I've arrived from the chimpanzee sanctuary. Kenema is the centre for the alluvial diamond mining industry in Sierra Leone, a dusty frontier style town. The mines played a key part in the civil war here, with gems, known as blood diamonds, being used to finance the conflict.
Kenema is the third alert city in Sierra Leone and the first place to report Ebola. As we enter the town a fleet of trucks carrying tee shirted women on their way to a wedding party career past. There are several alternative churches, such as the Church of the Latter-Day Saints and most of the other buildings are businesses, mainly run by folk of Lebanese origin. Mattress shops proliferate, and there are carpenters and dry good stores. But nearly every alternate sign advertises a diamond office. These are mainly empty, with large settees, but some house stacks of small machines used for polishing and grinding. Sadly, there are no diamonds on display.
However, the cavalry comes to the rescue in the form of a local chief, Patrick Shandy, beautifully kitted out in white suit and panama hat, who persuades his friend, Ali to talk to me. Ali is a little sceptical about meeting and only agrees when he knows I’m European. Guide Alfred says that this is because the Lebanese believe Africans can make the diamonds disappear using Voodoo. And he stays out of the way while Ali and his henchman show me a three-carat uncut diamond and a 50-gram nugget of gold. The diamond looks like a piece of rough glass and the gold is bean shaped. I’m allowed to touch these, and I’m even offered coffee. I must look safe.
Patrick also wants us to visit the trade fair, - a series of small booths set up in a large showground with local produce: cocoa, coffee, rice, manioc. I’m draped in jewellery and blackmailed into buying a string of beads I don’t need.
Diamond Panning and Washing
The south of Sierra Leone is undulating countryside, draped in palm trees, bisected by numerous rivers and dotted with villages of thatched cuboid houses. There are thousands of small mining areas around Kenema - the gravel loaded with small precious stones.
Patrick obtains permission for me to visit and takes me on a trek through the rainforest, where I’m attacked by a tree stump, a colony of red ants (vicious stings) and a thorn bush in turn. Activities are not yet really underway this season yet. They can only mine when it’s dry, the rainy season is not long over, and most families are waiting until after Christmas to begin in earnest. But a couple of men are standing thigh high in the river, sieving large pans and swooshing water around to wash the gravel. They check for a promising twinkle, before piling the grit to one side. I’m told there are plenty of diamonds, but most are small. It’s the tantalising search for the life-changing large gems that drives the men on.
The children call out ‘pumui’ (white person in the local Mende language), stare, wave and group for snaps, though some of the smaller ones howl. Patrick says they’ve never seen a pumui before. That’s an exaggeration I think, but tourists are a rare event. We make stately progress. Patrick stops to converse gravely with his many acquaintances, and everyone wants to shake hands with their strange visitor. A few are hopeful of making a sale, proffering sacking bags, but I’m not in the market for an investment I know little about.
Diamonds generate a considerable amount of revenue for Sierra Leone but there is a general belief that mining should be producing much more income. Too much money has historically gone to private individuals or companies and a large proportion of diamonds have been smuggled. So called blood diamonds were used to finance the opposition during the civil war. (As told in the film Blood Diamond). The largest diamond found in Sierra Leone, and the third largest diamond in the world, was a 969.8 carat (194 g) rough diamond. It was found in 1972 and named the An-al of Sierra Leone.
Next stop the coast and Liberia.