The latest coupthe ninth since independencetoppled the government of President Félix Patasse in March 2003. He had made the mistake of leaving the Presidential Palace for a brief trip to Cameroon. But he had also forgotten the other key rule of staying in power in Africa: Always keep your people paid. Soldiers tired of working for free refused to put up much of a fight against the rebels, so the revolution was relatively bloodless. The portraits on the walls of the Presidential Palace changed, but little else did. When I was there, civil servants were going into their fourth month without wages and the finance minister announced that no disbursements would be coming anytime soon. The treasury was bankrupt. The French ominously announced the deployment of a peacekeeping detachment. Soldiers with machine guns and rocket launchers cruised around Bangui in jeeps. At New Years Eve 2004, the Central African Republic was again teetering on the edge of chaos.
"Listen. Here is something you must understand. Diamonds are an illusion, diamonds are a dream," said Joseph Ngozo, leaning back in his chair. He used to be an economic official with the U.S. Embassy, back when there was a U.S. Embassy. Now he was trying to make money in diamonds and not having a lot of luck.
We were having dinner at Le Relais des Chasses, a restaurant near the center of Bangui popular with French expatriates. Its name means "The Hunting Club." Ngozo wore a colorful African shirt and pinstriped bankers pants.
"They have no role in the tradition of our society," he said in accented English. "We mine for them only because it could make us some money. We want to work hard, the American dream. And diamonds are the price of admission to what we think we want."
Joseph owned a small mine in a sandy patch of river bottom, about eighty kilometers north of Bangui. He paid his ten crewmen the equivalent of $3 a daytop wages by rural African standardsto shovel the dirt out of the pit into sifts. The slurry is then washed in river water as the crewmen keep their eyes out for the glint of magic rock.
"They are not geologists," said Joseph, "but they know where to go. They can read a riverbank."
His miners hunt for what are called alluvial diamondsthose stones washed out of dead volcano cores by the rainstorms that pound Central Africa every summer. These are the easiest possible diamonds to discover and sell. They lie five meters below the surface at the most, and some can be found simply by brushing a few inches of sand away from the topsoil. There is no telling how many lie deeperundiscovered and probably destined to remain that waybecause heavy equipment, geological expertise, and working capital are all almost nonexistent here.
Even so, the nations eighty thousand miners still managed to find the retail equivalent of $2.5 billion in gemstones in the sand every year. With shovels and sifts and sweat, they made the Central African Republic the tenth biggest diamond-producing country in the world. And for all of it, their pay was miserly, their days long and hot, and their country so poor that two-thirds of the population lived on an income of less than a dollar a day. According to the government, about 90 percent of the nations diamonds were found by "artisans"a euphemism for hired labor crews from rural villages. The work is dirty and miserable. The mines usually go no deeper than five meters underground, but the soil is unstable and walls often collapse, killing miners. There are no statistics to show how many are killed in mine accidents each year, but nearly everybody in the fields has heard stories of people dying this way. For almost everyone who lives in this part of Africa, however, this is the only kind of work that results in anything other than sustenance wages. It is the only real dream in sight.
Copyright © 2006 by Tom Zoellner
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