As I write this article, I am sitting on the tarmac in Paris. Some do-hickey that keeps the ice off the wings is not working and the mechanics have been working on it for four hours. The pilot, in his calm, reassuring way, repeatedly assures us it will be just one more hour. You have to like the guy, even though we all know he is at best naïve, and at worst a liar.
I have gone 48 hours with less than 2 hours of airplane sleep since I left Kenema, a small mining town five hours from Freetown. Bored, I decided to clean out my brief case. Having finished the massive cleanout and with nothing better to do, I am proceeding to write this article on my recent adventures in Sierra Leone. I want to share my adventure with you because I believe this trip to Sierra Leone may have some value to those intending to go to Sierra Leone as well as being an exciting, interesting and educational story. It is a story of love, overwhelming poverty, tenacity, courage, perseverance, frustration and a great deal of laughter and good times with new friends.
I have a great customer who has had enough international experience to try to take on buying diamonds in Sierra Leone. As anyone who has worked in Africa can tell you, one must be aware and be prepared to deal with the culture, climate and mentality of the area. Fortunately, my client is prepared.
My story begins in a small mountain village in Normandy during the war. Sorry, I have always wanted to write that line. Let me begin again.
My story begins when my client called me to represent them as a rough diamond gemologist in Sierra Leone. Previously, they had some success in buying diamonds, but realized they needed better connections and a higher level of skill if they were to succeed on an on-going basis.
As anyone who has worked in Sierra Leone can tell you, you have two choices when you work there. You can follow all the laws and requirements at great expense, or you can go and buy diamonds illegally. When you take the cheaper route, you are taking a risk that you may be caught breaking the diamond laws of the land. Admittedly, I have taken my chances in the past when I was a little cockier and a lot less wise.
My client, the wise young man that he is, took my worldly advice and opened a company and a bank account at a local bank in Sierra Leone. In addition, to make life easier and cheaper, he acquired his Residence Visa. I, in my infinite wisdom renewed my documents and applied for my own Diamond Dealer’s License. I have previously worked under other companies licenses and although I never had an issue doing so, I decided to spend the $2500 and no longer have to trust that the license I was working under would cover me.
My connection in Sierra Leone is a 6’2. 235 lbs, 55 year old American who has lived in SL off and on for 5 years. He is extremely well connected and a good guy. His only fault being he does not anticipate possible delays and costs overruns and does not plan for them. This caused some obvious issues and tension between him and my clients. My clients are good natured and generous. They did not mind spending some extra money on miscellaneous items, but the continuous, unanticipated and expensive delays and cost overruns were a real annoyance. In his defense, many delays and overruns could not be avoided, and some could not be anticipated, but the ones that could be avoided and the ones we should have known about, drove us nuts.
Before we arrived in SL the group was assured that the resident visas, the banking and my diamond license were completed. Unfortunately, this was not the case. You may wonder what the big deal is, but every delay costs a lot of money in expenses and every client has a time line. Delays cut down on your time to view goods making it more difficult to be successful on your trip. It is a very serious issue.
The most serious delay was not his fault at all. My clients had changed banks to wire funds into SL. The bank they first used to wire expenses for the setting up of the company and other expenses arrived and was clear in one day. Having no wire issues, they decided to use their account at The Commerce Bank to transfer funds. They sent two trial wires and a large transfer to buy diamonds. It took 5 long and expensive days to clear the funds and Commerce Bank two days just to get back to us with an update. For our SL contact, this gave him the time to complete the documentation and overcome the license problems.
I have to say a word about the woman my SL contact has working for him. She single-handedly saved the day for us in so many ways that it would take two full pages just to write it down. Just as an example, she got my Diamond License in just 4 days when it would take a normal Sierra Leonion three to four weeks. Without her connections and unrelenting tenacity, I could not have succeeded on this trip.
The reason I bore you with this information is because I want you to understand that no matter how hard you try, and no matter what you are told, you should plan for an extra three-four days on any diamond business trip to Sierra Leone. Further, be aware that everything will cost you more than you expect. The easiest and fastest way to get past the problems, hurdles, bureaucracy, greed and incompetence of the people and systems of SL is with cash. You don’t have to pay anyone to get what you want in Sierra Leone. No, you have to pay if you want to get what you want when you want it. You should add at least $2000 to your budget in order to handle all the people you will need to show your appreciation too. You must pay if you expect to get things done quickly and free of interference. If you do a cost analysis, you will easily see that it is a lot cheaper to grease the wheels than it is to pay extra daily expenses.
As we were waiting in Freetown, having not much to do but hurry up and wait, we received an invitation from a great British gentleman soldier who heads up the training of Sierra Leone’s Special Forces. He is everything you would expect him to be; tough, world worn, dangerous and a very nice man. The British military compound where we met, is on a beautiful green forested rolling hill across from the American Embassy. The American Embassy is a drab light brown colored fortress with tall walls and defenses all around. They have cleared the forest around the compound and it is impossible to get within a 1000 yards without being detected. From the veranda of the British Sports Bar in the British compound you can clearly see the American defenses and only a fool would approach without permission.
We started taking pictures of the Embassy and spoke facing the Embassy to allow the listening C.I.A. agents the opportunity to hear our conversation. Perhaps they had turned on their voice amplifying equipment or were reading our lips through binoculars. We wanted them to know that we are only Americans having a good time and not someone they should be concerned about. I am told most contract killers and C.I.A. agents have a good sense of humor. I am sure they appreciated our jokes at their expense. As a side note, I must say, the British were wonderful hosts and we met some outstanding Special Forces soldiers with a very serious mission.
The next day, (still waiting for our wire transfer) we received an invitation to the State House from the office of the President. We were scheduled to meet at the State House with the President’s right hand man. The State House is in the President’s compound with access blocked by barricades and a number of well-trained guards. Once we were escorted past the guards we were ushered in to the State House whose past elegance could still be seen in its design and materials. The entrance leads in several directions to a slew of minister’s offices and a large stairway invites you to proceed up to the higher levels of government. Here you see the movers and shakers of SL. There are of course, the visiting dignitaries, and ambassadors of various countries. They all look quite serious and impatient. You also see the lobbyists and other hungry souls looking like wolves and lap dogs seeking advantages and favors.
Our meeting with the President’s Personal Secretary (He is equivalent to a Chief of Staff) and Ambassador of Protocol was friendly and all business. They appreciate new investors and were happy to assist us in any way. They rightfully fear that many people still view Sierra Leone as depicted in the movie “Blood Diamond.” It is an image they are trying hard to dispel.
During our conversation, they learned we were going to the mining towns of Kenema and Kona, and the surrounding bush. These towns are like small remote mining towns around the world. They have similarities to our old West and can be dangerous to the inexperienced. They have their share of bad guys too. We ran into some of them who followed us for two days. Upon hearing of the remote villages we intended to visit, the Chief of the President’s security very kindly supplied us with two personal security team members to take care of us. Both men were war veterans and obviously Special Forces types. We found them to be extremely professional, personal and unbelievably valuable.
Where ever you go in Sierra Leone, you will meet low level officials, police and check point police waiting to pick your pocket. We were repeatedly approached by these types and often saw the look of fear and shock on their faces when our security guys would flash their badges which clearly stated they were assigned to the State House. In one instance, we were driving down a narrow road with sections in which only one car could go through while the car in the opposite direction had to wait. Our driver had waited our turn and moved forward when the car coming towards us jumped into the lane and blocked us. The driver of the other car refused to back up and the inhabitants starting shouting and issuing threats. Big mistake! Our security guy jumped out of our car and was on them like white on rice. When they realized who he was, they lost all boisterousness and apologetically backed their car up and let us pass. Many times during our twelve days, we were spared harassment and payments because of these extraordinary men. I intend to use them on all subsequent trips to SL.
The Vice President heard we were stuck in Freetown waiting for our money and knew we were delayed on our trip. He graciously arranged to have us use his private diamond office to work out of while we were waiting for our papers and money to clear. I find it difficult to buy anything in Freetown because the prices there are usually higher than Kenema and Kono, but it was better than just sitting at the hotel moaning and complaining. I saw quite a few stones there, but could not see the price on what was offered. Still, we arranged to see goods with some of the vendors in Kona so our time was not completely wasted.
Finally, we received the SWIFT and decided to leave in the evening to go to Kenema. We wanted to try and catch up on the time we lost and decided not to wait for the morning to travel. Even though we had worked from early morning without a break, at 7:00 PM we headed out of Freetown with the idea of being in Kenema by 12:00 A.M. After four grueling hours of noise, congestion, carbon monoxide and frustration, we managed to get out of Freetown. Without traffic, it would be a 15 minute drive.
We reached Kenema at 3:00 A.M. We were all exhausted. It had poured all the way. Visibility was limited not only from the rain, but because of the old and dull lights of our man’s 15 year old Toyota 4 Runner. The road is not maintained well and it was wet, dark and slippery. We finally arrived at our hotel and unloaded our baggage from the truck as a torrential rain pounded our backs and bags. We were soaked, but grateful that the drive was over and that we had arrived safely. After checking in to what can only be described as a dump, we went to our rooms. I no sooner had taken off my shoes and was about to undress when my clients came knocking loudly on my door. I pulled myself up on to my tired feet and answered the door. My two clients were standing at the door and told me to come to their room immediately. I was started by the urgency of the request and of course quickly went down the hall to their room. They went over to the bed and pulled the blankets down.
I really felt bad for the lice and bedbugs. Here they were having a great party with thousands in attendance, and the dinner guests, having just arrived, refused to get into bed. The lice had a band playing the latest lice and bed bug music and everyone was anticipating a great meal of Italian food also known in the human world as my clients.
Failing to accept the dinner invitation of our hosts, I told my clients to quickly put their entire luggage up on the desk in the room and not on the bed or floor. Bedbugs and lice love to hitch a ride in the seams of your luggage. I have found that most wives do not approve of you bringing home new found friends.
We instantly and unanimously agreed to get the hell out of Dodge. My clients grabbed their luggage, I grabbed mine, and we went room to room to get the rest of our crew. The two women with our group were none too happy to have three wild eyed Americans banging on their door at 3:30 in the morning. They had just undressed and were about to get into bed. Cautiously, they opened the door and demanded to know why in the hell we were bothering them at this hour.
Have you ever seen the face of a woman who has just found out she was about to sleep with a louse? Yes, that was the face we saw. The ladies threw their luggage onto the table and quickly redressed. In two minutes all of us were outside our rooms when the manager came storming out to chastise us for the noise. Upon hearing that his hotel was invested, he calmly stated that it is no big deal. He would spray the beds right away.
Yea, that would solve the problem. Just spray the bed. Damn, why didn’t we think of that? Ten seconds later we were loading up the car. We had nowhere to go and it is not safe to stay on the streets at night. With no other option we headed up to Bo to try and find another hotel. Bo is also a mining town, larger than Kenema, but still a small town. It was 70 miles to Bo and so off we went to see the Wizard.
I know what you are thinking, and you are right. There were no decent hotels in Bo that were vacant and now it was 5:00 A.M and we still have no place to stay. You will never guess what we decided to do. Ok, you guessed. We headed back to Kenema and arrived just as dawn was breaking. No longer in need of a hotel, we drove around for an hour and then went to the Capital Hotel where all the 419ers hang out. (SL code for criminals) The hotel is better than most in Kenema, but still a dive. We went upstairs to the restaurant and holding court was a slimy looking Lebanese fellow. He was about 40, twenty pounds overweight with a cigarette hanging out of the left corner of his mouth. He eyed us like a tiger eyes fresh meat on a Sunday.
His table was set up so no one could come behind him and it was obvious, that this was his personal table in the restaurant. Just then a young SL man put a briefcase down in front of him and without looking inside told the man to grab a briefcase that was placed behind the Lebanese. It must have contained a significant amount of gold because he had trouble lifting it and had to arch over to his left side to compensate for the weight.
More and more of this man’s cronies began to appear. They multiplied like roaches. Every one of them eyeballed us and was sizing us up. We were none too happy and you could see both our security men moving into a more defensible position. We thought they were going to move in on us when a middle aged and obviously world worn man entered the restaurant from the rear. He sat two tables away from us and his presence removed the attention from us. He began speaking to two of the men in Spanish. He must have assumed we did not speak Spanish because he and the two men began discussing an illegal purchase without regard to us being able to hear. Both my customers are fluent in Spanish and explained that he was being set up by the bad guys like a pig in a slaughterhouse.
We ate quickly, and left the restaurant. All eyes were upon us. As we drove off, we were immediately followed. To test our belief we drove to a couple of missions. Each time we came out of the mission we were followed again. They used two motorcycles and a truck, each taking their respective turn. This went on for two days.
Although we were all dog-tired, as soon as the office opened, we were there. Every trip I take, the locals try and test your knowledge and your market awareness. No matter what you ask for, they will show you garbage stones and outrageous prices. Do not attach to this. It is there way of determining if they can screw you. After awhile, when you gain their respect they will start to show you goods that you can use and prices that are not ridiculous. You will buy goods and you will be happy.
We were not seeing the quantity of goods we needed. After two days of working in Kenema we headed to a bush village. The name of the village is none of your business. There we were introduced to the Paramount Chief. A Paramount Chief is a King. He is royalty and like a war lord, as the power of life and death over the people he controls. His power is second only to the President of Sierra Leone. Turns out he was a nice jovial fellow who was very helpful and sent his second in command with us to help us locate greater supplies and smooth the way for us.
With his help we managed to complete some of our mission. Our delays cut our buying time and my clients needed to return to the States. We were happy with what we bought, but time did not allow us to spend our budget. We paid for the goods we bought with a suitcase full of Leones (SL currency). We wanted to pay in dollars, and despite repeated assurances from our bank, no dollars were available. What could have taken a few minutes to count took over an hour. There is 4,300 Leones to the dollar.
We bid farewell to our office hosts and told them we would be leaving the hotel by 10:30 A.M. We told our driver back at the hotel, we would be leaving at 7:00 A.M. We told the rest of the crew we would be leaving at 3:00 A.M. We woke everyone up to protests and left at 1:30 in the morning.
There is a security company G4S at a huge price to carry goods back to the GGDO (Government Gold and Diamond Office) in Freetown, or you can do what we did and have private security accompany you. We choose to go this route and believe it pays off if you take precautions. It does not hurt to know that your team is expert military and have large magazine automatic weapons.
Back in Freetown, we went to the GGDO for evaluation of our stones for tax purposes. They are professional and skilled. You watch as they evaluate and stay until they seal your stones. You receive your sealed box and paperwork and after a few hours of waiting you receive the signed KPC. (Kimberley Process Certificate)
Box and cert in hand you go through the maelstrom of officials at the airport and with a little help from your friends and American Presidents you are put safely on the plane to your destination. How you import the goods to your country of choice is dependent upon the country and the governing laws. I caution those who have connecting flights to find out the laws of the country in which you will be connecting. You do not want to find out the hard way what the requirements are.
I mentioned in the beginning that this story was about love, overwhelming poverty, tenacity, courage, perseverance, frustration and a great deal of laughter and good times with new friends. Our wives and families wanted us home safe and sound, that is the love. Sierra Leone is the overwhelming poverty. Our crew and my customers were courageous, persevered under great frustration and all the crew were tenacious in their dedication. Lastly, my customers and I share the joy of having a ware house full of sarcastic one-liners and we found ourselves laughing constantly at our terrible and terribly funny jokes. We all loved to be made fun of, and when one of us would zing the other, we would acknowledge the skill of the jokester. And when the joke went no-where we would chastise the jokester for producing a joke unworthy of his talent. It was great! Good people, good trip.
If you are planning a trip to Sierra Leone, best know what you are doing and be doing it with the right people. If you do not know the right way of doing it, and are not well connected, then hire a rough diamond gemologist who is experienced and connected.
Louis Pearl G.G.
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