02 Feb 2017

The Sandmen of Mali

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I have heard several times that Bamako is the world’s 6th fastest growing city. Concrete is the main part of most buildings in Bamako. As such, the city has an insatiable hunger for cement and sand. Even though the Sahara Desert swallows up half of the northern part of the country the sand from the Desert is too fine for use in constructing concrete buildings. The coarse sand dredged from the bottom of the Niger River is far better to make a strong, long-lasting concrete. The Sandmen of Mali have found a way to cash in on this never ceasing demand for sand.

Even in this age of dredging machines and mechanical loaders the Sandmen of Mali are collecting the sand in a far more labour intensive way. I suppose you could say in a traditional way but the need for collecting sand further up river has only come into play in the last twenty years so although it seems like they may have done this for centuries it is only a recent development.

They have designed special boats that are far wider than the traditional Pinasse and then they tie 15 to 20 of them together and push them upriver to collect the sand. Only one boat has an engine. They place the powerful mother ship at the rear of the flotilla. It propels the fleet forward as well as functioning as the main point for steering.

Every boat has one guy who assists in steering by pushing away from obstacles with a long Bamboo pole. When the boats arrive in the designated area it is these guys responsibility to fill their own boat with sand before they all get tied back together and return home. Every afternoon at about 4pm the group assembles at the port at Kalaban Koro and push the boats out into the river with their long bamboo poles to meet up with the mother ship. They then quickly tie the boats together before beginning the 60km punt up river. They arrive at the Sand Bank at about 10 pm and then it is time to jump into the water and start filling the boats. On arrival the pilot of the mother ship starts yelling for everyone to wake up, get in the water and get to work. The guys then stand in the chest deep water and completely submerge themselves every ten seconds or so for the next 3 hours. With their only tool being a bucket they painstakingly collect their quota of sand. They work without lights and all around you can hear the sound of the guys as they duck under the water to collect a bucket full of sand before announcing their arrival back above the surface of the water with a loud exhalation of breath.

The boats arrive back in the port at about 8 in the morning and then there is another team of guys waiting there who unload the boats and then transfer the sand to the waiting trucks which quickly race off and deliver it all over Bamako.

There is a heap of shows on TV that love to show the viewers the worlds worst, hardest, most dangerous and dirtiest jobs and no doubt this could probably get a run on most of them but these guys are tough and they go about their work quietly. They earn $10.00 a day and work 6 days a week with Friday traditionally being the day when the Sandmen of Mali can have a well-earned break.

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