Ditches full of risky riches

Boarding a bus from Bulawayo to the eastern town of Mutare, I was at first confused. The bus was filled to capacity with people lugging box upon box of televisions, DVD players and lots of other bits and pieces—very expensive bits and pieces.

From the passengers’ conversations, I gathered that they had all been to Botswana on a shopping trip. But how on earth were so many people affording shopping trips there—and from as far away as Manicaland, Zimbabwe’s most eastern province?

I got the full story when we arrived in Mutare, Manicaland’s capital.
Almost all able-bodied males were flocking to the diamond fields of Chiyadzwa, about 100km from Mutare. Illegally, they were digging for diamonds—and were almost getting rich in the process.

Almost, because it’s a rare individual who puts the money to good use: after finding a diamond worth say $5 000, most youngsters camp in bars, buy beer and party up a storm.

So out of curiosity I decided to visit Chiyadzwa. With a brother-in-law and some friends I boarded a bus bound for a small shopping centre about 70km south of Mutare called Chakohwa—about 20km from the diamond fields at Chiyadzwa.

There are buses that travel straight from Mutare to Chiyadzwa, but diamond diggers don’t use these because of the numerous roadblocks along the way: police try to stop people from getting to Chiyadzwa. So from Chakohwa the journey is completed by several hours of serious walking.

The moment we got to Chakohwa, I became a gweja (diamond digger). There is no recruitment process; you just decide to do it and join a group with experienced diggers. In the scorching heat we started off towards Chiyadzwa at a blistering pace.

The wide path is constantly busy. Some coming from Chiyadzwa are drunk to the point of stupidity, shouting “Yafa mari [We have struck it rich].” Those of sober habits are carrying wares such as DVD players and thick winter blankets that they’ve bought from enterprising people who consider digging too risky and so trade these goods at the diamond fields.

Some of those from Chiyadzwa are looking forlorn: they are the unlucky ones who have stayed in the bush for weeks without striking it rich and have decided to go back home.

We walked for about three hours and, along the way, the leader of our group of four constantly greeted those coming back from Chiyadzwa, asking “Kurisei [How is the situation at the diamond fields]?” The responses varied:
Kuribho [It is okay].”

“Chakabhiridha, nhasi chaiye kwarumwa vanhu eight nembwa [It is tight—today eight people were mauled by police dogs].”

Go ariko, ndakudzokera kumba”, meaning “Gohwa is there, I am going back home”—Gohwa being a senior police officer notorious for arresting and shooting diamond diggers.

We arrived at the base camp where diggers rest and cook before going to the fields, at about 4pm. After we had rested for a while, our leader decided we should proceed. One hour over mountainous and rocky terrain to get to the diamond fields, and we met hundreds of people coming from the fields, still with varying stories about the situation there.

About 100m from the fields we sat down until it became dark. Then we approached cautiously. There is a firebreak surrounding the diamond fields and we could see police officers patrolling the area.

One of the officers started walking towards us and most of the diggers fled, but since our group leader stayed put, we didn’t move. About 5m from us, the police officer stopped and shouted: “Gweja.”

“Officer,” replied our leader. “Huya tinzwe,” the police officer said, meaning, “Come, let us talk.”

Our group leader went down to meet the officer and they conferred for a few moments. He hailed us and we went to meet them. We were told that the officer wanted Z$10-trillion per person to allow us into the fields. (Do not bother trying to figure out the value of Z$10-trillion as this changes on a daily basis: what buys a car today will not buy a loaf of bread next month.) We paid and got in.

The diamond fields are full of ditches ranging from 1m to 5m deep, and the experienced diggers know which are full of riches. So we wandered about the fields looking for the so-called “paying” ditches. We had to tread carefully—it’s easy to fall into one of the ditches and crack your head open on a rock or break a limb.

When we had located a promising ditch we got to work, first clearing the rocks that had fallen into the pit—or more likely been thrown there by other diggers to “protect” the ditch. When we had finished one guy got into the ditch and started digging, using a sharpened metal rod.

We poured the dug-up soil into hessian sacks, shaking them to separate out small stones. We would be carrying mapagamaga (heavily loaded sacks) to increase our chances of finding a diamond.

When we were about finished the alarm was raised with shouts of “Gweja nyumwawo”—beware of danger. This was followed by the sound of gunfire; police officers were close by. We shouldered our pagamagas and rushed out of the fields.

It is not easy going, walking over rocky and mountainous terrain while carrying about 40kg of dirt that could be worthless. As sweat drips down your face you wish you could come across the guys who stand along the path selling drinking water. But the hope that the dirt you are carrying is worth a lot of money keeps you going. We arrived at base camp totally exhausted and slept in the open.

At first light we bought some water and washed our small stones. Piling them into a heap, we started looking for the precious stones. We were almost through the entire heap without finding anything. But just when everyone had almost given up hope, we found a diamond that the experienced diggers said was about six carats and could fetch US$2 000.

We rushed to the “market”—an open field a few kilometres from the diamond fields. The buyers include Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Nigerians and Zambians, and everyone there keeps an eye open for the police, who are liable to raid at any given moment.

After much haggling with a Nigerian buyer, we were paid US$800, which we shared.

I was satisfied with my share and declared that I was going home. Although the prospect of instant riches was tempting, I wasn’t prepared to risk my life for money.

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