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Book Review: Flight of the Diamond Smugglers by Matthew Gavin Frank
In Greg Campbell’s 2002 book Blood Diamonds, which, along with the subsequent Leonardo DiCaprio movie, gave widespread publicity to the horrors of the diamond trade, there is this single line: “One worker at the same site stole diamonds by tying a small bag to a homing pigeon, which would fly the diamonds back to his house.”
In Matthew Gavin Frank’s new book Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa, those homing pigeons get their spotlight. The setting is not the war-torn places like Sierra Leone, and the story is not so much about the ‘conflict diamonds’ nexus of war, smuggling and greed. Rather, the setting is the Diamond Coast of South Africa, and the story focuses on the no less horrifying legal diamond mining.
During the heyday of the De Beers diamond mining operations, this 100 mile stretch of southwest coastline was run as a fiefdom, a Forbidden Zone where no one except workers were allowed…and once in were not allowed to leave. There they labored in often horrendous conditions, subject to the suspicious moods of company security goons, with all their daily needs trucked in and controlled. The borders were patrolled by heavily armed security. De Beers even had an informal agreement with satellite imaging companies to scrub the region from their available files.
In 2007, De Beers declared the region overmined, and slowly began withdrawing or selling claims to smaller companies. De Beers still has a strong presence: they still mine, their goons still patrol, and they claim to have laughably ineffectual projects to restore the savaged land. But slowly the Diamond Coast has opened to visitors, and there is even a nascent tourism business. Even Google Earth has a single road, highway R382 between Alexander Bay and Port Nolloth, cataloged in Street View, where you can click your way along endless empty stretches that occasionally, in the middle of nowhere, pass armed outposts. But don’t be fooled: the horror continues in full force, as this book details.
This book genre, the intrepid journalist plunging into dangerous, exotic locales, has always been one of my favorites. It feeds my love of travel—I’ve been to 30 countries around the globe—and my daydreams of journalism, mostly unrealized but occasionally dabbled in, as when I met coca union leader and later Bolivian president Evo Morales in Bolivia, and headed into the illicit growing regions. This particular book combines the usual tropes of hard-won information gained through perilous adventure, but is also at times poetic, hallucinatory and almost mystical. Overall, an interesting read.
According to a recent report, despite child labor laws, 46 percent of diamond miners are between the ages of five and sixteen, and the author’s first contact, just after crossing the Namibia border into the South African Diamond Coast, is one of them: Msizi, a 13 year old boy. He works the mines. He also has a carrier pigeon, which he uses at great risk to smuggle out diamonds.
In Msuzi’s lungs, the diamond dust embeds itself into the pink muscle tissue, the sponge and the honeycomb. This is the dust that will, most assuredly, elicit the growth of collagenous nodules, making it difficult—for the rest of his life—for the child to breathe. In his hands, a pigeon named Bartholomew….
When he stops coughing, he tells me, “I probably should not be showing you him. I don’t want him to die.”
He tells me of being lowered into pits and shafts by older and bulkier men, a thin rope cinched under his arms. He does not show me the scars at his armpits, but I have seen him scratching….[Msuzi’s work uniform] is speckled with faded orange stains that appear to be old blood.
It is Msuzi who first mentions Mr. Lester, who seems to be a composite boogieman representing the De Beers security forces.
Apparently, Mr. Lester is ten meters tall, breathes fire, has sharp teeth, no eyes, the wings of a raptor, and the ability to infiltrate one’s dreams. Apparently, there’s a good chance he knows all about our meeting here, and the contents of the conversation we’re having in real time.
It is not just young boys who conjure visions of Mr. Lester. A police inspector in Alexander Bay recoils when asked about Mr. Lester: “In a whisper, he tells me that no one he knows has seen the real Mr. Lester, as he’s rumored to have more body doubles than Jacob Zuma. ‘He’s invisible. He’s like a spirit.’” Other adults in town respond similarly: “their voices quiet, they look around warily. Depending on who I ask, Mr. Lester either does or does not really exist, is human or giant or spirit or half-man half-animal….He’s so smart he can read your thoughts, detect fluctuations in your body temperature to determine whether you’re telling the truth or lying.” A woman in Port Nolloth, when asked if she’s heard of Mr. Lester, replies “Yes. Nope.” Another says “Ha! You know more than you let on! Who are you, anyway? No, he’s not a man at all, but many men—like a whole secret government organization.”
But while Mr. Lester seems to be just a frightening fantasy, there are plenty of real-life horrors, plenty of stories of miners, suspected of smuggling, being beaten, having fingers chopped off, or simply disappearing. In one harrowing episode, the author heads out on patrol in an open Land Rover with a security patrol: “four blond white men with identical crew cuts, barrel chests, and boyishly fat faces, all in their mid-thirties….drunk….playing with their guns.” In this expedition, only pigeons are shot: the diamond companies, aware of the use of pigeons to smuggle, authorize shooting the birds on sight.
As the author travels through this once-wealthy area now sinking into decline, he passes one hallucinogenic landscape after another, offshore shipwrecks, beaches lined with bones, derelict towns.
[A] white bygone church that once serviced the miners, doorless, the panes of its windows having long ago been punched out, its steeple having collapsed inward with the rest of the roof. Abandoned houses surround crumbling hospitals and schools, hyenas and jackals build dens amid the old desks and operating tables. The sand overtakes the old social clubs where dress codes once demanded that women wear long dresses and carry parasols, the men long pants and jackets with fat lapels. An upturned bathtub turns orange in the air, sheltering lizards and their insect meals. The wind briefly unearths an old pair of gumshoes, and a hairbrush with a mother-of-pearl handle, before a new wind exacts the reburying. A set of three stairs rises out of the sand and crests at more sand.
The book interweaves these adventures with insights into the natural history of diamonds, of pigeons, of the De Beer company, and of South African history, so you’ll learn a lot with your thrills, as should be the case with books in this genre. Then, toward the end of the book, while touring old diamond pits in the company of a somewhat maniacal De Beers executive, an unexpected conversation occurs.
“Look, you really need to talk to Lester,” MacDonald tells me. “He used to direct mine security for De Beers, and not just throughout South Africa. Overseas, as well. He’s big. Actually, he’s due in Kleinzee late tonight, on an assessment call. To see how things are doing here. He always stays out at Die Houthoop—a guesthouse in the middle of the desert. He’ll know about you.”
“Mister…Mister Lester?” I stammer.
MacDonald smiles. “Yes,” he says. “He’ll know about you.”
“It’s Lester,” MacDonald says, as if I’ve asked a stupid question.
“Flesh and blood,” MacDonald says….”I just know what I know. He’s the only guy De Beers trusts to do certain specialized things. Like I said, if you want to know these things, you need to speak with him directly. Go to Die Houthoop. Tonight.”
You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out what happens in the desert when the author sets out to meet the mysterious entity reputed to be ten meters tall, half-man half-animal, who can read your thoughts and detect fluctuations in your body temperature, and who does ‘specialized things’ for De Beers. But I can assure you, you’ll have a lot of fun, and learn a lot, as you read. The author at times wandered into flights of poetic reverie or extensive detours into mythology that I sometimes found distracting, but other times appreciated as a more literary deep dive into the subject, the product of extensive research by a sensitive mind.
And if you don’t already, you’ll think long and hard about whether you ever want to buy a diamond.