Day two in Africa with the Sharing the Rough* film documentary team illustrated how East Africans are adding value to the gem trade there. It was a visceral reminder that hope and significance can come from unlikely places.
This particular place was a lapidary (gem cutting) and gemology school in the town in Tanzania where we were staying. The Arusha Gemmological and Jewelry Vocational Training Centre was founded in 2000 by Peter Salla, a quietly determined fifty-six year old African who has worked in the gem trade for about thirty-five years as gemologist, gem cutter, and now educator. Although it was hard to capture a smile from this reserved man on film, he is happily carrying out an important mission: since the school’s founding, about seven hundred students have graduated from the school, about a third of them women.
Traditionally, the student base has come from middle class to wealthy Tanzanian families, those who make more than $5000 a year, who send their children to the school for training. This kind of special vocational training paves the way for a more comfortable—relatively–standard of living in the burgeoning gem trade business in the region.
I’m not exactly sure what I expected to find for the visit. The space surprised me in how small and primitive it is, for as many students as Peter has educated. This was day two, everything here was still new and I hadn’t fully transported my western expectations to the realties of Tanzania.
To get to the school, in a small—did I mention small?—office space above a Maasai marketplace where they make their traditional wares, we weave our way through a labyrinth of murky hallways. The stairs require extreme attention: they are literally crumbling under our feet.
On an upper floor, dazzling sunlight fills the room, which is maybe four hundred square feet. The space is indescribably tiny for the kind of training they do. In fact, they have to divide the school day into two sessions, one for morning, and one for the afternoon, or the students would overwhelm the physical space. There is an informal division of the main room into two sections: one for gem cutting, the other for gemology training. The equipment looks primitive, even to my rather neophyte eye.
Taking up about a third of the room are a couple of tables and a white board. This is where the students learn to grade gemstones. This program doesn’t go into the same kind of depth as, for instance, a Gemological Institute of America program in the US, but it does educate the students in the grading and evaluating gems necessary for sorting, buying and selling the gems. Any gemologist could tell you that having the gem cutting–which can kick up some fine dust–in the same room as the gem grading is not an ideal situation. But this is what they have.
I didn’t get to see the students that day. Around thirteen people—half of the day’s students–would be arriving by 9:30 am. The reason that the day starts at that time, and not earlier when it would be cooler in that bright room, is that many of the students come from far away and travel by bus. This allows them time to get into town from their villages, some of them long distances away.
While many of the school’s students pay tuition, Peter looks for good candidates who need scholarships. He has many success stories of students who would normally never have the opportunity for skilled training, who go on to make a good living by East African standards. This also helps develop the African gem business, and allows gem-rich African countries to keep more of the value of the gemstones in their country.
Peter’s passion is finding needy candidates who might not have another choice in their life. One particularly illuminating success story involves a woman named Jessica. At fifteen years old, Jessica found herself betrothed to a much older man in her small village in Tanzania. She had completed her primary school—no small feat in itself—and was distraught with her future. She ran away, into the mountains, living on her own. Although she won’t speak of it, she surely suffered severe deprivations. She ended up in the city of Arusha, begging.
Peter noticed Jessica out on the streets, and asked if she would come to his school the next day, on scholarship. She showed up the next morning. She completed her training and is now working in the gem field, an independent woman in a place where that is a major accomplishment.
Peter, an incredibly restrained man, tears up when he tells this story. He somehow makes all this happen with very few resources.
The Arusha training center receives some aid from The Devon Foundation, a non-profit founded by Nancy Schuring of Devon Fine Jewelers in New Jersey. After a trip to Madagascar gem mines in 2008 where she met Roger Dery, Nancy recognized the need to give back to the gem community. As someone who makes a living from gemstones, she felt very strongly that there is a responsibility for those who profit from the gem trade to help those at the very source of the gems. She found out about Peter Salla through Roger Dery, who had vetted Peter over several of his visits to the region.
To date, the Devon Foundation has helped support about thirteen students through the Arusha Gemmological Training Centre, including Jessica. The Foundation paid her tuition, and her heartbreakingly modest room-and-board: $43 per month. Most, if not all, of the scholarship graduates are now working in the gem industry in Tanzania or Kenya, which is light years from the low-skill and low-wage jobs they had occupied before.
June and Danuta, two of the Gem Hunters on the Sharing the Rough team, are from New Jersey and found out about the film and trip from Nancy. They brought a check from the Devon Foundation with them to present to Peter: he is clearly hoping for an expansion to help more students. They also brought donated gemstones from Devon Jewelers for the students to work on as part of their training.
This kind of skilled training is essential to the future of East African gem trade. While both Tanzania and Kenya are rich in gems, they are very poor countries. Rules are changing—no rough Tanzanite gemstones over one gram can be exported from Tanzania, for instance, the larger stones have to leave the country faceted—but there is a long ways to go to have local Africans skilled enough to collect more of the financial pie of the gemstone trade.
Roger Dery, of Spectral Gems and involved with the Sharing the Rough film, has an ultimate vision. Roger has been instrumental in supporting the Maasai primary school I wrote about here, and helping to connect Peter’s Gemmological school with potential supporters and donors. Roger envisions a path where children who graduate from the Maasai primary school continue to lapidary school. These children could grow up to have a future in the gem trade in Tanzania and Kenya, adding value to their communities and families. This way, everyone involved in the colorful journey of a gemstone can win.
*Sharing the Rough is an important jewelry documentary that chronicles the journey of a gemstone from the mine in East Africa to a piece of finished jewelry-as-art. You can find out more at their website www.sharingtherough.com, and in the spirit of sharing, make a donation to the film that will also benefit the people of Tanzania and Kenya here.