Gbarpolu County - At 19, Joseph Momah has two women pregnant and another with a young baby. Between 2011 and 2013 he worked on several artisanal mines, digging, washing and sieving for gold and diamonds in his native Gbarpolu County.
He saved enough money to buy a motorcycle and now he is a motorcyclist. He has never sat in a classroom.
“I wanted money to buy bike,” Momah says. "
“What I wanted my parents were not able to give to me.”
There are many young people who share Momah’s story. They forgo classrooms for mines, a situation local authorities say is alarming.
“It is true that children of school-going ages are going to find money in the mining environment,” says Zinnah A’demtus, District Education Officer (DEO) of Bokomu District, home to several mines, including Jungle James and the Belekpalamu mines.
“It is the situation of Bokomu District in Gbarpolu County. It has some negative impacts on the education system of the district and the county.”
Everyone in Gbarpolu is a miner or knows something about mining, A’demtus says. The western county has one of Liberia’s most artisanal mining activities; with 194 active artisanal mining license holders, according to the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy.
Gbarpolu County has one of the lowest school enrollments of the 15 counties in Liberia, according to the Ministry of Education. Local authorities are finding solutions to that problem with a string of strategies, including outreach.
But results have not been forthcoming. Authorities say the allure of mining is to blame.
“It (mining) has a great impact. There you find the drugs. When the children take the drugs, they are eager to get money, so it is difficult to get children from there to go to school,” says Olu Nangbah, District Commissioner of Bopolu District.
He says Bopolu District has two mining agencies and at least 85 Class “C” license holders across the district, as well as and one Class “B” license holder and an exploration company. Class “C” licenses are the very cheapest licenses given to those doing very small-scale (artisanal) alluvial mining. Class “B” also involves artisanal mining but with the use of machines.
By the Liberia Minerals and Mining Law, a Class “C” license holder can mine on up to 25 acres of land. The law also provides that one Class “C” license holder hold up to five licenses.
“They (young people) tell you that ‘I don’t have money and I come here to get money to go back to school’, and in the process of looking for money, they are hooked by the money they get from the field,” Nangbah says.
“The district education office along with the Ministry of Internal Affairs… has toured several parts of this county,” says DEO A’demtus of Bokomu."
“We had meetings with elders...and we told them the need for the children to go back to the classroom but a good number of our parents are illiterate and the value of education is not there.”
He says parents themselves are carried away by the little their children get from the mines.
People in Gbarpolu are left with little or no alternative. Unlike its neighbors Bomi and Grand Cape Mount, where there are concessioners such as Western Cluster and Sime Darby that provide hundreds of jobs, Gbarpolu has no big mining operations.
Several communities are currently seeking community forest status, frustrated over unfulfilled promises made by logging companies. Forestry status would allow them to benefit more from their forest resources.
And for some youth it is not just the choice of forgoing the brighter future that education promises for the quick treasures of a goldmine.
For many it is literally a choice between living or starving. There are no other real opportunities. At the mine they can earn up to L$1,000 per day.
Sheriff Kumbah, 22, who mines in Company Camp in Guonwolalai District, says mining puts food on his table and a roof over his head.
“All of my people died so I had to help myself,” says the father-of-three high school dropout.
Kumbah’s story is not dissimilar to that of Morris Fofana, 28.
A father of one, who has worked as a miner since he was eight, has never been to school. The same can be said about Junior Walker, 22-year-old first grader, who came from Marbigi County two years ago.
A team of New Narratives reporters witnessed children of school-going ages working on several mines in Gbarpolu County. Some were working alongside their parents.
A boy of 12 or 13 years put moist earth with a shovel on a slanted stage lined with rugs while his mother washed and sieved for gold at the Point-Point goldmine in Henry Town.
On the other end, a boy of roughly the same age carried a bag and bucket filled with earth on his head and in his hand.
“This work is a hard,” says 16-year-old Fanta Diallo (not her real name), who pounds rocks with many elderly women at Duwor Field mines in Bopolu. “After beating it, my whole back can be sour but I can’t leave it because I have nobody to help me.”
She had just come to the mine a month ago. She is in second grade and last attended the Henry Town Public School.
Her father left for Guinea, leaving her mother pregnant, so she has to work to assist her mother.
She plans to save the proceeds of her daily earnings and go back to school.
The Liberian Mineral and Mining Law is silent on child labor, though the law prohibits anyone less than 18 from holding a mining license and the country signed up the UN Convention on Rights of the Child.
However, many mines allow children of school-going ages to carry out hard labor.
“Children under 18 years… do not have the right to mining, to operate in a mining area,” affirms James Kaybe Smith, Chief Mining Engineer with the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy.
A boy works with a shovel with a woman at the Point-Point goldfield in Henry Town, Gbarpolu County
“People are violating our laws; they are doing this in their own favor."
"The Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy does not encourage any child [to mine]. We are totally against children in the mines.”
Smith says the ministry faces logistical constraints that make it difficult to regulate and monitor mines countrywide.
Mines are not properly monitored and regulated despite an exhaustive chain of command that features a regional coordinator, county coordinator, mining agent, mining inspector, patrolman and mining chairman.
“We have some hindrances in our capacity, I can admit to you,” Smith concedes.
“Getting to places on time for our people is a problem. That is a major problem we have with the ministry."
"The mining agents have to get to mining areas [that are] three-to-four-hour walk. That means he has to take the whole day there. He does not have motorcycle to take him there.
“If you ask the government now, we’ve got constrains, we’ve got a budget shortfall.”
Authorities at the Ministry of Labor recommend that Liberia should add child labor to a list of hazardous works and formulate a law on children to add to the broad Labor Code on 2015, which prohibits child labor in any workplaces and encourages children to be in school. Liberia does not have a law on child labor.
Sixty two percent of school-going children in Liberia miss out on a primary education, the highest in the world, according to the UNICEF in its first out-of-school rankings released in September 2016.
That means school enrollment in Liberia is worse than conflict-ravaged countries like South Sudan (59 percent) and Afghanistan (45 percent).
The Liberian government has been grappling with getting children go to school, despite a law mandating free and compulsory primary education in public schools.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in her last State of the Nation Address in January—elections for a new president will be held in October this year—pronounced free and compulsory secondary education in public schools beginning the 2017/2018 school year.
But civil society actors say such policy is not workable.
“Even the free and compulsory education…is not very effective,” charges Anderson Miamen of the Center for Transparency and Accountability (CENTAL).
“Some children are still out of school. Some students in rural communities are not in school either because there is no nearby school or their parents cannot send them to school. To come and talk about secondary education being free when the primary component hasn’t been implemented fully, to us is unrealistic.”
For Morris Sheriff, a gold and diamond broker in Grand Gedeh County, getting young people from mines to the classroom is not just the responsibility of government, but all stakeholders.
He recommends that mining stakeholders build schools in mining communities and even assist with payment of teachers.
“I hold a Class ‘C’ license and [my colleagues and I] built a school for the children of our workers in Sinoe County,” Sheriff, also a miner, recalls.
This story was produced by FrontPageAfrica. It was written as part of a media skills development program run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and New Narratives, and funded by the German Cooperation. The funder had no influence on the story’s content.