I am on the precipice. Can I do it? The sun beats down on my uncovered head, dazzling my eyes against the dark hole yawning about seventy feet down below.
I’m standing on the edge of a gemstone mine in Kenya, with a decision to make. It is now or maybe never.
The mouth of the opening looks pretty far down a steep grade of loose shale underfoot. And that’s just the beginning. Then you crawl–and I mean crawl–deep into the belly of the hill, following the rift, or vein, that yields the good stuff, the gems we have come to hopefully see.
This moment is essentially why I signed up with Sharing the Rough, traveling nine thousand miles, across continents, braving rough roads and frontier border crossings. To descend into the very heart of the earth and see where gemstones are unearthed from their matrix. Of course I’m going in. There really isn’t any other conclusion.
Slowly, following the strand of other gem hunters and movie crew that are snaking their way down the thirty percent incline to the entrance to the mine, I start to descend. The loose gravel underfoot is the real threat here: one slip and we take the others out below us. I hope that the shoes I bought for their traction hold as anticipated.
We have to use our hands at one point; the grade shifts abruptly to close to fifty percent, and the footholds are far apart and require some counterbalance. The miners are watching us from the knoll above the opening. I wonder if they are silently laughing at us, the novice mzungus, going impossibly slowly down a ramp that they practically run down. It’s their daily commute, one that their bare feet know by heart: the depressions that hold, the ones that are unstable. Do they respect us for wanting to see where they work, what they see? Or are we ridiculous adventure seekers that are interrupting their day?
We reach the bottom, where the opening to the mine gapes just below us. I have to duck to get in. A few feet in and it is DARK. Opaque. The air becomes heavy, chewy. Skin gets slick with sweat from the extreme humidity. My heart is thumping from the exertion and the thrill, and it’s hard to breathe in the viscous air.
I stop for a moment and fish out my Petzel head lamp and switch it on. Much better: I am first into the mine in this group, and the pool of yolky light illuminates the few feet in front of me. I am crouched as I walk: the tunnel is short in height with unyielding rock all around. The shaft changes directions a couple of times and keeps dropping in elevation, sometimes gradually, sometimes more abruptly, with mining bags piled to bridge the depth.
There are a couple of miners down there, and begin to demonstrate how they work. They take a metal stake a couple of feet long, about the diameter of rebar, and use a mallet to strike it into the wall of the chamber. He drives it in a couple of times, then the soil and rock cleave away in a large chunk. They rake through what fell with their fingers, searching. Normally, this rock and dirt would be bagged and then passed, miner to miner, transported from the blackness to the daylight to sift through what is there.
The distance traveled into the earth was hard to gauge—was I walking forever? Only a few moments? About four hundred feet in, we are at the end in a small chamber, where the mining is taking place. I have a brief flight sensation, where I just want to turn around and run back to where the air is thinner. But the bright lights of the film equipment make me realize that there is stuff going on down here. I use my yoga breathing to still my heart, and try to blink the sweat out of my eyes.
A couple of gem hunters are asking questions, the camera light brilliant in our faces. We find out that if they go much further in depth with the mine, they will need to pump in oxygen, a thought that both comforts and confounds—why are we here, again? We also found out that the miners descend for about two hours at a time, then take a break.
Then, I notice the miners have become more attentive to the dirt and rock: they are using their fingers now, not the stake.
They found something–a pocket of gems in the dirt! The mine manager’s son, affectionately known as “Buddha” around the mine, and another miner pick them up to show us closer. Even in their rough state and surrounded by dirt, in the light from our flashlights and camera equipment, the sparkle is undeniable. Rough-edged yet precious, they glow on his palm. It’s so exciting I forget all about not being able to breathe.
When the awe and wonder wear off a few moments later, most of us realize we probably want out. We make our way back through the shaft, quickly and triumphantly. At the top, guzzling bottled water and high-fiving each other, we are jubilant!
Back at the land rovers, our peerless driver Archie took a long look at me. “Why Monica, you are all DIRTY!” he exclaimed. From my red hair to my boots, I was covered in residue. And I was beaming.
This day at the mines was not adventure tourism. It was a chance to see where gem mining begins, deep inside the earth, and meet the people who wrest it out each day. I will never look at a gemstone quite the same way again.
*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. The film is truly independent and a labor of love–it could use your help with funding the final phase of the film! 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.