable and disgraceful reality. On the other hand, they acknowledge that the environmental damage has gone hand-in-hand with the Chinese big-rig mining practices, which locals can’t match.

“Ghanaians know the land. Chinese know business, they know investment,” explained Eric Acheampong, a 27-year-old with a degree in mechanical engineering who is still searching for a job back home in Obuasi. “They buy big, costly machines because they know it will pay back. The Chinese make the same money in a few days that locals do in months.” Acheampong blamed his country’s government; he said that the Chinese miners had registered to do business in Ghana, so the government had in effect breached a contract by forcing their removal. (In fact, it appears that most of the Chinese had never actually registered). Acheampong told me that the right approach for the government to take would be to allocate specific locations to the Chinese miners and require them to hire locally. Acheampong’s outlook echoed throughout the Obuasi community: It’s good if the Chinese come back, but with licenses, papers, and a regard for the environment.

“The problem — it was already there,” said Dycee Kwakye, alluding to the “galamseys,” a local Twi term that refers to the illegal local mines and miners that had been operating alongside registered local operations. “But then the Chinese came to dip in it. They were spoiling and destroying the land.” That’s when the government eventually swooped in. The Chinese, powered by their expensive excavators, engaged in surface mining, which covers a lot of ground, but unlike operations at AG, doesn’t go deep. In contrast, the galamseys relied not on machinery, but on pickaxes, explosives, and often violence, entering local sites that had already been mined by AG. When AG chose to return to these locations, galamseys sometimes threatened and even killed the AG employees in order to protect their access to the gold deposits. Facing risky and exhausting work as well as the violence without any safety precautions in place, illegal local miners died almost every day, said Kwakye. The government crackdown has thrown hundreds, if not thousands of these galamseys out of the mines, too.

Kwakye has a degree in communications and media from a university in Accra, but finding himself stuck in Obuasi without any job prospects, he turned to working as a galamsey. Kwakye was well dressed and well spoken, and it was clear to me that he didn’t like to acknowledge the period of months he spent digging underground, especially while we were with Vida, a staff member at my hotel and his girlfriend of three years, who’s been waiting for him to find a job before they get married.

As for the Chinese, AG had no interactions with them, according to Richard Asare, a senior diamond driller who has worked over 20 years at the company mine. He told me how Chinese miners came to him for negotiation over land in his village, about an hour’s drive outside Obuasi. The Chinese refused Asare’s price and went elsewhere.

But the locals may turn out to need the Chinese.

Inusa Mohammed was in the illegal mining business for over 15 years, but he’s now opening up a shop that will refine raw gold into jewelry. He pulled a scrunched ball of newspaper out of his pants pocket and held it for me to see. It was a handful of what looked like little yellowish mothballs: real, unrefined gold.

“We have all the natural resources — manganese, gold, diamond, bauxite, cocoa, cotton…” said Mohammed in bursts of incomplete English. “God bless our homeland Ghana. We have everything — everything. But finished products, we are not getting it.” Mohammed thinks that instead of returning, the Chinese miners should sponsor small-scale operations run by Ghanaians.

In my taxi ride from the bus station in the nearby city of Kumasi, I asked my driver, Clement, what he thought about the sudden departure of the Chinese.

“Oh, any Ghanaian, he like them. Sees them, smiles. ‘Chinaman, Chinaman!’” he said, laughing. “I’m sure they will come back. Talk to the government, get their papers. But they will come back.”

Tao Tao Holmes ’14 us a Global Affairs major in Branford College. She can be reached at