By Victoria Averill
Freetown, Sierra Leone
Tall, thin and retiring, 60-year-old Isata Kamara does not fit the typical image of a miner in the mineral-rich West African country of Sierra Leone.
Gold means more financial freedom for many of Sierra Leone's women
Gesturing to the small but heavy pile of gold on the table she proudly admits to mining the flakes herself.
Elegantly dressed in a traditional African headscarf and matching skirt she introduces her "team" of fellow miners gathered around her, a group of colourful, lively young women, many of them carrying small children.
This team and others like them form the backbone of Sierra Leone's small scale alluvial gold mining industry, where 90% of the prospecting is done by women.
Whilst the men follow the dream of finding a winning diamond, it is the women who resolutely pan the tailings of the diamond gravel with nothing more than their kitchen calabashes and a shovel.
"It's fine work," Ms Kamara says looking up shyly. "We pan for gold most days and always get money at the end - there's a lot of gold."
High global gold prices mean even a small amount can change lives
"We never go to bed hungry but people doing the diamond work often do as they don't find anything," she explains.
In Sierra Leone's diamondiferous regions, fewer of the precious stones are being found in the shallow river beds and pits, making conditions harsher for the mostly male alluvial diamond miners.
The women, however, have stumbled on a potentially huge untapped resource which could, if marketed and planned efficiently, provide them with a reliable source of income and financial independence in a war-ravaged country.
West Africa is one of the fastest-growing gold producing regions in the world.
Leon Boksenbojm, a gold expert working in the region said that between 1997 and 2001 West Africa experienced a 56% increase in gold output at a time when production was declining in many other countries.
And today, the favourable geology of the West African sub-region is capable of supplying a potentially huge supply of gold, he said.
Ghana and Mali are now the region's second- and third-largest gold producing countries. According to figures from precious metals research firm GFMS, Ghana produced 62.8 tonnes of gold in 2005, while Mali mined 45.9 tonnes.
South Africa is still the continent's top producer, generating 296.3 tonnes last year.
Even though Sierra Leone has yet to feature in these statistics, growth, when it comes, can be quick.
Tanzania, previously an insignificant gold producer relying on small-scale mining is now an industrial gold producer and has seen output shoot up from 5.3 tonnes in 1997 to 48.9 tonnes in 2005.
'A lot of gold out there'
Already there are positive signs for Sierra Leone, and gold deposits have been found in the north, south and east of the country.
But, non-existent gold export and production figures point to an unregulated and unmonitored industry in desperate need of reform.
"Looking at a map you see vast areas of the country where gold has been found, so you know there's a lot of gold out there," says Paul Temple, a consultant for Management Systems International's Peace Diamonds Alliance project.
Sierra Leone needs investment
"But at the moment knowing how much just isn't possible as no comprehensive surveys have been done," he explains.
And until something changes, it is often the people that most need the protection of a well-run market that will suffer the most.
Ms Kamara and her team of women prospectors are a case in point, and because they are ignorant of the current high international gold prices they sell their gold either to the local chief or to Lebanese dealers.
They also have no say over the price because Sierra Leone does not have an official gold market.
A number of factors are hindering attempts to develop the industry, observers said.
One of the main problems is that the decade-long civil war which raged in Sierra Leone destroyed much of the country's infrastructure, and today its roads, water and electricity supply are either poor or non-existent.
Critics also point to high levels of corruption and a lack of political will.
As a result, while international companies are gradually returning to explore the potential wealth of Sierra Leone's mineral reserves, industrial-sized deep gold mining is still in its early stages.
Mining for gold is a back-breaking and often disappointing business
"Gold could fill a big gap," said a minerals sector observer on condition of anonymity. "But the government is very reluctant to push gold and keeps on giving excuses not to go ahead."
Part of this reluctance can be attributed to the absence of a stable monetary denomination in both Sierra Leone and West Africa, observers said.
Instead it is gold - with its transparent, steady price - that binds West Africa's trade together and allows many of Sierra Leone's companies to build business links with neighbouring Guinea and Liberia.
Alimany Wurie is director of Sierra Leone's mines and admits that this can result in the illegal trading of gold.
"Gold is being smuggled into Guinea," the government minister said.
"A lot of people don't appreciate that when they get gold it should come through official channels," he explained. "They prefer to take it out to sell and buy goods, but we are trying to tackle this problem."
The government sees keeping an eye on the industrial diamond mining companies, which are finding large quantities of gold after they have processed the diamonds, as the solution to tackling the unofficial gold trade.
Mineral sector experts suspect diamond mining companies are unlikely to co-operate and consider this an ineffective and unrealistic way for the government to tap into the financial benefits of gold.
Instead they say the focus should be on the small scale alluvial sector where smuggling is rampant and many more people would benefit from an organized and regulated gold industry.
Issuing licenses, setting up authorised offices to buy and sell gold, and publishing an official value of gold would be vital first steps.
"In Kenema where all the diamond dealing takes place you see official diamond offices everywhere," said Mohammed Turay of Freetown based Campaign for Just Mining.
"But where are the official gold offices? Where are the licensed gold exporters?" Mr Turay asked.
"We all know there is an abundance of gold but until the government starts regulating the industry everyone but a small few are losing out."