As I described in Part One, I’m obsessed with the gems I find in East Africa, both mineral and of the human variety. But I’m not gonna lie. Seeing the gem mines is a huge reason that I travel to East Africa. Who knew that I’d tolerate cargo pants and snarled hair and red dirt under my finger nails for the opportunity to see big holes in the ground? The truth is that instead of climbing mountains I like to go underground. I like to get dirty.
Gemstone mining in East Africa, at least at the mines that I’ve been to, is artisanal. That translates into small scale and done mostly by hand. Very occasionally, you will see a generator that might power a jackhammer or excavator, but mostly progress is made by shovels, pick axes, and metal rods and hammers. Gravel is bagged and brought manually to the surface, where it is then washed and sorted. The tailings, the leftover red dirt and rock after sorting out the gems, surround the mining areas in giant piles.
Mining is done in relatively remote areas, even by East African standards. It might be several hours on dirt “roads” from the nearest village to a mining camp, so miners often spend weeks at a time at a mining site. The camps therefore need to be somewhat self-supporting to sustain the workers. There are buildings for housing and cooking (and hopefully a latrine). The mine owner or manager brings in food–beans, corn, cooking oil–and water. There are usually goats and chickens wandering the camp (for future dinners), and there may be a garden or crops planted–sometimes in the mine tailings*.
*Gemstone mining does not involve chemicals for extraction
The miners get paid something for their time and labor, and sometimes food expenses get subtracted from their earnings. Some miners get a percentage of the value of the gems they find. In this way, they can make a nice living by local standards and are able to send their children to school, and own property or livestock. Yes, it’s hard and dirty work, and the conditions are not OSHA certified, but it’s a viable employment option in gem communities. There is some upward mobility for the ambitious: miners can work their way into “running” the gems to local dealers, and might even become a dealer themselves.
For this trip, we went to Gichuchu Okeno’s Tsavorite mine, now owned by Esther Okeno. Okeno took great pride in having a top-notch mining camp, and Esther continues to run it according to his philosophy. I’m not sure how many other mines in Kenya have a flush toilet! Unfortunately, since Okeno’s untimely passing, she can’t afford to have as many miners working. There was some progress since the last time I visited the mine (November of 2015), but not a lot. Esher could benefit from a geologist’s assessment, but there is only one government geologist for a very large mining area.
We also went to the Community Based Organization mine, where 2000 members cooperate in resources and share in the successes. The scale is imposing–especially since it’s only been in operation since 2014. It is a veritable village now, with merchants supporting the members, crops planted, and even a school for the miner’s children. The CBO is a vast, very red cavern with many shafts tunneling into the ground. They find some notable green grossular garnets, including the elusive and desired Tsavorite, and tourmalines. We went in about as far as the daylight reached (not far), but most shafts were about 150-400 feet, following the angle of the tightly compressed rock layers–called the rift–that yields the gems. They move an impressive amount of rock here at the CBO, but they mentioned how much they need generators. There is always need.
A first for me this trip was a visit to a Tanzanite mine in the Merelani Hills of Tanzania. Tanzanite is found in a relatively small area, about 8 square miles total. This area is divided into blocks A, B, C, and D, with the largest block C devoted to more mechanized mining, formerly by TanzaniteOne. We were allowed in to visit a mine in Block B, one of the smaller blocks where it is textbook artisanal mining–small camps and lots of holes in the ground. Unlike the relatively shallow garnet and tourmaline mines in southern Kenya, the mine we visited goes deep: 2500 feet, a steep, deep hole nearly a half mile down. It takes the workers about 2 hours just to get all the way to the bottom! At that depth, they have to pump in oxygen via a compressor. It’s taken 20 years of digging to get to that depth, and they find both Tanzanite (Zoisite) and mint green garnets of the most amazing hue. I’m not sure how many of us visitors would have been game to go down very far. Yet the miners we met make the commute down that shaft every day.
I consider it a privilege to be able to visit and enter these mines. The mine owners and workers welcome us to see the earth they have moved and the gems they have discovered through grit and perseverance. And they are very proud of their effort and appreciate the beauty of what they find. We are just starting this journey, and figuring out the ways to help East Africans with their incredible natural resource, these gems that captivate all of us. It’s not enough anymore to just talk about the sparkle. It’s up to us to tell the whole story.