A Fab Lab in Burkina Faso?

Humanitarians form our own community. We eat together, talk together, drink (sometimes entirely too much) together. As in any community, there are hierarchies. Part of the hierarchy is traditional – do you work for a prestigious organisation? How many people do you manage? Do you have a big budget? But in addition, there is a humanitarian-specific hierarchy related to the difficulty of a posting. South Sudan is high on this list– not only are you supporting vast numbers of displaced people, but you are doing so without electricity, running water, internet. Jordan is comparatively easier – the caseload is huge, but you go home to a hot shower and Facebook. Greece – easier still. After all, it’s in Europe.

Tdh implemented a FabLab in Greece. It was successful. Terrific. But how robust is the concept when you try to apply it to countries that are higher up on the hierarchy? Will it survive lack of infrastructure? Will people come if they are not literate? Will it be useful to youth who have nothing?

The second phase of Tdh’s pilot is to implement a humanitarian FabLab at an artisanal gold mine in Burkina Faso. This context rates pretty high on the humanitarian hierarchy. Infrastructure is poor, and while there isn’t any conflict, people who work in artisanal gold mines are constantly moving as multinationals buy up concessions, close artisanal sites and start formally exploiting mines.

I took a look at my second task – figure out how to get a FabLab running at a gold mining site – and, well, I almost cried. Problem 1 – I don’t know much about gold mining. Problem 2 – even I recognise that, to run technology, you need electricity … and there is almost no electricity at the artisanal gold mining site.

But – in for a penny, in for a pound. I got on a plane and went to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

Children working in gold mining are, quite simply, in terrible shape. Over 2 million children in Burkina Faso are working rather than going to school. A high proportion are engaged in mining – in particular, in gold mining. Mining itself is hard, hard work – children spend hours in narrow passageways that descend to depths of 60 meters. Air quality is poor, so the kids rig up makeshift vents using fans and garbage bags. If the tunnels are poorly constructed, they cave in and children are buried alive.

This situation sounds pretty dire – but it’s not the worst part of the story. In order to sell the product from an artisanal mine, the owners need to treat the gold with mercury. The use of mercury causes problems on many levels: mercury is toxic for the nervous system, generating health issues ranging from memory loss to motor dysfunction. Children are particularly susceptible, and are subject to delayed development, hearing loss and language disorders.

Children working in gold mining therefore not only miss school, but they risk being buried alive, suffocating due to poor quality air, and quite literally dying due to mercury poisoning.

I read the statistics about child labour before I went to see the mines. The statistics do not do justice to the danger of the situation. Life threatening risks are compounded by lack of safety procedures and systems, and the overall environment is dusty, dirty and not conducive to growth.

Nonetheless, kids find ways, not only to survive, but to thrive. The boys start football clubs and video games; when they have some spare cash, they buy bling (made of silver, not gold). Table football is everywhere. Teenagers tinker with any machines available – low capacity generators, stone milling machines, pulleys– not only to ensure that the machines work, but also to minimize their workload.

The sheer creativity of the youth in putting machines together out of scraps of metal convinced me that the site was fertile ground for a FabLab.

But … What would I do about the lack of electricity? Where would we get internet? Would digital fabrication tools survive if they were left in mud huts?

The problem of how to construct the FabLab went around and around and around in my head. I couldn’t find a resolution to the problem. Until I remembered. A FabLab is not a place. It is a community. (yes, I realise I sound like the movie ‘Thor: Ragnarok’).

Where do young boys go when they have spare time? Where do young girls go with their parents on a Sunday? Where do grandmothers go to gossip? Do they stay at the gold mining site? No. Instead, they go to the local town, which houses a market, some shops, government buildings. And it has electricity. It even has internet, most of the time.

We asked government actors to host the FabLab for us at their site; they agreed. In placing the FabLab at the market town, we are hoping to derive several benefits:

  • Originally, we were targeting only one gold mining town. By placing the FabLab at the market town, youth from 4 gold mining towns can access the site.
  • Youth, both boys and girls, don’t have time to play when they are at the gold mining site. They often work 8 hours per day. When they come to the market, however, they have free time – they are at leisure, and thus can be more creative.
  • One of the challenges of helping youth out of exploitative labour is lack of other alternatives. Youth have only seen one type of employment. By situating the FabLab in a market town, and opening the site to business owners and teachers from the town, we hope to expose youth to more opportunities.

Do we have this right? Are there things we are missing? Let us know!

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