Sierra Leone’s diamonds fuelled the 1991-2002 civil war, and are now boosting economic growth, but at the same time they are keeping thousands of children out of school.
At a mine resembling a lunar landscape outside Koidu town in Kono Region - the diamond mining heartland in northeastern Sierra Leone - thousands of young men dig and shovel gravel in search of the precious stone.
“I had to support my family so I dropped out of school. When I could not find a job in my home town I came here,” said 21-year-old Mumuni Diallo, who arrived in the mining fields when he was 17.
“I am very tired. I have been digging this pit for months, but so far I have found nothing. Still, in mining, every day is a new possibility,” said Diallo, explaining that he was lured by tales of people striking riches.
About 70 percent of Sierra Leone’s youth are unemployed.
Twenty-year-old Alhadji Gborie, who left his home town of Lungi near the capital Freetown for the mining fields, blames the government for failing to provide jobs.
“There is too much talk from the president. Let him come here and work for a day to see how it is,” said Gborie, standing in a thigh-deep, muddy water hole.
On 17 November Sierra Leoneans re-elected President Ernest Bai Koroma for a second term of office, helped by the fact that the country has seen extensive infrastructure improvement and economic growth in the past five years.
Driven by exports of gold, diamonds and iron ore, the country’s economy will grow by up to 21.3 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, but this wealth has yet to filter down to most ordinary Sierra Leoneans.
“In many families, children are becoming the breadwinners,” Esate Konteh, from a local NGO in Kono Region, told IRIN. “When the civil war ended in 2002, many families had lost one or two parents. Some of them had their limbs amputated and could not work or were not eligible for employment.”
Children are paid 10,000-20,000 leones (US$3-6) a day and 40,000 leones if they find diamonds. In Kenema, to the east of the capital, and Koidu around 3,000 children are estimated to be working in the mines, but there are no official figures and the number might be much higher, Konteh said.
Youths work either in mines, open pits or riverbeds.
“If you work in the pit you don’t go to school. These youth have been marginalized in society from a very young age. Some of the boys were forced to take up arms during the civil war. When they returned home they were met by burnt down houses. Some of them have lost all their family members… This makes it even harder for them to find work and almost none of them returned to school,” said Denis Lansana of local NGO Network Movement for Justice and Development.
Youth training programmes funded by the World Bank and the International Red Cross have only been partially successful, he added.
“With no skills and no other possibility to find work, the mine is an easy way to get rich,” said Lansana, adding: “Diamond mining is just more attractive and lucrative than woodwork or farming. The children enrolled in classes ended up selling their textbooks before returning to the pit.”
“Our aim is that no children should work in the pits. However, this is hard to control as we have no means to follow up on the [government] ban [on children working in mines],” said Sahr Tamba, a director at the Ministry of Mines.