mining diamonds by hand kono sierra leone

The ‘Blood Diamond’ Mines of Sierra Leone

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Travels in Sierra Leone – 2007


I went in search of diamonds, riches, freedom from this dumb mundane world. And found it!

I’m rich I’m free I’m the power ordained by God. I am the big man. I am the warlord. I am the boss. I am the President. I AM THE MAN. I AM THE KING – the last word is mine, you hear? Disobey me dumb motherfucker and you die !

a power-hungry retard
open-pond-mining-diamonds-kono-sierra-leone
Open diamond mine pits outside of Kono.

And so this is how the war in Sierra Leone continued … a selfish fight for wealth and power between groups of brutal stupid men that trapped the peaceful population resulting in a decade of cruelty and shit over diamonds.

Diamonds: Dumb sparkling stones that people chose to wear – cos they look nice.

This is one cause of the crap. Demand: these dumb stones adored by female fashion across history and prized by males buying them to win a woman.

And lately in the West a Damian Hurst art-piece: a totally diamond–encrusted skull that is cool but an unnecessary derivative of Aztec-art.

Thankfully, it was auctioned for charity – otherwise 50 million bucks is another God-like stupid extravagance the world can do without.

I really don’t care for diamonds or gems or precious metals but can understand their allure – sure, they are pretty.

Yet this disdain didn’t quell my curiosity about visiting a diamond mine in mountainous, northern Sierra Leone.

Only 5 years ago, this was an area controlled by the guerrilla army of the RUF, deep amid Sierra Leone’s ugly civil war.

miner digging for diamonds sierra leone

The journey wasn’t the best cos the road was broken, muddy, rutted, cratered, slow, but after a few-100-kms and a full day from Freetown, I got to Kono, one of a handful of towns where diamonds flow like beer after a good day of digging.

Or does it?

Well, no, not really, cos half of the town is Muslim.

And I was there during Ramadan – the holy month of fasting but I had met David, a Christian, and so in his company I drunk beer. (But discreetly indoors, as I didn’t want to be a dumb motherfucker and upset the pious outside.)

David is the son of a chief, a miner – or at least, has a lease to mine as he won’t be doing the digging himself, and HE, was my guide, my security, while visiting the mines.

diamond miners pose kno sierra leone
Miners pose for the foreigner with camera.

Without a local, and better a mine lord or a prestigious person, then you’re asking for trouble. You may get robbed or at very least hassled for money as the miners are poor, rough, and wary. Many townspeople are shy or suspicious – like when Immigration came to my room.

I told them: I am not interested in diamonds, not a business person nor a journalist – just a traveler.

And they saw that with passport in hand and dressed in a sarong, barefoot, t-shirt, straight-off the bed and into questioning, that I posed no threat.

mainstreet of Kono and mosque at dusk sierra leone
My room with view looking to the mainstreet of Kono and mosque at dusk.

On motorbikes we zipped out of town – down a dusty, pot-holed road, past a Pakistani UN Peacekeeping Force memorial, and a rebel-captured, white-painted-field howitzer stuck into an intersection leading to a faded steel gateway saying “Welcome’ or ‘Farewell’ to the town.

And beyond palm tree lines of burn-out broken housing, partly canvas-ed, shanty, plastic-sheet-renewed then we rode into cut, upturned dirt fields of mud mounds and ponds about a mile from town where men crawled around like ants, with shovels and sifting trays.

This was the standard diamond mining experience.

Open field, wet, alluvial, digging dirt, searching, washing, sifting, sorting; rough gems could be found anywhere, any moment.

But it was regulated.

Those who had contacts or were chiefs, etc, had access to mining licenses and hired laborers to dig and sift the gems.

David was waiting until December to start: he needed an investor, more cash. But he introduced me to a “Chief” who controlled a large mining area alongside the river.

The Chief was friendly, confident/arrogant, red-casual suit – and once a small payment ($7) had been made he escorted me around his mud and turquoise mining ponds, ordering laborers to pose, smile for my camera.

He shouted this and that, thinking I was a journalist – although I told him I was not – and saying “We need this man, these people”; meaning publicity/foreign investment into his mining.

Hard work: but simply shoveling, panning, scooping stones and water can reveal diamonds here.

Afterwards he asked my nationality and was surprised that I was not American or British.

I was told to find diamonds certain soils are the key.

And that even after exhaustive mining during the war, today secondary digging of the same area is still revealing more diamonds.

And if you were lucky, you could just scrape the ground and find one (no rock breaking or deep mining was necessary here but mostly it is long hours of digging craters and searching laboriously by hand).

diamond miners near Kono amid a river  kono
Miners near Kono amid a river on the way to the formalized diamond mines.

He also informed me that diamonds came in many colors like coffee, green, orange and “double-decker” or double–colored, but that the typical white or clear diamonds are the most expensive.

During the war he pointed out, across there, stood the RUF – Revolutionary United Front – head quarters, destroyed now; where they controlled the diamonds fields, forcing 1000s to mine or die.

The RUF was a movement that had originated from real historical grievances but that had no “real” political agenda beyond greed, beyond diamond wealth control and this was fueled by the trade in diamonds for weapons by neighboring warlord, Charles Taylor in Liberia.

Maybe you know that the RUF were infamous for using child soldiers, who often cut-off people’s arms, lips or ears … 50,000 victims.

Today, cripples are there on the streets for display, and for a few pennies of your pity.

But that was then and this is now. 

5 years on: Diamonds mining is apparently fairer, shared, regulated by international law and money going to the government.

diamond miners in river kono sierra leone

The fact is the Kimberley Mine – a South African, professional, digging deep into the earth with machinery and technology – also operate here. But that there is no visitor access there for a tourist like me.

This mine falls under the international laws, while others may not.

David told me that of his total diamond profits 5% will go to the government in tax, and he keeps the rest, beyond his overheads of mining license and workers wages, etc.

Today, there are no ‘blood diamonds’ in Sierra Leone.

But still, if you’re interested … that lovely diamond you may be tempted to buy may have been mined by men who work 8–9-10+ hours-per-day, everyday (or 6 days a week), for a meager reward of $2.30 a day.

Sierra Leone village still war-ravaged.
Village near the mines, still war-ravaged.

Another cruel global reality … but, this pitiful sum can keep many families alive.

Global Nomad