One of the first things that I learned about my adoptive village of Mako was that the Gambie river flows right through the middle of it. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, which locals call “The River City,” so I was beyond excited to have a river in my new home because it helped make it feel like home.
As soon as I arrived in my community, the river became a huge part of my life. The women bathe, clean dishes, and fish at the river and then bring the water back to their compounds to cook, clean, and water plants. Without that river, life would be very difficult. It would mean 4 or 5 trips to the water pump every day, which for my family is not close. It was also be a lot less fun, because the women do all these activities together. One of the best parts of my day is going to river and bathing or washing clothes with my sisters and seeing all the women from the neighborhood laughing and gossiping.
But the future of this river is uncertain. I recently discovered a British gold mining company in Mako called Toro Gold. If its plans go ahead, Toro Gold's mining projects will pollute the river that is so crucial to the daily life of my community. This is wrong on so many levels. Not only does it trample on the rights of various communities, it also threatens the health and livelihoods of everyone living in the area. Plus, the animals, including hippopotami, who live in the river would be threatened.
What angers me most about this situation is that how it all seems unstoppable. Toro Gold is plowing ahead with its objectives without regard for the people’s rights. The company explained to the village elders what was going to happen to the river, but promised to buy them a new health post, books for the school and new pumps. They also promised to bring electricity to the village, and that provide jobs to the people of Mako. When I talked to my Senegalese mom about this she said “si a jogake nyeri e goto okima nyeri a namay, ka?” or “if you don’t have food and someone gives you food then you eat it, right?” She’s right, but this transaction of investment for the river should not have happened in the first place. The community should not have to choose between water and electricity or fishing and schools or agriculture and health systems. All of these things should be viewed as basic rights and the river’s future should never be thrown into the mix. One company’s pursuit of profit should not trump a community’s rights.
At the moment, it seems that Toro Gold is exploiting people who feel helpless. The people understand how bad this is for their environment and how it will affect their lives, but they also need and want new books, a better health post, and of course jobs. Who am I to deny them all these things that they need, when in a few weeks I will be going to back into a world of extreme privilege. But more importantly, who is this company that intends to destroy the environment and pollute an essential river?
Throughout this year I have thought a lot about foreign aid. I have seen some very influential and important foreign aid programs, such as Toastan, which is trying to stop female circumcision. Toastan employs a lot of Senegalese women and I have seen how it empowers women to break down many of the gender barriers that hurt Senegalese society, but Toro Gold is not foreign aid. This is foreign exploitation. Foreign aid involves working with people and respecting their rights. Foreign exploitation involves going into an area, harvesting resources and stripping people of their rights. The difference is jarring. What Toro Gold is doing seems like something that would have happened during colonialism. I had assumed that everyone wanted to help developing countries improve and become more involved in the world’s economy, but this is an obvious example of a foreign corporation trampling the rights of indigenous people. And it has to stop.