It was the New York jeweller Tiffany’s that christened the stone ‘Tanzanite’ when it appeared on the world market in 1962 from the hills around the town of Mererani, 50 kilometres south of Kilimanjaro. ‘We were always discouraged by our parents from picking up the blue stones,’ says James Lazier, a 26-year-old Maasai from this part of Tanzania. ‘They worried that if we were looking for stones, we wouldn’t be looking after the cattle.’
For a number of years now Tanzanian farmers have craned their necks to scan the clear blue skies in the vain hope that they would miraculously fill with rain clouds. Meanwhile, over at the empty auction houses, the bottom has fallen out of their coffee and sisal markets. Along the coast and in the game parks, tourism is experiencing a slowdown; in the towns cautious foreign investors have shelved expansion plans. The current international political climate has resulted in Western intelligence agencies taking an interest in the mining of the stones.
James spent a year in the mines of Mererani. Unpaid and unfed, the only way to earn money from this punishing drudgery is to smuggle unearthed gems out of the mine and past the mine owner, before selling the raw stone to one of the many dealers in the town. James never managed it. ‘If you get a stone out you can make eight million Tanzanian shillings (about $10,000),’ James informs me, without the slightest hint of wistfulness.
‘When a mine is dynamited the miners have to stand, one arm hooked around a ladder step, receiving a bag of rock from the miner below before passing it to the miner above. They will stay in this position for the whole day without a break,’ James continues. ‘The only things that keep them going are brandy and marijuana. Both stop the feeling of hunger but make people feel angry.’
The lack of central planning causes its own set of problems. Stories abound of mine owners blasting into each others’ tunnels, resulting in fatal brawls breaking out underground between their miners. The trauma of 100 miners killed by floodwater is still fresh in the minds of many. Others fall victim to AIDS, typhoid and malaria. What is clear is that many young Tanzanian males are driven by poverty in their home areas to the hills of Mererani. For most, the grip of grinding poverty only increases its intensity in the dark, dust-filled and oxygen-starved Tanzanite holes. The ad hoc nature of the extraction and dispersal of the stones also helps to perpetuate the poverty of the majority. But, as long as farming remains a precarious existence with changing weather patterns and falling commodity prices, as long as tourism struggles to fill its minibuses and new investors look elsewhere to put their money, the mines will continue to attract those who want a better life for themselves and their families.