In the fall of 1885, King Solomon’s Mines captured the imagination of London. Perhaps for those readers whose spirits were thoroughly dampened by the Industrial Revolution, the sundry details of discovery and adventure in mysterious Africa was a welcome escape. Hearty and hale Englishmen plod through jungles and deserts, bravely overcoming run-ins with wild animals and savage natives until they stumble onto the long-lost mines of Bible favorite King Solomon. The heroes escape near death and bring back to England pockets full of diamonds. Even 130 years ago, Africa was the land of diamonds.
One overlooked mystery is how the explorers might profit from the diamonds. Owing to the popular belief that diamonds are the most valuable thing in the world, diamond fever today is one of the biggest hoaxes of the 20th century. Although diamonds were harder to come by before modern mining, they are more than plentiful today. However, for over 100 years, the De Beers diamond mafia has maintained a tight grip on the world’s largest mines (the supply), the distributors (the price) and the buyer’s mind (the demand). The result is that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, and these friends don’t come cheap.
A diamond is forever has brainwashed enough people the world over that it is generally believed that these stones are 1) rare and thus valuable, and 2) a must for any marriage proposal. Both assertions are tenuous and yet spun so tightly around the stick of truth, mankind may never stop buying them. De Beers has been wallowing in profits and mass producing ‘priceless’ memories ever since.
Although the mad men know a thing or two about human vanity and manipulating expectations, humans, in general, know much less about the earth’s core. What is known is that there is a liquid layer of boiling, viscous magma churning around a very solid dense sphere. Then, from as deep as 100 miles, fires randomly explode and cannonballs of magma race towards the surface creating a carrot shaped intrusion known as a pipe. As these fire balls travel through the earth’s mantle, they push an array of new rocks to the surface, among them millions of diamonds. If you can’t find a pipe, you look in the rivers; erosion moves the diamonds born in the kimberlite pipes to the surface. These pipes exist all over the world. In fact, you might be standing on one right now.
Man first discovered one such pipe in South Africa near the town of Kimberly a decade after King Solomon’s Mines was published. Suddenly miners were ridiculously loaded with diamonds, markets were flooded and the price tanked. That’s when De Beers stepped in—under the colonial gaze of South African politician Cecil Rhodes—and seized control of the world’s diamond supply for the rest of eternity. De Beers provided 90% of the world’s diamonds until the 21th century, and today their share is estimated at about 50%. With so many pipes and so many diamonds in the world, the market must be very carefully manipulated to maintain the illusion of scarcity and the allure of value.
Sadly, De Beers efforts have not just resulted in generations of love sick bachelors giving their money away for a shiny rock. The insatiable demand has also fueled a genocide or two. Of the West African diamond republics, Liberia is perhaps most famous. In the latest civil war, Liberian leader Charles Taylor bartered guns for diamonds with neighboring Sierra Leone fueling the latter’s own civil war. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola are two more examples where diamonds were used to fund aggression. These blood diamonds are without doubt the most tragic part of the De Beers diamond hoax. A common, shiny stone with no intrinsic value was used to fund a war in Sierra Leone and beyond because a company convinced the masses you can’t get married without one.
Nevertheless, when I moved to Liberia and my brother came to do some work for an amateur diamond dealer I decided I should probably get one. After all, they are buried all over the jungle if you can get there and you know where to look. So far, the largest kimberlite pipe nearest to Liberia is in eastern Sierra Leone, but the jungles are wet, erosion is constant, and diamonds are buried all over the country. I wanted to find one.
Zulo Hill Diamond Adventure
African diamonds, African jungle, a greedy diamond cartel… Sounds like the perfect setting for Liberian Diamond Treasure Tours. I teamed up with my friend Alex, who took out a couple claims near Zulo Hill two years ago when some diamond-frenzied Americans offered small amounts of financing. These are no King Solomon’s mines, but like most things in life, the adventure is far bigger than the prize.
I wanted to see how easy, and at what price, I could buy a diamond from the source. Diamond Tours was created in part to beat De Beers, plus the African adventure will make any groom proud as hell of his engagement ring. Pretty good pitch, right?
To get to Zulo Hill, you must get to Handi, a dusty town on the shores of the St. Paul River four hours from the capital, Monrovia. Here, we parked at the area’s only rural health clinic, where villagers from Zulo Hill and the communities hidden in the jungle might come if there were any obvious advantage in doing so.
From the St. Paul, there are an estimated 20 kilometers of trails connecting jungle villages, clans, and the lives of hundreds of people living in this piece of rural Liberia. We crossed the river in a dugout oared by a Guinean, and once we were on the trail, Alex and his assistants made it confusingly clear how far we had to go.
It shouldn’t take us any longer than 12 hours, Alex explained.
But it will take us at least 6 hours, interrupted Abe, one of his assistants.
Where does the trail go after Zulo Hill? I asked.
The path cut a shadowed tunnel through the dense jungle with sudden appearances of small churches, makeshift school houses, mud-walled huts and random plots of rice, cassava and palm. Everywhere the jungle grew back in the places man tried to carve out a space in the impenetrable foliage. The jungle limits man in a way so different to the mountains. Man’s freedom lies not in his ability to move but his ability to survive.
Six hours later, we arrived exhausted and dehydrated. True to its name, Zulo Hill is on a hill, but why people moved there is a mystery. The temperatures do not change as you move higher, and the forested hill is still too thick to see anything. Since there is no water at Zulo, the children spend a better part of the day trekking down the hill to ‘waterside’ to haul buckets of water. Society is organized under a patriarchal hierarchy in which a village chief is responsible for dividing farmland, building houses and essentially assuring the village survives. A distant patriarch must have thought life would be better on top of a hill.
When we arrived, Alex’s family met us with a feast of country rice (rice grown in Liberia), potato greens, hot peppers, palm oil and chicken feet for texture. We scarfed this down, and he began spreading the message that my friend and I were in town to buy diamonds. Not long after, lying in the day’s last light, diggers began arriving from the daily diamond hunt, a jungle’s hour from the hill.
Any diamonds? We asked eagerly.
There is plenty diamonds. Plenty.
Can we see them?
Yes, plenty. Next week we have them.
Nobody at Zulo Hill knows about De Beers or kimberlite pipes for that matter, yet dozens spend their days diverting water, removing sludge, filling up buckets with gravel, and searching for diamonds. The hope of finding a 100 carat diamond keeps diggers from investing their energy in agriculture, a seemingly more useful vocation, and another consequence of the diamond hoax.
Some diamond diggers sleep at the site in a small settlement of thatched shelters. Two, sometimes three pairs of eyes look through gravel boxes, so when a diamond is found, several diggers hope to benefit. The diamonds that aren’t smuggled off the site are grouped and sold in parcels to brokers from Monrovia. High-quantity sales make it easier to divide profits among workers and give the miners some needed cash flow to invest in tools, boots or if they’re lucky, a generator and a pump.
The lure of diamonds has infected the minds of the village youth with images of riches on a separate reality. A youngster tells me if he had just one diamond, he would buy a taxi. These nuggets of pressurized carbon are small but represent big dreams.
As we rested, night fell, and the village’s only generator roared to life chugging diesel while the town listened to music and charged cell phones. Whatever the Friday night electrified activity, it is always accompanied with a potent shot of distilled cane juice, the preferred alternative to not finding diamonds.
As I slipped into a dream, Zulo Hill’s capability to defy silence rose in crescendo as the African dance music, the fuming generator and numerous drunken arguments harmonized in buzzing madness. Then the sky opened, pelting us with jungle rain and drowning out the noise in silence.
It was 8 a.m. when I finally awoke. Alex had already poured a pint of palm wine into a mug and pushed it into my hands. He explained that he would need the energy to check the site, whereas I would need it to insulate me from the insanity of the jungle. We couldn’t visit the diamond site because we didn’t have swamp boots, plus it was Saturday, and diggers often stay home on the weekends. Ingloriously, my personal search for King Solomon’s Mine ended in the bottom of a pint of palm wine and some unforeseen village projects.
White Men Can’t Daub
After our palm wine-induced mid-morning nap, villagers began daubing i.e. plastering Andrew’s house, a nephew to the chief. An easy Saturday afternoon quietly transformed into the entire village working in unison to create enough mud for the walls of the house. All the double D batteries were hastily collected to keep the music going for the daubing. Women of all ages did laps bringing water while men prepared the dirt with pick axes, poured the mud and daubed. Another guy doled out artificial peach flavored drink to thirsty laborers.
You come to Zulo Hill for only diamond? Why don’t you help?
This is not my house. I don’t live here, I replied to a villager.
Do you live in a house?
Yes, I do.
Somebody built that house. You are here, so help us build this house.
Unable to argue with such logic, I started to daub, passionately. They were elated to see that a white man can daub. I daubed for well over an hour, smashing mud pies into the bamboo enforced walls. Villagers congratulated me on my efforts and technique, making theatrical gestures to show appreciation.
Once the walls were finished, the men and women split up to feast on tubs of rice, bush meat, oil, potato greens and peppers, and of course, more cane liquor. An extemporaneous dance party in the middle of the day followed, swinging the booty after a good daub.
The party continued into the night and eventually mutated into a village trance rave. Far gone on cane juice, the village’s most devoted stayed awake searching for things to argue about and neighbors to pummel. My friend and I were lying quietly under the mosquito net when a teenage digger showed up on our doorstep at 2 a.m. He informed us that the country devils would soon march through town. Not knowing if the country devils were machete-wielding paramilitaries or make-believe demons, we decided to ask.
They are outside of town. You can’t see the country devils.
Who are the country devils?
If you see ‘em, you must join ‘em, he explained.
My friend, I was just now sleeping. Keep your goddamn devils. I won’t look.
The country devils are something of a secret society of male and female adolescents, yearning to prove
their strength and aptitude for survival. Initiates disappear into the bush to learn to live from the forest and the methods necessary to avoid bad spirits, spells, and witchcraft.
These Lord-of-the-Fliesesque mobs, a Liberian jungle version of the Boy Scouts sans merit badges, are known to march through towns, and only those men and women who have been country devils themselves are allowed outside their homes. Alex ordered us, including my dog Mino, inside. A light jungle breeze blew over Zulo Hill, while we were locked in a cluttered room, rotting in fetid air and stifling heat. Outside there were devils.
As we attempted to sleep on a humid mattress drenched in a thousand nights of sweat, the day’s liquids poured through my pores, exciting hoards of mosquitos who had also come in to avoid the devils. All the suffering and we still had no diamonds.
The next morning, the devils were gone, but two diamonds had mysteriously appeared the night before, though it was denied the country devils had delivered them. We quickly wheeled and dealed with the diggers and left Zulo Hill. For what we paid, they wouldn’t be purchasing any taxis, but perhaps some fuel.
We weren’t going home rich, but this is not the stuff of 19th century adventure novels. No cannibals, no treasure maps. Just daubing and country devils and a couple of diamonds that were probably never going to be anyone’s forever.
If you are interested in finding your own diamond, contact Alex at Diamond Treasure Tours in Liberia.Alex Singbeh