SHANGLIN - Zhen Minxin keeps repeating that he is “lucky.” On this warm morning of mid-June, his return back home is being celebrated, with the slices of watermelon laid out on the table and cigarette butts scattered on the floor as sure signs of the festivities.
Zhen's own cigarettes are Gold Seal, a brand unknown in China. They are in fact from Ghana, the country that he fled in a sudden rush just the day before, after just a year abroad, landing back to Tangma, his village in the middle of the green hills of southern China.
The trip was long. He landed in Guang Zhou after a stopover in Cairo. He was lucky indeed that he was to catch the flight from the airport in Ghana's capital of Accra. In fact, the Ghanaian state had just recently declared war against the unauthorized "gold rush" of more than 12,000 Chinese immigrants who had come to the African country from several villages near the city of Shanglin.
A few days earlier, the Chinese who worked in the same mine as Zhen Minxin were told of an imminent police raid: “We all did our best to escape before they got there, but many friends got arrested.” Do ones best, means to bribe a Ghanaian policeman, but not all of them are easy to corrupt. “Some let you go if you pay them, others don’t, and in prison you will be bitten by lots of mosquitos.”
After the police, it was the thieves that took all that was left and burned the mine. Zhen Minxin and five associates had invested a total of two million RMB ($325,000) in this mine. “Some thieves tracked us up into the forest”, tells Zhen. He would end up spending only one day in the wilderness, while others hid there for six nights.
Kumasi is the largest city of Ghana’s Ashanti region, where there is are growing numbers of mines that are being exploited by Chinese outfits. Zhen Minxin remembers the promises of easy money that led him to set off for African -- he whispers that some of the first Chinese pioneers, five years ago, made up to 150,000 RMB ($24,000) per month.
Of gold, he knows everything there is to know. In Shanglin, many gold mines, though now shut, had been exploited for years. Thus, thousands of Chinese who possessed the savoir-faire were recruited to lead the Ghanaian adventure, even if very few were ever given proper documents.
The small mines that they exploited were given to them by the land owners, illegally. And the mining exploitation has put the spotlight on the environmental damage generated by the using of cyanide and heavy metals. On May 16, Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama created an interdepartmental team in charge of arresting and deporting the foreigners exploiting the mines. Last week, Ghana's national immigration service reported that 3,877 Chinese miners had been repatriated over the previous month.
All about the money
Ghanaians, who live near the mines, saw the crackdown as carte blanche to go and steal the machines and rob the Chinese camps -- and worse. A few steps from Zhens’s house, stands the house of the villager Zhou Haohe, nicknamed *7*, who last year found himself in Ghana, surrounded by around 60 thieves. “He shot a warning shot to the sky but one of the robbers took his gun and shot him in the head”, tells a co-worker, Meng, who also has returned home after witnessing the death. “We called the police and the doctor but we would have needed to pay for them to come.”
Meng Tianming, 41, a former taxi driver, says the moment he arrived in Ghana, he did not feel safe. “The Ghanaians wanted only our money, everything was about our money.”
Meng explains freely the extent of the illegality of a large majority of Chinese gold miners: “They go to Ghana, sometimes through another country, with a tourist visa. Then they have to ask for a working visa. But the document that they buy from an agent is, most of the time, fake. So when the Chinese present themselves at the airport, they are not allowed to pass.”
This is what happens behind the scenes of ‘Chinafrica’. on one side, six big Chinese companies that exploit major gold mines and have a line of credit of $3 billion to the Ghanaian state in exchange for oil. On the other, these illegal, and usually poor, would-be pioneers.
And yet despite their setbacks in Ghana, some people in Shanglin, already whisper about the opportunities in Cameroon. Huang Zhuguang, for his part, heard about offers coming from Zimbabwe, but it will not be for right away. Anyway, his wife is inflexible: “I will not let him go.”