Traditionally a symbol of love, diamonds in Sierra Leone took on a more sinister dimension during the civil war of the 1990’s, as they were renamed ‘blood diamonds.
A ‘Blood Diamond’ is a term used for a gem mined in a war zone and sold to finance an army's war efforts, which was the case in Sierra Leone, famously portrayed in Leonardo DiCaprio’s gripping 2006 movie of the same name.
Thankfully those days are long behind us. Sierra Leone has now established political stability and, with the introduction of the Kimberly process (which certifies all rough diamonds exported were produced, sold, and exported through legitimate channels), it has given back the sparkle to the diamond mining industry.
Diamond mining today
In the Kono region, teams of freelance miners dig and sift tirelessly for these hugely valuable gemstones. The owners only guarantee the hard-labouring miners a subsistence wage and they can go months without unearthing a single stone. And, when they do, the resale value of each stone is always shared between the entire team. So it’s important to maintain 100% trust between co-workers.
Given the right geological signposts, the mines, once carefully prepped, can give up anything from pinhead-sized raw diamonds to egg-sized ‘life-changers’. After an average of 3-4 months of back-breaking excavation to reach the right levels, the miners begin the painstaking task (testing both the body’s muscles and the eyesight) of spotting the sparkles. Every one of them dreams of finding the stone of a lifetime.
At the first site we visited, the work-force was focused on digging down into the heavy ground, but at our second site, panning had already begun. Here, the seemingly simply task of swirling water around in a tray of silt revealed itself to be a highly skilled, multi-layered process (with any diamonds ‘attracted’ to the centre of the pan by their density).
Who could resist that challenge? In something like a scene from TV's ‘The Generation Game’, I took hold of the pan and swirled for all my life, knowing that back home, my wife would be dreaming of a new rock the size of a gob-stopper. Not surprisingly, my endeavours were fruitless (rockless?) but it was exhilarating, none the less.
Visiting Kono was an undoubted highlight (amongst many) of my trip to Sierra Leone and can be easily included in itineraries. Yes, as tourism increases, it is likely to become a little more ‘staged’ but still a great activity.