Breath taking mountain views of lush green hills, bubbling streams dancing and splashing as they cascade over rocks as the water tumbles and churns its way through the city of Freetown to finally reach the expansive blue ocean. The fresh water meets the ocean and the two colors of fresh and salt water battle each other until the ocean finally swallows the fresh water and no sign of the struggle remains. The beach is long and winding with white sand and softly lapping waves ever reaching towards the palm trees that bend towards the sun and sway in the warm breeze of the ocean. As you gaze out upon the ocean towards the vista where sky and ocean meet, clouds reflect the brilliant rays of the hot tropical sun and puffy clouds pass as forms and images created in your mind. Topographically, Freetown is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in all my world travels.
The airport is across the harbor from Freetown. Unless your hosts pick you up at the airport, you must take a small bus to the ferry and cross the water on an approximately twenty minute boat ride to Freetown. (On one of my trips back from Freetown, my bus could not make it up a particularly steep dirt hill and all the passengers had to get out of the bus and push it up the hill. Everyone did it in good spirits and we all laughed at the experience.)
There are two ways to cross to Freetown. One is a large ferry that can carry cars, trucks and passengers; the other is a 15 seat boat for passengers only. If you choose the small boat, be aware, the wooden dock ends and a 40 foot long, blue interlocked, plastic floating dock that can rise and fall two feet with the waves must be traversed to get on the boat. It is quite fun for the adventurous as you try to balance yourself carrying your briefcase or carryon bag. The secret to successfully navigate to the boat is to stand still as the wave lifts the dock and then walk forward as the dock slopes downhill. On less turbulent days it is actually quite easy. We arrived in the rainy season and the waves were quite high. The truth is it would make a great attraction at a water park.
As you go through the streets of Sierra Leone, you see few white people who are not Lebanese. Because there are few tourists, the white people are mostly there working for one relief organization or another and a few foreign businessmen try to scrape out a living in this impoverished nation.
Because you are an uncommon site, especially when you leave Freetown and head out into the country, people stare and children giggle shyly. Unlike some African countries I have worked in, the people of Sierra Leone are friendly. They smile at you, wave and are quite willing to engage in conversations with strangers.
As I traveled the five hours to get to Bo, a small diamond town about 150 odd miles from Freetown, we passed mile after mile of rolling hills and tall grasses that hugged right up to the edge of the two lane road. It has the effect on your eyes that you are driving down a long green waving hallway, interspersed with small villages of small cinder block houses with rusty tin sheet or thatch roofs. Sierra Leone is so beautiful it could easily rival any tourist destination in the world. The words I have used to describe Sierra Leone are inadequate to express the magnificent beauty of Sierra Leone. I have included a few pictures to give you a better understanding of how wonderful Sierra Leone can be.
I have spoken of the beauty of Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, Sierra Leone has a most beastly side as well. The beach at the airport is white sands marred by absolute filth, garbage and who knows what else washing up from the garbage infested waters of the bay. As you sail the waters of the bay you see floating debris everywhere. The waters are polluted by the run off of the untreated streams and rivers that empty into the ocean. As the water streams down the mountainside its carries along its banks all the human waste and garbage people thoughtlessly throw into it. There is garbage thrown on the streets and cholera is a real and constant menace. No one seems to notice or care that the city is filthy.
In many places in the city, the roads are impassible without an SUV. Some pot holes are big enough to hold the titanic. To the government’s credit, they are trying to rebuild some of the main roads. As a side bar, I was staying at the Country Lodge which is just a couple of blocks from the President’s home. The road in front of his house which leads to the hotel is almost impassable. The roads he is fixing are away from where he lives. I give him a lot of credit for putting his needs behind the needs of the citizens when he could have easily fixed his road first.
Most of the houses are in serious disrepair and decades of neglect and tropical weather conditions give the city an old, run down, dilapidated appearance. You can see the city was at one time extremely lovely. The architecture is picturesque with balconies looking out over the narrow streets that would have been a shopper’s joy. Today, the streets are broken and too many cars jam the narrow alley ways honking and threatening unwary slow pedestrians. As terrible as the destruction of such beauty is, it is nothing in comparison to the way criminals, corruption and ineptitude has decimated the economy.
I met with a lovely lady who is on the President’s staff. She was humble, elegant, dignified and laughed at my jokes. My wife would tell you that if she could stand my jokes, she must be an expert in dealing with pain and torture. Actually, she is. She has led an extraordinary life including exile and has achieved success few men could match. We spoke about the difficulties of doing business in Sierra Leone and the fact that Sierra Leone has far fewer diamond shipments then the known quantity of diamonds produced yearly.
I know for a fact many diamonds from Sierra Leone are taken out and sold in Guinea and other places. This was not news to her. The government is losing a fortune in tax revenue and it can ill afford to lose even a single cent. Unfortunately, the government has not shown the ability to overcome this situation. The overwhelming problems include and are not limited to corrupt and inept government officials; a county wide culture of desperation, deception and greed; lack of financial infrastructure; corrupt banks and bankers; poor oversight of the GGDO; (Diamond Government Office, where Kimberley Certificates are processed .) ; reputation for criminal gangs preying on diamond buyers; poor reputation for police help and law enforcement; reputation for taxes being paid and then having the goods confiscated at the airport by officials claiming the KPC are forged. The list goes on and on.
I have been this business for 37 years. As I have said on my website, I have lost money, been fooled, conned and exploited. If you wish to deal successfully in Sierra Leone, or any other high risk diamond producing company you would be wise to follow the correct path in order to successfully complete your transactions.
As an example, most countries demand a diamond buyer’s license. Most clients don’t want to pay for a buyer’s license. Often, you can purchase diamonds without one and have no problem. Many people buy in an exporter’s office and use his license. This is fine as long as you don’t mind having to introduce your hard won diamond sources to the exporter. Gee, do you think he might make a connection with your sources and usurp your supply? Naw…Why would he do that? If you are buying from the exporter’s sources then you have no problem. However, you are breaking the law. Some of you will have a problem with that, some, not.
When you have your own buyer’s license you can go anywhere and buy from anyone. Without a license you are extremely limited. Also, when you attempt to buy diamonds you may run into a group who will set you up. They will have a corrupt cop come into where you are buying diamonds and arrest you for buying diamonds without a license. Don’t worry, you are not going to jail, you are just going to pay a large bribe to make the ‘problem’ go away.
I am astonished at how many people do not do proper due diligence on the people and companies they are engaging. How they managed to make so much money and be so trusting of strangers I will never understand. There are groups with fake diamonds of course, and those who will switch out goods and the never ending rats who will nail you during payment and shipping procedures. This is indeed the beast of doing business in Sierra Leone.
I have a friend in Sierra Leone; to the locals she is called the ‘English Woman.’ In reality, she is a white South African whose family was chased off their farm that just happened to have a working and producing diamond mine on the property. Her brother was nearly killed on the property and he was forced to sell. The month after they sold the property, the poor man who bought it and his 19 year old son were killed on the property.
After the English Woman’s loving husband succumbed to cancer and her two daughters had left South Africa she decided to move to Sierra Leone to start a new life. She has been living in SL now for four years and has gained the trust and respect of the honest people and the scorn and hatred of the corrupt and dishonest.
In the four years she has lived in SL she has been to the zoo and seen the elephant! There is not a single con, twist or turn she has not experienced. The English woman makes Wonder Woman look like a wimp. She is strong, courageous and will not suffer fools or be intimidated by anyone. She is also gentle and compassionate for the misfortunes of others and like myself really enjoys a good cup of tea.
I like her and I trust her. She knows Sierra Leone inside out and she knows diamonds. (Her father had her looking through gravel at the age of 3) She knows how to safely deal with the GDGO, the banks and she is an expert at getting diamonds out of Sierra Leone without risk. Recently, she and I have partnered up on some deals and I no longer feel fearful in dealing with Sierra Leone.
The rough diamond business is not for the fearful and timid at heart. There are some deals in Geneva, New York etc. which are mostly unreal or overpriced. The ones that are real and where the goods have value are often taken by the well-established. If you want to work in DRC, Guinea or Sierra Leone you had better do it the right way and verify everything twice. Either that or hire a rough diamond gemologist who can do it for you.
Louis Pearl G.G.
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