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Robert Blair

Robert Blair

Posted: July 1, 2009 03:11 PM

Liberia's "Lucky Game": The Hopeless Work of Diamond Boys


I am eating lunch on the patio of the Green Forest guesthouse in Weasua, Liberia, a dusty town in the north of the country. Mitch, Green Forest's caretaker, has just returned from his morning of manual labor. He holds out his empty hands and shrugs. Handsome, well-dressed, and congenitally optimistic, he smiles even as he delivers disappointing news. "No diamond today."

Mitch is in his early 30s and works as an artisanal diamond miner, known colloquially as a diamond boy. In the afternoons, he sweeps and tidies the guesthouse; in the mornings, he works arduous hours from dawn until noon in the slim hope of finding a diamond.

Many Liberian towns were devastated in the country's brutal 14-year civil war, which ended in 2003, and Weasua is no exception. The school is in disrepair, the clinic looks empty and unfinished, and the roads are nearly impassable in the rain. Yet as prospectors have exhausted the diamond mines in neighboring Sierra Leone, Weasua has become a hub for miners throughout the region.

A handful of international companies operate in the area, but most of the work is done by small-scale Liberian miners and their teams of diamond boys, who are paid a cup of rice per day and a portion of the proceeds from any diamonds they find.

The work is exhausting. Diamond boys labor for hours a day in heat that regularly surpasses 100 degrees F. They begin by digging enormous pits and amassing the mineral-rich gravel that lies beneath the surface. They rinse the gravel in large basins, washing away mud and sorting the smaller rocks from the larger ones. Once the gravel is clean, they hunt for diamonds in a process called "jigging," which involves bending over a pool of water and sifting through the pebbles in a square, wooden sieve. All of this occurs under the watchful eye of security guards hired to catch thieves.

Despite the guards' presence, stealing is rampant. Mitch explains that when a diamond boy finds a diamond, he peeks up from his jigging to see if the guard noticed. If the guard winks, then the diamond boy tucks the diamond into his lip and asks for permission to use the latrine. He hides his find and, later, strikes a deal with the guard to sell it on the black market and split the profit without ever telling the miner.

The miners know this, and cheat the diamond boys in return. Few manual laborers can recognize the value of a diamond by sight, and miners easily dupe them into accepting proceeds far below their dues. As one diamond boy told me, "You have to understand the diamond. Some diamonds confuse you." The diamond boys too sometimes swindle one another out of their share of the earnings. Mining is an exploitative enterprise: everyone cheats everyone else, and everyone knows it. Mitch makes the point in his succinct Liberian English: "Everybody a criminal. Rogue knows their friend rogue."

One thing that limits cheating is the sheer improbability of finding a diamond in the first place. Many of the diamond boys I met complained that their work is hard and their prospects dim; some go weeks without a single find. Still, the occasional big haul sustains hopes of quick riches. When I visited Weasua in mid-May, the community was abuzz over an 84 karat diamond found several months before and sold on the market for half a million dollars. Mining, explain the diamond boys, is a "lucky game" - there is always a chance that they will be the next winner, and winners win big. So they labor on.

Miners, brokers, and security personnel enjoy more reliable sources of income, but their livelihoods too depend on many unpredictable factors, from the waxing and waning of the price of diamonds to the whims of international mining outfits, which come and go at will, sometimes leaving behind dozens of Liberian employees to eke out a living on their own.

Among these is Eric Doe, cousin to former president Samuel K. Doe, who was executed at the start of the Liberian civil war in 1989. Eric worked on the president's security detail during his cousin's administration, a post - and a past - that he seems reluctant to talk about. He fled to the U.S. when the conflict began and settled for several years in my home town of Washington, DC, working as a luggage screener at National Airport. He still keeps the award he won as screener of the month from February, 1991 in a tattered parcel with other keepsakes from his 13 year sojourn in the U.S. Keep up the good work!!! reads the certificate. You have truly gone that extra mile.

When the war ended in 2003, Eric returned to Liberia and eventually landed a job as head of security for the American Mining Association, which once controlled a large concession around Weasua. The AMA departed sometime in 2008; it is uncertain whether or not it will ever return. Eric showed me a letter dated October 29 of last year, addressed to him and signed by the president of AMA. "You are not, repeat not, authorized to release any of AMA materials and possessions without the express written consent of myself."

But one man cannot prevent illicit mining on such a big concession, and many small-scale miners and their diamond boys have begun digging on AMA land. Since he received the letter, Eric has waited in Weasua for AMA to resume mining and return him to his previous post. Like the diamond boys, he clings to a distant possibility that may never materialize. But the AMA letter is hope. So he waits.

In Weasua, mining is neither the glamorous, get-rich-quick scheme that many Liberians imagine it to be, nor the bloody, anarchic thrill ride we in the West might expect from our diet of sensationalist movies like Blood Diamond. It is a dull, slow-churning enterprise, sustained by the indelible hopes of the diamond boys themselves.

"When is the last time you found a diamond?" I asked one of them.

"When God provides," he replied.

"And when is the last time God provided?"

"Tomorrow."

For some, the waiting eventually becomes too much to bear. During my visit, I met one man who has been working in the mines for over two decades. He is now 42 years old, and still describes himself as a diamond boy - a name which, applied to a grown man, aptly captures the paralysis inherent in artisanal mining. "I have worked and worked as diamond boy," he told me. "It's not good work." Next year, he hopes to pool a bit of money and start a farm. In mining, he explains, "You don't know what you looking for. You looking for diamond but you don't know where it is. Diamond makes man to become a failure."