Arusha Project


The Black Hole
July 30, 2007, 1:00 pm
Filed under: Abroad Program, Uncategorized

The barren landscape gave way to winds that stirred up dirt devils in fields beside our car. The dirt and dust was noticeably lighter, a deceiving sand color, and made the local Maasai in their colorful red and blue robes stand out against the flat backdrop of the land. Patches of bright green marked distinct areas of corn and sunflower seed crops set in between unusually square Maasai bomas. As we neared the mining town of Merarani the landscape changed to one of purely dirt and dirt houses, shops, markets
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It was Sunday, the miners’ day off, and people lined the streets in a manner similar to Arusha town but much more quiet and rural. Past the town we drove through flats that had been dug to look like a minefield. Everywhere, workers had set up makeshift shacks made out of plastic and canvas bags on simple wood frames. This was the free area, anyone could mine there, and many people did, but only smaller traces of Tanzanite were usually found. Up in the hills were the proper mines, the small ones that were owned by individual companies and the big TanzaniteOne*
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Last week I was asking Benson, a mining veteran of six years, what it was like to be in the profession and if it was possible to visit the mines. “There is no problem,” he said, “everyone knows me there.” After negotiating cheap park fees (the area is protected by the government and it usually costs $20 for Tanzanians and $50 for visitors to step foot on the land) there seemed like there really was no problem. Benson agreed to take us to his old place of work with out even asking for compensation, the small print that usually accompanies anything you ask for here. Still, the area was eerie, and after a while I noticed that we were the only non-black Africans there and, for the women in our group, we were part of a drastic minority. Although everyone we met treated us kindly, Valerie had previously worked very hard to convince authorities to let a group of women into a mine, by explaining that we were volunteers working with gender equality and that even though we were interested in purchasing tanzanite, we wouldn’t be comfortable doing so without seeing the source: The diamond industry has left a legacy of public skepticism regarding all trade of precious gems. But still the gender issue was far from subtle. When we arrived to our destination, the owner, mostly in jest, blurted out that women couldn’t go. The workers too were at first shocked and then thoroughly amused that a group of Americans and mostly women would want to venture into the mine. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were the only women and the only non-Africans that had ever entered.

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The mine, owned by “Unique Mining,” reached 200 meters into the earth and was accessible through a steep decline using secure ladders and cables.

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Our guides, sometimes laughing at how slow we were to descend, and later ascend, were on the other hand quite impressed that we would attempt such a feat in the first place. In the middle of the mine shaft, our group burst out singing “Happy Birthday” for Brett’s 22nd, and our guides chimed in with slightly skewed pronunciation.

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Mining, always deemed a dangerous profession, maintains its attraction due to the possibility of getting lucky and getting rich. But for many, it is too hard of a life. Miners spend an average of 10 hours underground each day, with only Sunday off each week. There are two shifts per 24 hours, so there are always people working on the mine. Gear includes a jackhammer, ventilation tube, pick, dynamite… no hard hats, no masks – ten hours a day in a dark, dusty, and very warm and humid hole without any protection. People used to get injured or die frequently from explosions, Benson recalled, but that doesn’t happen as much anymore.

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Still the expansive mining shantytown and the aged and wrinkled miners that don’t so easily ride around on their dirt bikes anymore, show that this industry is one that people won’t quit as long as there is money involved.
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After two hours exploring the mine, looking at tanzanite veins and picking our other minerals and rocks that accompanied tanzanite, we emerged late in the afternoon to a case of much needed sodas that the owner had brought in for us. Like Benson, this man asked for no compensation, and seemed pleased to take four hours out of his day off to show us a glimpse into his life and that of his employees.
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On the way back, we stopped again in town to walk around the streets and see the last traces of the mineral market that was apparently bustling earlier that day. Dirt alleys and streets diced up what seemed like a surreal ghost town, lacking the vibrant colors that have become associated with Africa, with all inhabitants focused on one goal; selling Tanzanite, real or fake. Like usual, locals crowded around us trying to sell what gems were in their pockets and to see the peculiar spectacle: 16 Americans walking through town and covered in black dirt. One old man in particular looked at us wide-eyed when we told him we had just trekked to the bottom of a real mine. I don’t think he ever thought he would see women in such a state.

– Kaia

* TanzaniteOne is a South African mining company that has a monopoly in the tanzanite industry. It is a vertically integrated company and owns a substantial mining area, buys from local miners, refines and cuts gems, and exports them. So far, there doesn’t seem to be too much  controversy over the company, despite its monopolistic manner and the newly sparked popularity of tanzanite driving up international market prices. The TanzaniteOne foundation actually claims to do quite a lot of community work in neighboring areas where their workers live, including providing housing, clean water, food and primary and secondary schooling. Their headquarters is the single largest building in the area and their mining buildings stand apart as the only modern construction in the actual mining hills. In terms of working conditions, local opinion claims that they are doing a decent job of conducting responsible business.

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