Discovering hidden treasure in the darkest places
08.03.2015 31 °C
Most tourists coming to Arusha in Tanzania are getting prepared to climb to the roof of Africa, but here I was 700 metres below the ground, at the roots of Mt Kilimanjaro. I was visiting a Tanzanite mine, a gemstone mined only in this part of Tanzania.
I had come to Arusha for for a few days for an ECHO conference, a Christian agricultural organization which aims to support mainly small-holder farmers to farm more effectively. Coming to Arusha also meant an excuse to meet up with my good friend, Hillary whom I met in Edinburgh when he volunteered with Bethany Christian Trust for a year where I was also working. Hillary’s family owns a Tanzanite mine and he suggested I might want to see it.
In Arusha, Tanzanite mining and tourism are obviously important sources of income. Green tour vans are a common sight as people come from all over the world to climb Mt Kilimanjaro or visit the Serengeti, home of the world’s greatest animal migration. The landscape and natural phenomenon of this of area of Tanzania is an inspiration for movies such as the ‘Lion King’ and to me the wide, yellow-ochre land dotted with flat-topped acacia trees definitely shouts ‘AFRICA!’. It is augmented by the sight of lean and colourful Masai herding their goats or cattle underneath the trees, their bright clothing a stark contrast to the dusty surroundings.
Tanzanite is often a bluey colour, but it can also be greyish, tan-brown, purplish or dark blue like the sea. It is a beautiful stone and being 1000x rarer than diamonds explains the rising value of the gem. It seems like a very lucrative business to be involved in. Through the trade, Hillary’s family are building hotels, homes and other businesses. One of the uncles is interested in starting a KFC franchise in Arusha. Another uncle asked me at one point if I knew of anyone selling a 2nd hand helicopter! Hillary regularly travels on business to places like Hong Kong or South Africa where there is a growing interest in this unique stone.
The Tanzanite mines are a 4-wheel car drive away from the Kilimanjaro airport along a very dusty road down which we bump causing big clouds in our wake. Hillary’s family owns a piece of land of about 100 acres, a valley covered with gnarly-looking trees. Grey boulders and dust waste from the mining process appear to be slowly filling up the valley as it is deposited just outside the main site, an area of functional buildings fenced in by corrugated iron sheeting. When Tanzanite has been struck within a vein and the mine is 'in production', crowds of Masai gather to search for small Tanzanite stones that might still be found in the dumped stones. It was the Masai that were supposed to have first discovered Tanzanite and began digging to find them. Hillary points to 2 small concrete buildings that are used to house explosives for the mining operations.
For safety reasons, there is a 2-hour wait between explosives being set down the mine and going down the shaft. While waiting, Hillary introduces me to workers who still have their dirty overalls on from their last trip underground. Workers are housed on site in purpose-built cabins. On-site there is also a dining hall in progress, shower facilities and a small shop. It is basic set-up, but the work is tiring and so many hours are spent resting or sleeping on the bunk-beds.
Hillary has provided me with a hard hat, some safety boots and old clothes to change into. The hard hat is fitted with a bright torch. We wait at the top of the entrance to the mine for the trolley coming up the tracks, drawn up by a motorized pulley. Because of the long way down under the earth, the trolley takes 15 minutes to come all the way up and emerge at the top.
There are a dozen of us squashed into the trolley. Hillary makes sure that I am in one of the best spots to make sure I am as comfortable as I can be. The tunnel’s gradient seems steep, but Hillary tells me that not long ago, tunnels were almost vertical and make-shift ladders were used to get in and out of the mines. Now, things are a bit more sophisticated, an electrician has wired lighting all the way along the tunnel and there are pumps and pipes taking ground water to the surface. I am surprised at how warm the air is so far under the surface, but Hillary explains that the air is pressurized as it is being pumped down from the top.
We reach where the workers are crowded, as though at a bus stop. 2 of the men are busy with pick-axes scrabbling at the rock-face as the geologist keeps a keen eye for any signs of productive veins. He uses a spray of water to wash away dust to get a good view of the rock. While we are down there, a poor quality piece of Tanzanite rock is found, a good sign for something better.
Other men have formed a chain, and pass broken masses of rock from one man to another. One guy looks young but is muscular and is singing a cheerful church song. Hillary tells me that he will sometimes stay underground for 8 hours or more when the work is going as it is easy to lose all sense of time.
The work is going on when Hillary and I re-emerge from the tunnel on the trolley where the air suddenly feels cold despite it being 25 degrees Celsius. Hillary’s friend, Bryson, has been sent to sell a stone in Arusha so we don’t have a lift back to town. Thankfully, Hillary’s uncle gives us a lift in his new Land Rover Discovery. The car is in mint condition and is well suited for the rough roads back to town, it seems to fly like a jet with plumes of dust instead of smoke.
One of the messages that we teach young people on the YWAM base back in Arua is how rich Africa is. So often, the perspective and belief of outsiders and Africans themselves is how poor people are. While there are many types of ‘poverty’, it is true that many Africans don’t find themselves materially well off. However, Africa is full of incredible treasures such as gold, diamonds, oil and Columbite-tantalite, a precious metal found in mobile phones and computers. There is a huge solar, hydroelectric and farming potential. People, too are full of potential that is rarely reached due to problems such as access to quality education. Visiting Hillary and seeing the Tanzanite mines has opened my eyes to another side of Africa. The ECHO conference is part of the process of bringing value from farming and the rich variety of plants found in Africa. It is my dream that Africans can one day reach their full potential and start to lead the world in all sorts of areas using their unique God-given gifts whether these are found 700 feet below the ground in a mine, or latent within every African’s hands, minds and hearts.