In Sudan, seeking buried treasure in a land of poverty

They come at first light with shovels and sacks, hunched shadows praying for glimmers across a stingy land. These men with torn clothes and sandaled feet don't ask for much, just enough gold to head home feeling blessed beneath the blazing sky of northern Sudan.

A stiff wind blows across the desert fringes and they camp at a desolate web of ditches crawling with scorpions. The heat keeps rising and they remember what the bus driver said when he dropped them off far, far from the glow of big city Khartoum: "Let's go home. Don't jeopardize your life by sleeping here."

Sleep?

There are noises and stories in the night.

Like the legend of the snake-shaped genie who protects the gold from prospectors and holy men trying to exorcise it with tricks and prayers. Genies don't scare; they wait. Just ask the spooked boys scurrying toward the solace of tents beyond the cooking fires.

Electrical generators roar until dawn and the diggers, their faces masks of sand and dirt, play cards and drink beer, whispering to one another beneath stars flung like a rich girl's smile against the darkness.

"One of my friends went gold mining and when he returned he got married and bought a fancy car," said Mahjub Sadig, a college graduate with a science degree who has spent two years looking for a steady job. "I want to get married. I want the same things.

"I've applied for more than 90 jobs since my graduation. I went to more than 30 interviews. I didn't get anything. In Sudan, if you don't know a powerful person in the government, you will not get a job."

He didn't tell his mother where he was going, to this place where men die of heat, thirst and bullets, until she called him on the bus. "I'm sorry, Mom. I will miss you," said Sadig, weeping behind his sunglasses, straining to hear her as the bus rumbled north.

Nearly half of all Sudanese live in poverty. Twenty-eight percent of college graduates are jobless, a number likely to rise amid the global economic crisis. There's little in the way of a welfare state, so the educated and the unschooled, the desperate and the adventuresome strike out with hammers, chisels and bowls, slipping beyond hungry children and that distant ceaseless war in Darfur to the south.

When a man disappears from home, neighbors nod: "He went for gold."

It is estimated that a quarter of the country holds gold deposits. The two places most popular for mining are Southern Kordofan province near the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan and around Almahas in the north, where Sadig and six friends headed after pooling $3,000, most of it borrowed or raised from jewelry sold by sisters and mothers.

They leased a metal detector and hired a man reputed to know where to find buried riches. Off they went, hoping for a precious metal that brings about $40 a gram, or $1,230 an ounce, on world markets, but more often than not leaves a man with handfuls of shiny, worthless grit.

After exploration showed promise, Sudan's gold mining industry began in earnest in the 1990s, turning the north into a blurry landscape of tens of thousands of prospectors, some working alone, others driving house-sized trucks and earth-moving machines owned by corporations from China, India, Turkey and other countries.

"I am on vacation," said Tarig Ali, a private school teacher who earns about $160 a month. "I have decided to take a chance with my friend. If I find gold, I will quit my job and start my own business.... Why should I stay at home?"

Sadig's body is hard from bricklaying in Khartoum's affluent neighborhoods. They were built with oil money, but that has not seeped down to the poor, and bricklaying is not acceptable for a university graduate in a country where parents push their children to become doctors and engineers.

Hopping off the bus, Sadig scanned the dry, cracked land, the bottom of an eons-ago sea, at the terraced pits that gouge a land once ruled by pharaohs and Romans.

There are men like him and boys emptying sacks. Their skin claimed by dust, they look like lost amber-colored clouds, laughing. Men crouch over muddy pools, working sieves and sliding drops of silver mercury into pans, watching gold latch on to them as they squiggle through the muck.

Swish, smooth. Swish, smooth. Rattle, scrape.

Hold it to the light.

What's that?

Nothing.

"When you find the gold, it attracts you to stay longer. You will never say, 'I've got enough gold.' Never," said Babiker Adam, a skinny farmer in a tunic. He's harvested 4 grams of gold in one month, selling it to a middleman and sending the profit home hours away to his wife, instructing her to buy a donkey.

"I am staying here for two months. My children ask me to come home. But the gold is asking me to stay so I can have more. This is a chance in a lifetime."

Greed in the north can turn dangerous. At least five people, including a police officer, were killed this year in clashes in Gabgaba district after locals found out that the government had granted a Moroccan company exclusive rights to mine tracts rumored to be thick with gold.

Over the last 16 months, about 40 people have died of thirst and hunger or in fights while mining. News of their fates trickled across the desert and back to Khartoum, but death stories don't stop a man from wanting.

"I will find something and return happily to celebrate with the family," Sadig said, putting faith in his friends and the static, clicking sounds of his metal detector. "I will stay as long as it takes. I don't like it here, but I have to adapt myself to it. Beggars cannot be choosers."

He dreams of all the things a young man sees when he closes his eyes to the dust and pounds rock with a hammer, feeling it break apart in his hands.

Buses bring more men each day. They unpack their tools and sit against the dusk, listening to tales about the genie and stretching out beneath the stars.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Ahmed is a special correspondent. Ahmed reported from Almahas and Fleishman from Cairo.

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