by Damien Riunaud, ILO Videographer
Theresa was 12 years old when she started working at a gold mine, carrying heavy pans of gold on her head, walking from the pits to the processing machinery 80 to 90 times a day.
Hers is one of the heart-rending stories recounted in Dreams of Gold, a short virtual reality documentary we filmed in Ghana’s Ashanti region, which will be premiered at the Centenary International Labour Conference (ILC), taking place in June in Geneva.
It’s the first time the ILO has produced a VR movie, and it was the first time for me filming one – with the help of an experienced crew. It wasn’t easy, and the heat and humidity didn’t help. Even the cameras suffered.
But the hardest part for me was hearing the testimony of children who lost part of their childhood working in the gold mines, a dangerous and exhausting job no child should ever do.
Yet it was uplifting to see those children at school, having given up working so they could get an education and a future.
Now aged 14, Theresa looks after her siblings, loves going to school, and wants to become a nurse and “save lives.” That’s the story we wanted to tell – the negative and the positive.
There is an immersive quality to virtual reality you don’t usually get in traditional film, so we felt this was the best way to show the harsh reality of work at a small-scale mine. The viewer feels close to the action, although it’s still hard to comprehend just how tough the conditions are for miners, let alone for child workers.
As we filmed at the Mochekrom mine the heat was so intense that our cameras overheated repeatedly. We had to walk carefully on the garbage-strewn ground because of the ever-present risk the rickety cover of one of the disused shafts could collapse and send us plummeting down some 30 metres.
The shafts are dark and narrow, some are flooded. As we were filming, an explosion underground surprised us. There had been no warning. Sixteen-year-old Vincent, who worked in the mines when he was 13, told us that “when using dynamite, you have to come out of the pit quickly before it explodes.” He recalled a day when a miner was not fast enough and was blown to pieces. “All the boys were crying,” Vincent said.
Despite the gruelling conditions jobs at the mine are sought after in this remote, impoverished area, as is the case elsewhere in Ghana. But efforts to combat child labour appear to have borne fruit. We did not see any children working at the mine we filmed. This is in part due to the efforts of Caring Gold Mining, an ILO project to combat child labour and improve working conditions in artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
The local population is closely involved in the project, through Community Child Protection Committees (CCPCs), which raise awareness about the hazards of mining, the fact that engaging children in mining is illegal in Ghana, and the need to get children into school.
As part of the project the children get lunch at school, a major incentive for poor families, who can hardly afford the bare necessities.
Isaac, one of the children we interviewed, told us he was always tired and often sick after he started working at the mine when he was aged 11. That changed when he joined a children’s club set up by the Caring Gold Project and quit working. Now, he told us, he knows he has a future.
And this message – that we can succeed in the fight against child labour – is what we are trying to convey through virtual reality.