Tuesday, May 29, 2012


a small, raw diamond of industrial quality - this was shown to me as I traveled on the bush road from our house
 to the village of Vaama Nongowa  c. 1969 -  photo © by Chad Finer
There was much talk regarding diamonds and diamond mining during our days of training and before we received our assignments. We were told, or warned not to get involved in this enterprise. Diamond mining in Sierra Leone was surface or alluvial mining. The Diamond Corporation in those days had to some degree been nationalized, but this seemed to me to be in name only. The higher echelon seemed to be orchestrated by Europeans (white men)- some from Europe, and some from South Africa, which in those days still suffered from apartheid.  Warned not to buy or even dig for diamonds, we kept away from the frequent offers to buy them from the many illicit dealers in our area. It was common to be accosted by men in my travels who would try and sell me a diamond - I always refused.  I might be passing by on a remote bush trail when I would be passed by someone carrying diamonds. The usual scenario was as follows: as I crossed paths with one of these men he would stick out his tongue to reveal a number of diamonds that he carried in his mouth. When this happened at first I was not sure what was going on. Usually - a friend that I was traveling with let me know what I was being shown.  As I spent a lot of time trekking in our area - this became a common occurrence. Most of the concentration in diamond digging and mining took place to our east (Kenema District and Kono District). In these areas the mining was controlled partially by government soldiers, and mostly by Diamond Corporation security that to me seemed somewhat outside the law. These areas were controlled and required passes to be there if you did not live there. In all cases an identity card was required. However, these areas were vast and controlling who entered and left the area was challenging for the Corporation. Illicit diamond was rampant. Many of my treks in the bush passed by illicit miners in remote sections of the bush.  Alluvial or surface mining involved mainly a simple process of digging along the surface and then sifting the diggings trying to find a diamond. It was labor intensive. Many a village man abandoned their village life and headed to the diamond digging areas to seek their fortune. Very few succeeded. This translocation of men led to wild and lawless settlements in the diamond digging areas. Women, children, and the old were left in their villages to try and manage, while these illicit diamond diggers headed off. Many of the settlements - predominantly men who also left behind many of their village traditions in the process - were at times scary areas to be in. Periodically the government soldiers would drive off the illicit miners from the area, and these men would head to nearby towns like Kailahun or Kenema. Usually penniless and hungry, this influx of men would for a while result in the increase in petty crimes in the towns. What was clear was that the great lure of diamonds in these areas led to a dislocation of traditional values. Men, driven to find their fortune, left behind their wives, their parents, and their children. In these  areas they found lawlessness, crime, and lack of social structure.  Just as in the Gold Rush Days (in the US) these areas became boom towns and dangerous. I have written elsewhere about my occasional travels through these diamond areas.  In fact, one such trip left me detained in a bush jail for several hours by a soldier bent more on intimidation of me than anything else. As my Sierra Leone friend worried about my plight, I was more amused, knowing both that I was in the area legally and with a Peace Corps pass (ID). The soldier's purpose was to make me squirm a bit. When his superior came to the post - he asked, "What's the Peace Corps doing there?"  The soldier - unable to come up with an adequate response was chastised and I was released.   
Although this rich supply of diamonds in Sierra Leone had some potential to help the country's economy - most of the time it did not. Too many times this industry led to corruption of officials and to a smuggling undercurrent being driven by both the artificial pricing of diamonds in Europe and America which kept the value of diamonds and very high levels, and being driven by greed. This industry, which had great potential to support many in country ventures such as education and other infrastructure projects unfortunately was more likely to lead to men abandoning their villages and families, and heading off to find their fortunes in these wild areas where crime was rampant, where there was little in the way of social structures, and where less than a handful ever met with success. Many times these diamond digging areas turned into wastelands where lawlessness and chaos seemed more likely.   And who really benefited?  Those in power. Those across the seas in Europe and America. Europeans if you will. The average Sierra Leone citizen saw little if anything. And as the corruption became more prominent - greed became overwhelming. Diamond selling became a means by the few to become rich. It was diamonds that was later to become the means by which some could finance armaments that had never before been seen in Sierra Leone. Automatic weaponry financed by the blood diamonds snuck its way into the Sierra Leone persona and charismatic, quixotic, and evil men drove this charge, bent on control, drunk on power,and with their selling of  diamonds, able to finance the horror that became an 11 year battle to steal a country. They bought this sophisticated weaponry and handed it to a youth that was ready to be bad. They kidnapped children and made them (coerced them if you will) into child soldiers. They created camps where women were used as sex slaves - and this was all done as a war policy. And they made the children kill their own. These war crimes included the maiming and killing of its own citizens as a policy of horror and terror. This all had never been seen in Sierra Leone before. From 1991 to 2002 this horror - this civil war - sat down on a poor country. Folks left in droves to escape the killing and the maiming. As rebels and others roamed the country creating havoc, those who could ran away. For a decade there was little schooling. For ten years the social fabric of the country was in stress and challenge. And the scars of this horror - have left a disheartening memory on the psyche of this proud country. 

No comments: