Thursday, December 8, 2016

Tanzania Part III - My Trip to the Mines

On the final day of my Tanzania Trip, I had the most important and rewarding adventure of my entire trip: an excursion to one of the "local" mines. I have to put the word "local" in quotation marks because, despite being less than 80 miles away, it took 3 hours going and 3 hours going back. 98% of Africa's roads are unpaved, and for most of our trip we were on that 98%.  We started early for my taste, about 8 a.m., to avoid traffic.  After a 30 minute ride through and out of town, past the local airport from which the charter planes leave that take wealthier people to their safari locations, we turned off the main road to go Northeast to the town of Komolo.  

A Typical "Vehicle" in Arusha
The road was relatively wide but, because of the dry weather, the dirt had been pressed into the ground in the form of small waves, just like in the desert.  I was told that you either have to drive very quickly or very slowly to cross these, otherwise it tears your vehicle apart.  We drove fast.  "Free massage," our friend Honorine said, who was rather used to it.  My lower back was displeased.  The noise from the road  made conversation difficult, but this didn't stop our guide Moustache from engaging in chatter with Honorine and Doreen, comparing Tanzanian politics and culture to Rwanda and Tanzania in Swahili.  Doreen and Moustache share Swahili as their common language, Honorine normally speaks French or Kinyawanda, but her Swahili appeared to be quite fluent as well.  I think this kind of exchange between cultures does not often take place because people have to have money to travel to other countries. Moustache, for instance, was born and raised near Arusha, and had only been to Kenya.  He belongs to the tribe of the Masai, a largely independent living, very proud desert tribe, tall and dark, who live mostly off herding goats and cows.  Moustache himself was born in a small town but made it to the larger city in his teenage years.  I neglected to ask how, I should have.  Moustache speaks English fairly well, despite the fact that English was not required in most schools during his childhood - I think the government made a big mistake there since Tanzania now mainly lives off tourism and the international gem trade. Unemployment, due to poor education and lack of language skills, is at just under 70%!  People have to be very inventive to find things to do that pay, i.e. being guides and such.

Traffic Jam on the Way to the Mines
Moustache, who is my age (48), proved to be an exceptionally kind person and guide.  He sketched a very comprehensive picture for me of Masai culture: most Masai men have several wives, the more wives in fact, the more prestige you have in your tribe.  A dowry for a wife is several cows, and each gets her own house after marriage.  But the wives work hard, they are the ones that carry the heavy weights, walking behind their husbands, not in front.  Their hair is shaved short, and the traditional wives wear large earrings and necklaces.  They do most of the work, with the exception, for the most part, of herding the animals.  They do the field work, and they sit at the shops in the markets, like the one in Komolo that I photographed.  The colors of the tribe are red, blue, and black, and they wear hand woven cloth that is checkered almost like a Scottish pattern.

The Masai have their own language, just like all the tribes, which Moustache speaks well.  I don't know how many tribes there are in Tanzania in general, because the government does not promote tribalism.  "It brings unrest," they say, and this appears to be true.  Kenya, which does promote tribalism and has 42 individual tribes, has experienced more killings between tribes than Tanzania. Not to speak of Rwanda, where the Hutu's massacred the Tutsi for several months with such violence that for a while, the US granted refugee status to the Tutsi (this is no longer the case).  One of the reasons for the tribalism is that the national borders were not drawn by Africans.  They are the result of the colonialism of the 1700s to the early and mid 20th Century.  Therefore, many tribes are separated by borders; the Masai exist both in Tanzania and Kenya. Other tribes, by contrast, are forced to live together in one country, fighting with each other for political power.  The fact that the national languages are mostly English and French turns out to be an advantage in the following sense: there is no tribe who is granted the superiority of being the ones whose language was chosen to be THE language representing all the cultures.  In this sense at least, all tribes remain equal.

Moustache, incidentally, gave me a nickname - something that is very common in their culture: Tausi.  This means Peacock in English.  Not that I act like one, lol, but because I was always wearing extremely colorful leggings - something that's a bit of a signature style for me.

But let's get back to our adventure: after about 90 minutes of driving, we reached the town of Komolo, from which we then branched off to a smaller dust road to an even tinier town in the bush lands of Mwajanga.  There was no oncoming traffic any more at this point except for cows and a walking Masai here or there.  This had the advantage that we weren't constantly engulfed by clouds of dust getting kicked up by the roads, requiring us to quickly close the windows and slow down until we could see again.  The down side was that the road was even more up and down, including a couple of dangerous spots where, as Jochen told me before, they got stuck in a ditch the previous year, taking an additional hour away from their trip and occupying everyone with putting sticks and rocks under the tires so they could move again. We got stuck only once and after everyone exited the mini-van, the driver made it back out of the ditch no problem. 

Another half hour later we reached the little village of Mwajanga.  At first, I was told, the women were hiding under the bed because a van with white people came.  Many had seen few to no white people before, and with near certainty, I will say that they had not seen a white woman.  Very few women make it that far into the bush, but I had a good guide so I was really not very concerned. The culture is friendly, and we traveled during the daytime (it's obvious when you think about it, but it is VERY dark to drive in a dirt road at night without street lights).  Anyway, after Moustache got out of the car and started chatting with the locals about the mines, people started re-appearing. An elder came by and greeted us.  Doreen looked at the dry beans that were being harvested and asked about prices.  A few people came by and showed us goods - bad stuff at first.  A discussion ensued about the blue capped tourmaline crystals Jochen had gotten there two years ago, a fresh production that only he and one other dealer bought up.  Those were no longer being found, they said.

Mwajanga Tanzania




But there was a new mine, or rather, a hole in the ground where some mining took place a few years ago, and in which they now had discovered chrome green tourmaline crystals.  Production had started again two months prior to our arrival, they said, and they offered for us to come see the mine.  So we piled back into the van and followed a guide on a motorcycle up the hill along the various narrow roads that had been created by motorcycles and maybe a car once a month to bring supplies up or down.  A couple of times, we had to turn around and choose a different path because only the motorcycle could pass.  We got stuck one more time, but only briefly.  The cloud of dust created by the motorcycle got us dirtier and dirtier.  During a "bathroom break" in the bush I scratched my leg bloody. Luckily I always carried two things, thanks to the smart advice of my friend Roberta, who had lived in Tanzania for a while: moist bathroom wipes and alcoholic hand cleaner.  I used both to clean my wounds as we drove on.  This was a moment where I envied men for being able to relieve themselves in a much less complicated way, especially when there wasn't a single bush to hide behind.  But luckily the locals take natural processes in stride.  After all, only my skin color was different, my "behind" was the same.  I'm not cut from that cloth, but I yielded to my fate.  Couldn't be changed anyway.

Finally, after yet another 30 minutes, we were told we had arrived.  About 20 yards away, there were some blue tarp tents, very close to a white pile of rocks mostly consisting of calcite.  We got out of the car and walked up to the small group of men sitting around a camp fire. It was lunchtime and they were eating ugali with some cooked beans, eaten by hand according to custom.  We got friendly stares, and Moustache chatted with them in the Masai language.  They got up to show us the hole and talked about the green tourmaline.  The town had been sponsored by a local dealer who had brought a generator with a hose to bring air into the mine.  It was about 70 meters long, they said (that's 210 feet), so air was needed at the far end of the shaft.  Their lighting consisted of flashlights fastened around their heads,   not the mining lamps we have.  I was sad I hadn't brought my headband with the reading lamp, they could have obviously used it.  Jochen in turn was sad that he couldn't go into the mine.  He hadn't expected to find anything of interest, and so he wasn't wearing jeans and he had left his hammer at the hotel.  Otherwise he would have climbed down.  I, in turn, was totally satisfied just looking down into the hole and taking some video.

Moustache Shows us the Tourmalne Mine

Tourmaline Mine

Miners in Mwajanga

The Miners and I


The locals showed us a few pieces of rough they had gotten out of the ground.  It was the first strong green tourmaline found in the area.  Only a few pieces are found at a time, most not facet grade, so it can take weeks to get together a parcel.  If it took that long in the US to get gem grade materials, they would be priceless. I did hear after coming back to the US that some time in later September or early October, a larger pocket of material was found, and it got bought by Steve from New Era gems, who visited Komoro on his fall trip to Arusha.

I ended up buying two tiny but gemmy, facet grade pieces of rough for $10.  After cutting, they'll cost a lot more, and they'll be small, but it's not like I made a big investment.  I just wanted to buy something.  Most material was going into the hands of whoever sponsored the mine anyway I presume, as that individual had paid for it.  It is known that the locals sell some stuff on the side, and while that's not liked, it is generally tolerated.  Illegal mining, as it is called, takes place everywhere, and as I see it, it is needed to support the locals.

Here's a video I made of my trip:



Komolo Market

Locals in Mwajanga

/Komolo


For instance, in Loliondo, the rights to the mines that yield Spessartite (a Mandarin garnet) were acquired by an Arusha woman nicknamed Mama Six-Finger ("Mama" means woman).  "She does have six fingers on one hand," Jochen said, who had met her some years ago.  Initially, mining in Loliondo went well, but after a while, Mama Six-Finger's guards, who were protecting the area from the local Masai who claimed ownership of the land, ended up in a shoot out and some people were killed.  As a result, the government shut down mining, which is why the Loliondo Mandarin Garnets are now so rare.  Mining still takes place but only "illegally," that is, against government mandate.  The Masai bring the gems to town and from there they make their long way to places like my website.

In other, larger and more well known mines, the miners leave pieces in agreed upon places inside the mine. At night, the Masai come in and pick up the pieces, in order to sell them off at the local markets. In the end, however it happens, most of the gems make their way to the same brokers and dealers. It's just that the money is distributed in a different way.


It is difficult for a foreigner to comprehend this system or the ethics of it.  Save it to say that since poverty and corruption are everywhere (and seem to go hand in hand), it is difficult to pass judgment.  Out of all the people who have nothing, who should have food or drink?  The ones who have something in these countries, it is said again and again, did not earn it honestly, because that is just about impossible.  But are you therefore to remain honest and poor?  Posho, the extra money collected by officials and others to speed up custom's processes and the like, does not consist of huge sums by our standards - most would still fall under "gifts" in the USA because it is less than $20.

Anyway, I was in Tanzania to observe and to learn, not to judge.  What I took away from the trip was that matters were considerably more complicated than what meets the eye.  I would have had to spend a lot more time there to get a true sense of culture.  So I came away with a much greater understanding, yet being intensely aware of how much more there is that I don't know.

Mt Kilimanjaro in the Early Morning Sun

1 comment:

  1. My favorite blog post yet! Great editing on the video. There wasn't a lot of Swahili language captured on the video, but I laughed to hear "Labda Kesho". "Hewa" and "Ndiyo Mzuri Lakini..." These words/phrases are so commonly used in everyday life there: "maybe tomorrow" "what's he condition (of the mine/hole) and "sure they are nice but..." Replying to a seller. Thanks so much for sharing Yvonne

    ReplyDelete