mining diamonds by hand kono sierra leone

Seeking the Blood Diamonds of Sierra Leone


I went in search of diamonds, seeking freedom from this dull, regimented world.

AND, I found it!

I’m rich
I’m free.
I’m the power ordained by God.
I am the Boss.
I am the Warlord.
I am the President.
Disobey me motherfucker… you die!

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 people 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 in the UK, a Damian Hirst art-piece: a totally diamond–encrusted skull that is cool but an unnecessary derivative of Aztec-art.

Thankfully, they auctioned it 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 my disdain didn’t quell my curiosity about visiting the mines infamous for the blood diamonds of 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 at pit of former blood diamonds mines of sierra leone
Digging in the pits that were formerly associated with the blood diamonds of Sierra Leone.

The journey wasn’t the best cos the road was 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.

blood diamonds of sierra leone miners pose
Miners pose for the foreigner with camera.

How to Visit a Diamond Mine in Sierra Leone

Without a local, and better a mine lord or a prestigious person, then you’re asking for trouble.

You may get robbed, or at the very least, hassled for money, as the miners are poor, rough, and wary. A good deal of townspeople are suspicious—like when immigration officers came to my room.

I told them: I am not interested in diamonds, not a businessperson or 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 diamond mines visit
My room with a view looking to the main-street of Kono and mosque at dusk.

Getting to the Diamond Mines

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

And beyond palm tree lines of burn-out broken housing, partly covered by canvas tarps, shanty, plastic-sheet-renewed.

Out beyond cut, upturned dirt fields of mud mounds and ponds about a mile from town where men scurried like ants, with shovels and sifting trays.

This was the standard diamond mining experience in Kono.

Open fields of water, digging amid orange mud, searching, washing, sifting, sorting. They could find rough gems anywhere, at 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 turquoise mining ponds, ordering laborers to pose and 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 in his mining.

mining by hand diamond mine visit kono sierra lone
Sierra Leone Diamond Mines: 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.

Reality of the Diamond Mines in Sierra Leone

I was told that to find diamonds, searching in certain soils, is 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’s long hours of digging craters and searching laboriously by hand.

blood diamonds of sierra leone miners near Kono amid a river
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.

Sierra Leone Civil War Forged by Diamonds

During the war, he pointed out, across there stood the RUF—Revolutionary United Front—headquarters, 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 the trade in guns and diamonds by neighboring warlord, Charles Taylor in Liberia.

Maybe you know 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.

visiting the diamond mines of sierra leone
Sierra Leone Diamond Mines: Miners work in the river near Kono.

The fact is the Kimberley Mine—a South African company digging deep with machinery and technology – also operates 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

If you’re interested.

That lovely diamond you buy could’ve been mined by men working 8–9-10+ hours-per-day.

Every day (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.

Travels in Sierra Leone – 2007

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