Friday, February 23, 2007

The lure of Sierra Leone diamonds

Diamonds continue to be big business for Sierra Leone and through the years many have been tempted to join the hunt in the hope of a lucky find.

Diamond diggers may well be like fishermen - the biggest one is always the one that got away.

But in Kenema, Sierra Leone's main diamond town, whole streets are lined with diamond buyers' shops, and there are enough stones flowing in to make them all a living.

If you own or can rent land along the streams where the stones are washed down out of the diamond-bearing rock, then you have a very decent chance of striking it lucky.

Hangha village, just north of Kenema, was one of the first places diamonds were found.

It was to Hangha that Queen Elizabeth was taken in 1961 to see the diggers at work.

It was the people of Hangha who appeared on the old one Leone note, sifting gravel in a rectangular pit.

And it was in Hangha that I met a man who told me the quintessential diamond story.


In the days when the industry was just starting up, Patrick Sandy was a young teacher, earning the modest salary of £10 ($19.50) a month.

A map of Sierra Leone showing Kenema

He and his brothers thought they would try looking for diamonds on the family farm.

And they rapidly made some very good finds.

Patrick told me that his best stone was the size of a large pea, and it sold for £11,000.

There was no contest, he gave up teaching and went into the diamond business.

Arguing that if they could find diamonds with so little effort, then digging on a larger scale would bring enormous wealth. He bought tools, hired labourers and set them to work clearing the land, digging, washing and sifting the gravel.

But there was nothing.

He never made another significant find, despite searching until all his money was gone.

Diamond digging is like gambling - it's very addictive.

The winner goes back to the tables, convinced that he is on a roll and that even greater success will follow.

The loser carries on grimly, determined to keep going until he has recouped his losses.

The few who do make money are the ones who have the strength of mind to quit while they are ahead.

Small scale

A diamond prospector filtering earth in Koidu, Eastern Sierra Leone

Ordinary people are able to join the Sierra Leone diamond hunt

Hangha, which is built on top of a diamond field, is a dusty, forlorn place. There are men hanging around in the shade, a video parlour showing Nigerian-made movies, and a pavement vendor selling a small selection of shovels, pickaxe heads and sieves.

On the outskirts of the town are burnt and broken houses.

These diamond areas were endlessly fought over and suffered badly during Sierra Leone's civil war.

And yet diamonds should not have to be a curse.

Alongside some big companies, mining diamonds directly from the rock, Sierra Leone has a quite liberal and well-structured system, which allows ordinary people in the diamond areas to try their hand at alluvial mining on a small scale.

If they buy a licence they can keep what they find, and sell it through licensed buyers.

If they do not have suitable land or the means to support themselves while they dig, they can find themselves a so-called "supporter" who will sponsor them while they do it.

And for a young, single man at least, it is not too bad a deal.


We talked to a group who were digging out a river bed near the village.

It was hard, hot work, but they were happy with their supporter, who gave them two cups of rice a day, and a thousand Leones - "sauce money" for stew to go with the rice.

He also gave them cigarettes and bought them medicine when they were sick.

If they find a diamond, they get a share of the cash, which was split between the miner, the landowner and the supporter.

You can see what these windfalls might translate into as you pass the diamond buyers' shops.

As soon as the miner has got his cash in hand, the dealer has goods ready for him to buy.

A small diamond might mean a bicycle or a boom box radio.

A bigger stone could mean a generator, a television and video, or a motorbike.

It could also set the young man up in a more reliable trade.

But mostly, the lure of the stones is too strong.

Why would someone bother with the safe and steady when there is a chance, however small, of making more money in a day than a carpenter or a motorbike boy could earn in his whole life?

I did meet one man, a prosperous, young dealer who had kept a level head and made the diamonds work for him.

Francis Konuwa's family land lay in a prime location, along the Sewa river.

He was soon supporting other diggers, but they were usually his own brothers, so he was fairly sure that they would not cheat him by hiding their finds.

And now he is diversifying into retailing, foreign exchange dealing, and the import and export of diamonds.

The gambler who knows when to walk away from the table is the one who keeps his winnings.

Source: BBC NEWS | Programmes | From Our Own Correspondent | The lure of Sierra Leone diamonds