When I first visited Sierra Leone to start Kiburi Mining “well before Clarity Project was in the picture” I learned a lot about the diamond-mining world.
As you will read in future posts, my (now) wife, laughed at me when I first asked if she thought it was a good idea to mine her own diamonds in Africa. Her laughter and my colleagues’ interest was enough to purchase a one-way ticket to Sierra Leone to inspect the world of diamond mining.
A philanthropic friend of mine who had been funding schools and libraries throughout Sierra Leone, introduced to one of the kindest women I had ever met: Claudette (name and exact position changed for privacy reasons). Claudette had been the President’s media director during various campaigns and initiatives and was one of the best-connected individuals in the country. When Claudette’s calls, people answer.
With Claudette’s guidance, I prepared thoroughly for my first trip. Not at all a newcomer to the great continent of Africa, and duly respectful of every country’s vast differences and uniqueness, I knew to research, learn key words, charge my batteries, and be prepared. By prepared I mean: ready to have incredible fun, learn more than I could ever in a classroom, be willing to wait to get what I want, and welcome flexibility and whatever comes my way. Having worked in many great African nations before Sierra Leone, I was anxious and ready.
Landing in Sierra Leone is quite unique. Of all places in the world, Sierra Leone was the first time I can truly say I set foot on a hovercraft. Lungi International Airport is situated on a peninsula, which takes over four hours to drive to from Freetown, the capital city. To minimize travel time, one can book a ticket on the hovercraft “a 4:00 am departure” and take a short bus ride to its point of origin.
I did just that. Claudette had a “Logistics man” meet me at Lungi, pay my way through very long, seemingly dysfunctional lines of people “locals and foreigners together” and board the bus. Save for a loss of five cameras I intended to distribute to local not-for-profit organizations to help them document the great work they were doing, and a small lock I had hoped would preserve my valuables, I got from Lungi to Freetown without a hitch.
Following my first in person meeting with Claudette, I took a nap and got situated at Hotel Barmoi. I had shared with Claudette that I intended to pack in three meetings each day with diamond miners, dealers, politicians, environmentalists, venture capitalists, not-for-profit leaders, and anybody else from whom I could garner a lay of the land. In Boston or New York, three meetings per day is a mere weekend schedule, in Sierra Leone, it seemed to be unheard of.
My first meeting was with Claudette’s Uncle Frank. Claudette’s surname made her a rightful family-member to an enormous number of people. Most of her introductions, whether to lawyers, government leaders, or diamond miners, started with a longwinded story of her blood relationship with him or her. Frank, a jack of many trades, was no different.
At Claudette’s auntie’s restaurant, Frank and I sat. Frank was presented to me as a man who had been on every side of the diamond trade. A miner as a child and teenager, to a local distributor in the Kono District, to a dealer in Freetown, an exporter, to “retirement” during the war (always stayed in-country), and now an advisor to the industry players. I described my predicament:
“Frank, I’ve been in the not-for-profit world my whole life. I’ve filmed in diamond mines, in oil towns, in war torn countries and I refuse to buy a diamond in the United States from someone who cannot tell me its origin”, I shared with him. “My wife is a teacher cares about people above all, but wants a diamond. And I’m not alone. A lot of people share my pain. So here I am”.
Frank smiled and responded something along the lines of, “Here to do what?”
“Figure out how to buy diamonds from people who are paid well, even if I have to pay more, and bring them home and prove to the world that you don’t have to lay down your morals to wear a beautiful stone”.
“You want to mine yourself?” he asked.
“I would. But what I want to do is bigger.”
“Let me understand this”, he said, “your wife wants a diamond?”
“Yes. Girlfriend now.”
“And you’re here to get her a diamond.”
“I’m here to run the process through once of getting stones out of the country legally from the point of origin, first, so I can do that with more stones later. But yes, one of those stones will be for my girlfriend”.
“What kind of deodorant do you wear?”
“Do you use the stick or the spray?”
“The stick” like a tube, “I guess”.
“But it’s solid? With a screw in the middle?”
“Okay. We’ll get you some stones from a good mine, a clean mine. You unscrew your deodorant, put in the diamonds to the hole, put back the deodorant, and fly home”.
“I can’t do that”.
Over the course of a full, three-course meal, Frank could not fully comprehend why I wanted to maintain absolute legitimacy at every step of the way. He appreciated my expressed desires for his country, and the treatment of his fellow people, but we were speaking different languages with regard to the realities of the diamond trade. Mine were hopeful and uplifting, his were backed with six-decades of experienced.
Thus began a two year exploration of diamond mining, which will be described in future postings, before finally appreciating the realization that with today’s extraordinary technological advances, we need not ruin the environment and captivate thousands of people in an outdated trade.
As Clarity Project provides today, we can offer brilliant, exquisite gifts, without sacrificing our integrity.