Female stone miners narrate ordeal


By Yusufu S. Bangura

Sitting on a rock with a sledge hammer in one hand and coughing, 60-year-old Nancy Sam gently used the edge of her wrapper to wipe her face in an attempt to remove the fragment of dust that was making her eyes uncomfortable.

Once successful and feeling satisfied, the mother of seven squint both eyes to avoid the afflicting Friday afternoon sun and continued her difficult work of breaking large stones into smaller pieces.

At Madina community, Regent Village, in the Western Rural of Sierra Leone, Nancy and other elderly women subject themselves to the dynamic and tough process of breaking huge portion of rocks into smaller pieces.

Manual stone breaking no matter how tasking and frustrating has become a prevalent business in hill side  communities due to the abundance of hilly rocks in the country. Such rocks are used for various purposes especially in construction.

As difficult as the task is, it is most commonly done by women and mostly it is the elderly that have found dwelling in it for many years.

Regardless of the energy it requires, the financial gain is often very minimal and the sales are not often brisk. Worst still, the women suffer from body pain, catarrh and cough, eye problems and physical injury among others. But they are not discouraged.

Madam Nancy, who was the only woman wearing rubber boots to protect her legs, said she embarks on stone mining after her husband had an accident and  currently sitting at home without job, “So she decided to break stone just to support the family.

She added that she did not have any other work to do and that there was no money for her to start business and the perseverance of her made it possible to find her exceeding and even dominating jobs that are originally perceived as more male friendly.

“At 60, this is my 3rd year doing this work and there are many other women who are much older than me engaged in stone breaking. I am doing this to feed my family because my children and husband are not working. I trained my children to school but I didn’t have money to train all of them to go further. Two of them went to the university but still they are not employed,” she narrated.

60-year-old Nancy said through the help of her children, she get stone from the river and she then use hammer to break them into different pieces, after which she packed them in sacks and displayed them  by the road side to be sold at NLE5 per head-pan

With many mouths to feed and a very weak and old husband at home, Nancy, the only breadwinner in the house could not give an estimate of the profit she makes, but explained that, “at least I have the turnover which I used to keep for purchasing the stones but I can’t say I earn a particular profit because I use part of the money for our daily needs.”

17-year-old Adama Sam, who often helps her mum at the quarry, told this medium that her school fees is often paid from the proceeds they get from  stone mining.

“I have learnt all there is to learn from breaking of stone and selling because when I’m not in school, I come here to take over from my mum,” she said.

Adama explained that she hasn’t suffered any of the illness associated with the work, except one day that a big stone fell on her leg and caused her minor injuries.

At the popular Hill-Cut Road quarry, 63-year-old Adama Kalokoh, a mother of four surviving children, has been into stone mining for over 4 years after the death of her husband.

 She said though not very profitable; stone mining is her only source of livelihood.

“After the death of my husband, his family did not take care of us, so before I sit at home doing nothing and watch my children perishing I decided to break stone for our survival and I got little gain after selling. But I use the little profit from the work to manage my life and send my children to school,” she said.

She is, however, also coughing and said she has been coughing for a long time.

“There are lots of illnesses associated with this our work. But that doesn’t discourage me from doing the work because if I stop it, how do I feed myself and my kids. Even as I speak to you, I am feeling back ache and funny too, if I decide to rest for a day or two, the pain becomes more intense so it is better to keep working since I take paracetamol and other pain killers for the body ache,” she said.

“For the past three months, my left eye has been aching because a stone particle hit me directly in the eye while working. Initially, my vision was impaired but it is getting better because I had to go to the hospital for treatment. But despite the risk, this is not something I can just leave,” she narrated.

Madam Adama said she often suffers from headache and is almost certain that her cough is due to constant exposure to the dust particles that come from breaking stones.

But Adama is of the opinion that it is God that protects and heals and that she is capable of withstanding the health challenges.

“Sometimes some medical experts have advised us to stop the work, but if I stop what will I eat? If those who want us to stop the work can provide for us or our children, then I will leave the work but for now we have no choice and we would continue to pray for good health,” she said.

Madam Adama called on the government and humanitarians to come to her aid by ensuring the work is done better with more modern and advanced tools.

Another stone breaker at the same quarry, Mabinty Kargbo age 50 with two children also explained similarly story as to the other women.

Their assessment of the health effect is supported by one Dr. Sidikie Mansaray at Connaught hospital, who said crystalline silica which is the most common airborne dust that miners and quarry-workers inhale in the cause of their work is the leading cause of health problems such as respiratory irritation like cough, excess phlegm, shortness of breath and other serious health challenges.

Dr. Mansaray says the particles are formed whenever silica-bearing rocks are penetrated into the eyes, adding that, “the particles are deposited in the lungs and because they are inorganic, the body cannot dispel them, so over time, with long term exposure they accumulate and cause obstruction and become a full blown health condition resulting in lung diseases that may even lead to death.”

He explained that long term exposure to silica can cause silicosis, an occupational lung disease that develops gradually after years of exposure.

“Exposure to silica is also associated with some autoimmune diseases, including lupus. The dust could pose a threat to the women’s lungs by making breathing more difficult, it could also affect other body parts such as the eyes.”

The medical practitioner advised that, “as much as everyone knows that people need a source of livelihood, they have to understand that they need to be alive to do it. Therefore, they should at least use the necessary protective gears such as face masks and if possible the industrial type, googles to protect the eyes, rubber gloves and even the necessary kind of boots.

“They should also use helmets to protect the head since they are surrounded by big stones and one could easily fall,” he advised.