“Welcome to Chegga,” says Ahmed.
To an outsider, Chegga looks like nowhere. Piles of rocks lay scattered across the base of rolling gravel hills, and a line of large dunes a few kilometers away provides the only break in the landscape. But after an 800-kilometer (nearly 500-mile) journey across the pan-flat northern half of Mauritania, where sighting a rock is an event, it feels like an arrival.
Chegga has become one of the central areas in a vast new gold rush that has spread across northern Mauritania since 2019. Similar scenes have played out across the Sahara in recent years as climate change fueled drought and instability has spread across the Sahel, forcing thousands of young men to search for work in the desert from Sudan to Mauritania.
Ahmed, the teenage driver who has driven a group of 15 miners across the flat wastes, is exhausted. He has driven nonstop, offroad, for two days straight to get to this point and is ready to sleep despite the half dozen energy drinks he inhaled during the odyssey. But for the newly arrived miners, this is just the beginning. As the migrants from the top of the truck drop down, Ahmed starts walking into the distance, where a few ramshackle tents lay in the lee of a larger pile of excavated rocks: the bus station. Mohamed, who was lucky enough to secure a spot inside the battered Toyota Hilux, takes charge and begins to pull his equipment from the back of the truck with the help of his two helpers, Mohamed Eidi and Sidi Mohamed.
The three Mohameds have traveled for nearly a week to arrive at this camp at the end of the world. Originally from a village east of the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, they are part of the latest in a series of Saharan gold rushes that have swept across the region in the past decade. Reliably dangerous and occasionally profitable, these camps have drawn thousands of young men to the desert to labor in hand-dug holes that reach nearly one hundred meters into the unstable ground in search of a few grams of gold. The gold is their literal ticket out of a cycle of poverty that has only been exacerbated by climate change in these extremely vulnerable countries.
Collapses are common, and after his percentage is negotiated, Abdullah lists the latest collapses and deaths in their corner of the gold fields with the mechanical monotony of someone used to the news.
Chegga was once a frequent stopping place for trans-Saharan caravans before it was converted into a French colonial fort. More recently, the Mauritanian state used it as a launching point for border patrols before abandoning it when the security situation in neighboring Mali made further use untenable. In 2019, the new president of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, opened the former military exclusion zone up to Mauritanian prospectors and increased the security presence to ensure their relative safety. In theory, the region is still subject to the old rules that condone shooting any foreigners on sight, but in such a wide area, enforcement is nearly impossible.
Once the Mohameds arrive in Chegga, they are still nearly 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the actual fort. Instead, the small escarpment that marks the northern edge of Mali looms nearby, a far closer presence than any campaign promise of security.
“The bandits do occasionally come to buy water, and they sometimes come to mine gold nearby,” a bemused Mohamed answers as Eidi and Sidi work to dig their supplies out from a dune that has drifted over it in the two months they have been gone. “But there is no risk [from them] because they are scared we will report them to the police, and then they will not be allowed to come back […] so they leave their weapons.” They go on to explain that the weapons are left over the border a few kilometers away across the same featureless desert that surrounds the tents.
After the initial shock of being dropped into their new home for the next three months, Sidi and Eidi begin to build their tent, which the shifting dunes have covered. A single large open-sided tent and some reed mats form the kitchen and beds, with abandoned mines nearby functioning as the bathroom. As tea is prepared, a slow trickle of people begins to arrive out of the desert. This is a neighborhood but on a different scale. Sidewalks are kilometer-wide expanses, and streets are regions that can take an hour to walk across, but many people are willing to come visit because news from the outside world is worth it in this internet black hole. None of the major networks have service here, so people get their news from radios and word of mouth in the sporadic trucks that roll up, like that of the Mohameds.
Abdullah, a young man with a goatee and smiling eyes behind his traditional “houli” head covering, is the first to arrive, and he settles in with the ease of a friendship bonded by hardship. After the long Mauritanian greeting that ranges from questions about the health of your mother to the quality of the sandstorms on the trip, Abdullah asks if they are looking for extra help on this trip. His team is a group of young men, and they are returning to their home in the south soon. But he wants to stay a few more weeks to make a little more money. After some negotiations, Abdullah is added to the team, and all four walk over to inspect the mines.