Searching for Diamonds, They're Grabbing at Straws
Little was known of Sierra Leone
And how it connects to the diamonds we own
The moment we stepped out of the poda-poda, a 1998 Volkswagen Golf hatchback laden with 3 backpacks, 7 humans, 3 chickens and 3 goats, we knew we were in diamond country.
Lining the main street through Bo, beginning with the poda-poda park, virtually every storefront had a diamond painted on its sign. The names on the signs were very telling: "Saleh Fouad, Diamond Expert", "Hamuday's Diamond Office", "Mansour's Diamond Office", "Talib Diamonds". These were not African names, but Muslim names. Lebanese to be exact.
Three of 13 passengers in a VW Golf
The Lebanese civil war, which spanned from 1975 until 1990 led to a widespread diaspora in which many Lebanese wound up in West Africa seeking opportunities to set up business in places that were at least somewhat more stable than their homeland at the time. As the diamond business picked up momentum, the Lebanese were in the right place at the right time and, despite a population reduction during the Sierra Leonean war, the Lebanese enjoy a strong majority as merchants who buy the rough diamonds after they are extracted from the earth.
The Rebel Unified Front (RUF) instigated the war in Sierra Leone, starting in 1991, with the primary objective of seizing control of the country's diamond resources. As if the money to be gained from diamond sales were not sufficient, the RUF kept their costs down by using forced labor, in the form of men and children shoveling mud at gunpoint. The advent of the Kimberly Process after the war attempts to ensure that diamonds are no longer harvested by children, at gunpoint, or used to fund rebel groups or oppressive regimes.
During the war, as now, the Lebanese live in Bo, Kenema, Tongo, and other diamond centers in Sierra Leone to buy rough diamonds. After 9/11 it was revealed that dealers in Sierra Leone sold millions of dollars of diamonds to al Qaeda, enabling the organization to hide vast amounts of funds in the highly portable little stones.
Still today, some of the largely Shiite Lebanese in Sierra Leone funnel a portion of their cash to their favorite political organization, keeping Hezbollah armed and wealthy. Who buys the diamonds from the Lebanese? Often, they are purchased by Jews, the very people Hezbollah is always at odds with. The Lebanese buy the diamonds in Africa, sell them to Jewish businesspeople in Antwerp, New York, and Tel Aviv, who then cut and polish them before selling them to consumers all over the world. So according to the Kimberly Process, Salonean diamonds are no longer "conflict diamonds," but that's simply a technicality.
The Lebanese control over diamond purchasing in Sierra Leone amounts to a cartel where they are able to agree upon low prices that they will pay miners for the rough diamonds. Diamonds are sold to consumers at prices that do not at all reflect their rarity as a stone, first enabled in Sierra Leone by the local cartels, and then on a worldwide scale due to DeBeers' monopolistic control of roughly 70% of the world's diamond production and sales. DeBeers has admitted to price fixing, leveraging their control over the world's diamonds in order to keep prices high.
Diamond country: Bo, Sierra Leone
The Lebanese part of the diamond trade was evident within moments of arriving in Bo and Kenema, the first two cities Aaron and I visited after leaving Mile 91. But I wanted to see the first steps in the diamond chain of production: how the diamonds were acquired. I wanted to know the methods used, the people employed, and the life that surrounds diamonds long before they become the shimmering, mystifying stones we are familiar with. Motorcycles would be required.
Wheeling and Dealing
Somewhere between Bo and Kenema, Aaron and I hopped out of our poda-poda in another tiny in-between town, Blama. Unbeknownst to us at the time, 90% of Blama was destroyed in the war, leaving a tiny settlement roughly 3 blocks long consisting of rotting, uninhabitable buildings and a handful of Saloneans trying to continue life as normal. We tracked down the local motorcycle drivers to propose a multi-day rental of two motorcycles. None of the drivers were willing to release their bikes for multiple days, apparently because they didn't own them. A larger businessman owned all the bikes in the area and rented them out to the individual drivers. They said we'd have better luck asking around in Kenema. We hopped on a bike and were driven back to the nearest junction to catch a poda-poda.
The junction also happened to be a police roadblock, and as we dismounted, we were stopped by a tall, surly policeman in a blue outfit who began to grill us, starting by asking for our passports and driver's licenses. We handed over our American licenses (expired by two years in Aaron's case) and our passports. The officer was silent for a moment as he flipped through our papers.
Blama, Sierra Leone
"What is your name?" the cop demanded, gruffly.
"I'm Aaron," Aaron answered.
"No, Aaron," Aaron repeated, responding to what had become a common misunderstanding of his name.
"And you?" the officer asked, turning to me.
"I'm Adam, what's your name?" I asked, extending my hand to shake his, I think mostly out of habit from going through the same question-and-answer routine with countless civilians each day for the past 6 weeks. The effect was sudden and impressive: the officer's face softened and he smiled. Just like any other Salonean, he was excited at the opportunity to befriend a couple of foreign strangers, a change from his daily routine.
"Officer K. C. Karebo."
"Nice to meet you!" I gushed, wanting to maintain the momentum of diminishing the officer's authority. I wasn't so concerned about trouble with the law as we'd done nothing wrong, rather, I was concerned we'd be forced into a bribery situation before being released, and I figured that it'd be more difficult for him to ask for a bribe from a friend.
"Uh, nice to meet you too. What is your mission here?" Karebo asked.
"Well, we're tourists, here to learn about your country, to see what life is like here, to meet the people," I explained.
"For how long?"
"About two weeks," Aaron explained. The officer turned to two other cops and a small audience of motorcycle drivers that had congregated, and translated the interview thus far into Krio, the local Pidgin English. When he explained the duration of our trip, I noticed that he used the phrase "two week feasibility study".
"Wait, no, we're not here for a feasibility study!" I said. "We're not here for diamonds, we're tourists, just wanting to learn about life in Sierra Leone!"
"Ookey-ookey-ookey," the officer said, seeming to better understand our intent. No question, we were in diamond territory. Perhaps that was his reason for initially approaching us with such authority.
As we explained our true intentions, the officer warmed up to us and we eventually explained that we were looking to rent a couple motorcycles for a few days.
"Oh, you should contact the Chairman in Kenema. He is the man that controls the motorcycles in the region."
The officer took my notepad and jotted down a phone number, instructing us to call when we arrived. Having had bad experiences with Chairmen earlier in my trip, I figured we'd try our luck with Kenema's motorcycle drivers before calling that guy. In any case, we were gracious to the officer and moments later we were on the next poda-poda, heading to Kenema. No bribe was ever requested.
As we pulled up to the main junction in Kenema, a well-fed man with a shaved head and wearing a bright yellow set of pajamas approached the van.
"That's the Chairman," Aaron said. No words had been exchanged, but it was clear; the Chairman was there, ready to talk business with us. As we stepped onto the chaotic street, and were descended upon by the horde of motorcycle drivers wanting to drive us, the Chairman and his cohort introduced themselves. They had already been debriefed on our mission by the cop in Blama by mobile phone. These are the days of lasers in the jungle.
"We have motorcycles we can rent to you, but we do not know you, so we will need to learn about you to establish…"
"That you can trust us, certainly, I understand," I said. "Let's grab a drink and we can talk it over."
That afternoon we sipped cold Cokes with the Chairman and a few other men as we explained why we were in Sierra Leone.
"You have to understand, in our country, Sierra Leone was in the news only during the war. Once the war ended, no one has heard anything else about your country. We want to know, to see with our own eyes, to take some photos, and when we get home, we will tell our friends and family. That way, people in our country can know about your country and your lives," I explained.
"And how do you find Sierra Leone?"
"It's amazing!" Aaron said. "The people have been so friendly to us, everyone has been helpful, and we've been assisted with anything we need. It's really been an amazing experience to travel here."
The Chairman was getting us. The next morning, Saturday, we drew up a contract in my notebook and signed it, promising that we had no intention to disappear into the bush with his bikes, and that the bikes would be back in his possession at dusk on Sunday.
Fire on the Mountain
We were back on the road, motorcycles blazing across potholed pavement and red washboard dirt roads, jungle greenery flying past us in the punishing sun. The heat dissipated as we picked up speed, as our skin and clothes quickly picked up a thick layer of red dust.
We were headed north from Kenema, aiming to arrive in Tongo a few hours later. Tongo was home to the Tongo Diamond Field, one of the largest fields in Sierra Leone. As a result, it was the main target of the RUF rebels as they wrested control of Sierra Leone and the diamond mines during the war.
The terrain was stunning, as we crested mountain after mountain, each covered in thick green jungle. Strangely, however, we noticed countless expanses that had been razed by recent fires, killing all the foliage and leaving a few charred palm stumps to stand over the charred earth. We assumed they were accidental fires, the results of slash-and-burn agriculture or garbage fires gone out of control. It was disappointing to see the destruction of such unbelievable terrain.
We veered off the main road onto a thin footpath that ran along a fire still blazing, radiating searing heat and crackling loudly, before we came upon a few men carrying machetes. They explained to us that they were in fact setting the fires intentionally. It was the first step in diamond mining.
"First, we burn," the man said. "Then we dig."
Burning before mining
We arrived at the edge of Tonga in the early afternoon. We knew we'd arrived when we reached a police road block. The interrogation followed the exact same pattern as the one in Blama, with Aaron and I charming the cops into submission and including the same brief misunderstanding that our two-week visit was a two-week feasibility study. They insisted on taking us into the police station and logging our presence in their diary, repeatedly explaining that our "safety is paramount." Considering the violent history and the priceless land we were about to tread, it was only fair. We made it out of the police station with a nice group photo, several new friends, and no bribes paid.
We rode into the center of town and hopped off our bikes.
"Look at this place, it's the god damned Wild West," Aaron said. "Every store is selling pickaxes and sieves." All along the dirt road, the small ramshackle buildings carried mining supplies while motorcycles whizzed people from one end of town to the other. While only supporting a relatively small population, Tongo was clearly focused on a singular vocation.
As usual, we approached the motorcycle drivers to get the low-down. We explained that we wanted to see the diamond mines and a moment later we had a guide leading us to Tongo Field.
Diamond mining tools
We could have found the mine unassisted; it actually would have been hard to miss. Just beyond the last homes along the main road, a vast expanse of undulating, lumpy dirt hills stretched as far as the eye could see. Open-pit mines.
We dismounted and took a stroll down to a large pit of yellow dirt, probably 30 feet deep. The bottom of the pit contained a shallow pool of rust-colored water and a handful of muscular men in their underwear busily rinsing small quantities of gravel in handmade sieves. As we stood at the rim of the pit, we received some skeptical glares and finally were called to come down into the pit. We did so and began to chat with the men. It was the same conversation about why we were there, requiring an extra amount of assurance that we weren't there to acquire diamonds, just to see how diamonds were extracted from the earth. The men remained aloof, however, telling us that they would not allow their photographs to be taken. We didn't insist and I hoped we'd be able to warm them up when suddenly a man's voice began to call to us from the rim of the pit.
The man was upset, interrogating us about our "mission" and what business we had at the mines. Apparently he was one of the main supervisors and mobile phone calls had alerted him of our presence. We'd need to go to the mining office and meet the Paramount Chief to get permission to view the mines. The man hopped on the back of my bike and we rode to the office. Along the way, I chatted up the man, knowing I'd need to be on his good side to get to the mines on our own terms. The man turned out to be just as gentle as the rest of the Saloneans. His name was Francis and I had him giving me an impromptu tour within moments.
"Over there, that is the former airport," Francis said, pointing at a stretch of land that had the last disappearing remnants of a pocked asphalt runway. "The rebels destroyed it in the war, and now people just live along it."
"What is that building?" I asked, pointing at a three story tall concrete arch and a few crumbling walls, something that was once a building at least.
"Oh, that used to be the main diamond processing plant, also destroyed in the war. All mining is done manually these days."
Back at the mining office, Francis introduced us to a man in a white ball cap and busy button-down shirt. As it turned out, the Paramount Chief was away on business, as they tend to be, and this man was something like the Deputy Assistant Secondary Lieutenant to the Paramount Chief, but was expectant of all the formalities, power and respect of the Paramount Chief himself, and we generously accorded them to him.
The office was decorated with a giant poster of a Caucasian Jesus, and the desk supported a back-catalog of Jehovah's Witness Awake! magazines and a transistor radio. The discussion was the same as all the others with the police, and the substitute Chief explained that our mission was perfectly acceptable, provided we took a Field Supervisor with us.
"See, many people come here for our diamonds and we need to make sure you aren't here to do business"
"And is it OK if we take some photographs?" I asked.
"Of course! We had two Spanish women come here a few months ago who wanted to and they took thousands of photographs. The Supervisor will make sure that you have no problems. Your safety is paramount!"
Searching for Diamonds, They're Grabbing at Straws
For the evening and the next morning, we were accompanied to the Tongo Fields by a tall man in a Best Buy uniform who had a grating penchant for repetition.
"Over there, that's the dike. Keeps water out of the mine. See the dike? It's in the mine. Snap a photo? Snap! Snap a photo! See the dike? See the dike? That's the dike."
"Got it, thanks."
"Tonight there aren't many workers, they've all gone home. More will be here in the morning. Not many right now. Usually a few hundred. More in the morning. All gone home for tonight. More in the morning. Sometimes hundreds of them. In the morning."
"Wait, let me get this straight," I said, stopping walking. "Right now, there aren't that many workers here because they've gone home for the evening? And tomorrow there will be more?"
"Great, got it."
"There will be more in the morning."
Aside from the mind-numbing repetition, the presence of the Supervisor made life easy. With the Supervisor, we no longer received dirty looks when we arrived. We'd approach each miner, shake hands, introduce ourselves, explain where we were from and why we were in Sierra Leone. Each miner warmed to us and generally was happy to have his photo taken in exchange for cigarettes which I had bought in town. Many of the miners took the cigarette as an opportunity to stop digging for a bit and talk with us. Through these conversations and conversations with the Supervisors, we were able to learn about mining from a miner's perspective.
|Tongo Field||Glimmer of hope|
The mines in Tongo Field were all alluvial mines, meaning diamonds were acquired by digging through dirt and bedrock to get to gravel which hopefully contains diamond deposits. The mining techniques were artisanal, meaning machines were not employed, just shovels, picks, buckets, sieves and bare hands. It's hot in Sierra Leone if you aren't shoveling mud all day. The miners often stripped down to their underwear, and those who kept their shirts on had varying tides of sweat demarcated on their shirts by visible rings of salt.
After the war, probably part of the Kimberly Process, every miner is required to have a mining license, which is granted through the mining office we'd already visited. The license was supposed to prevent child labor or forced labor in the mines. In our visits to the mines, I'd estimate the youngest person I saw working was about 15 years old.
Since it was the weekend, the mines weren't overrun with workers: on Saturday the Muslims take the day off, and on Sunday the Christians take the day off. Aaron, our guide, and I slowly made our way along the ridges of the pits, and paused at one with rust-red water filling the bottom. The sides of the mine were terraced, sometimes supported by branches pounded into the ground to prevent the terrace from sliding into the water. At 8:00 in the morning, the workers were drenched in sweat.
Terraced open-pit mine
"We're paid a weekly salary," one miner explained. "We get 2,000 Leones a day, plus housing." As we'd learned earlier in the trip, a cup of rice had recently increased to from 500 to 1,000 Leones. A Coke was 1,500 Leones warm and 2,000 Leones refrigerated. A hard-boiled egg was a few hundred, and a skewer of about 5 bites of beef cost between 500 and 1,000 Leones. Aaron and I generally paid 15,000 for a night in a guest house with no running water and electricity from a generator for a couple hours per night.
The mine's supervisor handed out some kola nuts to the workers. I'd tasted them before and had Aaron try one of the caffeine-packed seeds during one of our poda-poda rides. He couldn't comprehend eating something so incredibly bitter voluntarily. "How can you stand those?" he asked.
"They suppress your hunger," one miner responded.
"What happens when you find a diamond?" Aaron asked.
"We share the proceeds equally," the supervisor explained. It was clever; by making it equally profitable whenever anyone found a diamond, it served to ensure that no one would just hide it and try to sell it on their own. The upper supervisors interfaced with the diamond merchants, ensuring that the average miner didn't know the value of the diamond anyway, so they'd probably get a fraction of the local value if they attempted to sell a diamond without assistance. Nonetheless, diamonds are so tiny that it still seemed entirely possible that some people made away with a diamond from time to time, yet no one there agreed with my assertion.
Aaron and I asked numerous times how much money the miners expected to make from each diamond, and the supervisors and miners were intentionally vague in their responses. On average, it sounded like a decent stone could net the team between $25 and $30. You know what a diamond costs on the Western market.
At some of the other sites, the miners were paid only on commission; they would sell the diamond to the owner of the plot.
"We don't have to sell to the owner though, we can take them to town and sell to the merchants," one miner explained. On the surface, that kept the owner from undercutting the merchants, yet my research back home still indicates that the cartel keeps the payout small across the board.
Dig My Grave
As we proceeded from one mine to another, we crossed paths with a train of men hustling across the ridges from one mine to a larger pool of water. They were taking viable gravel from a dry pit to a wet one so they could sift through it to find diamonds.
"We have to dig down to the water level," a miner explained. "We go past the surface dirt, past the bedrock, and into the gravel below. That's where the diamonds are." Since their mine had gravel above the water table, they had to move the gravel to the water to process it.
We came upon a large mine where 8 men were immersed to their knees in heavy wet clay. A constant barrage of splats could be heard as the men heaved shovelfuls of clay up over their heads and onto the next terrace above them.
"They shovel it up to the next level in the terrace," their supervisor explained, "then after it gets to the top we move it out of the way. We need to get it out of the way because this site has a lot of clay to on top of the gravel. When we get the gravel to the top level, we let it dry for a few weeks and then take it down to the water to sift it.
|Carrying sacks of gravel||Digging through clay for diamonds|
"How long have you been digging at this site?" Aaron asked.
"About 40 days. And we keep hitting clay."
Aaron and I shook our heads, marveling at the amount of labor required to move that much earth.
"Before the war, companies invested more in the mines. We had Caterpillars. With a Caterpillar, we could make the same progress in a weekend. Now it takes us months."
Later we asked how long the supervisor had been working in Tongo. He had begun as a digger like the other men, but was fortunate enough to get to a supervisory position when his body could no longer handle the toil.
"Did your father work in the mines?"
"And your father's father?"
"All the way down the line?"
"Yes. In fact, my family dug here in this exact mine in 1968."
"You dug right here? This same mine?"
"Yeah, there are still some diamonds left..."
The diamonds on planet Earth are between 1 and 1.3 billion years old. New diamonds do not appear in the Tongo mines; these men were digging by hand for diamonds leftover by machines 40 years ago.
Take a Look At These Hands
I got into a conversation with a tall, slender man wearing a blue cap and camouflage underwear named Mohammed.
"How long have you worked at the mine?" I asked.
"This is my first mine," he said. "I used to be a civil servant; I worked for the government. But when 9 months passed without a paycheck, I had to find other work. This is the only option here in Tongo." It was apparent in Sierra Leone that some people in the government were able to earn substantial salaries. Someone was making money, but this man didn't. Was this the fate of the honest civil servant?
"Why don't you move to another city? Try something else?"
"It takes money to move to another city. And there are no jobs in Sierra Leone. This is difficult work, but I am assured of money, even if it is not much," the man said softly as he wrote numbers on a small scrap of paper, which he then tore into tiny pieces, meticulously rolled each one into a ball and then tossed them on the ground. The other miners came over and each man picked up a white ball.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Lottery. We choose numbers to see who digs each plot," he said, counting off the 5x5 foot sections of the mine demarcated by sticks. "Some are harder than others, so we choose numbers for each one."
As the men picked up their shovels and approached their plot, Mohammed showed me his hands. He was a lefty and the entire inside of his left hand had formed into a thick, leathery callous. He let Aaron and I touch it, and I could move the callous layer independently from the rest of his hand.
At our guest house in Tongo we met a South African who worked in the diamond business named Rizzi said that often months would go by before a team found a stone worth even $10.
"They have no foresight," he said. "When they find a diamond that will feed them for a few months, they will stop working for a few months, rather than save and keep working."
The men at Tongo Field have no access to banks, and as a result have no interest to accrue. Six days a week in seemingly bottomless pits of dirt under the punishing sun, their sweating bodies aching and becoming covered in calluses, the men breathe deep and plunge their shovels into the earth again, hoping for the one big find that could make a woman in another world gush or a hip-hop artist boast, and that could bring these men a little time off.
The hand speaks. The hand of a government man.