This, of course, has been a feature of the diamond trade for centuries. There is simply no better way to move around a large sum of money in a small placealmost no mineral is worth more per gram. This is the signature fact of a diamond, and its curse. It is why violence and deception trail it like mist. There are lots of places on the body to tuck one away. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, one of the first European diamond merchant kings, visited India in 1665 and reported of the miners: "And their wages are so small they do not manifest any scruple, when searching in the sand, about concealing a stone for themselves when they can, and being naked, save for a small cloth which covers their private parts, they adroitly conceive to swallow it."
How does the smuggling happen in the Central African Republic today? I wanted to know.
The finance director took the berry-sized diamond from my hand, held it upward, and fixed me with a stare that I was unable to read.
"Take this and put it in your ass," he said. "You can walk out of this country with a half-million dollars in your ass. Six stones, thats about the size of a small piece of shit. Sell it to a gangster. Watch TV, man. Thats whats happening in reality. . . . You will always find people willing to do something for you the moment you offer the right price."
Seeing a legitimate diamond is a lot harder than seeing a dirty one in the Central African Republic. I went down to the Ministry of Mines, which was in a motel-shaped building wrapped around a dusty courtyard. I asked one of the senior deputies, a genial English-speaking man named Cyriaque Gonda, if I could take a look at a diamond-producing region that week.
Certainly that could be arranged, he told me. There are two large mining districts, both along broad river valleys and both about a days drive from Bangui. But there was a small problem. It was illegal for foreigners to enter these areas. I would need a permit and a letter of permission from the minister and those things would cost me $200, payable in U.S. dollars.
"But I dont want to buy any diamonds," I said. "I dont want to dig for any diamonds. I just want to see where they come from."
"Yes, certainly," said Cyriaque. But $200 American is what it would cost. In cash.
"I dont think Im going to pay," I said, wondering if this was a legitimate fee.
"Sorry," said Cyriaque. "That is the rule."
What was the big secret? I wondered. This was a mineral that underwrote a huge part of the economy. Diamonds were responsible for up to 60 percent of the nations export income, and slightly more than half of them were clean. Wouldnt they want to show them off? I had already spent $130 of my dwindling cash at the Ministry of Communications for a press permit, signed by the minister, Parfait Mbaye. He was supposed to have been one of the actors in the March 2003 coup that brought the new government to power. Mbaye now occupied a dingy two-story office with a stone wall out front and an empty flagpole tipping to the side. Each ministry here is its own province, and every request from the outside is an opportunity to create more paperwork and collect more fees. The French have left their legacy in Central Africa and part of it is the worship of government process, no matter how shaky the government or pointless the process.
I left the ministry, annoyed, and started walking along Avenue Boganda, past roadside ditches filled with trash and old grayish water, thick enough to be like gelatin. Street vendors sold cell phone covers, plastic dolls, and cooked goat meat from plywood shelves balanced on tires. The air was hazy with harmitaan, the mixture of veld smoke and desert sand blown down from the Sahara that particulates the sky every winter. There was a wooden arch at the entrance to the main traffic roundabout, a remnant of the Bokassa era. I walked under it and up the gentle hill to the high gates of the 1960s-era Presidential Palace, where a right turn would take me back to the hotel where I was staying.
Copyright © 2006 by Tom Zoellner
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