How not to get a tanzanite in Dar es Salaam


“Can we go there now?” I asked.

“Er, now?” Responded the boatman eyeing my formal attire and laptop doubtfully. Clearly, people who went to the island usually did so clad only in bikinis, shorts and flip flops.

“Yes,” I explained, “I have a meeting at 12pm and this is the only time I can go.” I had miscalculated the morning schedule and came rushing down to the hotel conference centre to find that my first panel was only at midday.

This meant that I had a few hours to myself. On arrival in Dar the day before, I had spotted a little island off the mainland – it was perfectly visible from the hotel lobby and I was determined to visit it. After various negotiations, the hotel events manager had agreed to drive me down the road to the local club, which had a jetty from, which I could access the island by boat.

“Okay,” sighed the boatman “this way.” He led me down towards the jetty and watched sceptically while I took off my shoes and rolled up my pants. As we approached the little boat with its pure white canopy, two other boatmen appeared out of nowhere. One politely took my laptop case, while the other gallantly offered me his hand and helped me onto the boat.

We set off to the island at a leisurely pace and I noted my exquisite setting, the never ending blue sky, the twinkling turquoise water and, in the distance, the island. As the boat gathered speed, the boatman and his crew lost interest in me and my apparent mission to go beachcombing and sunbathing dressed in a black suit with computer in tow.

As we approached the island, a young man came running towards us and helped me from the boat. He too regarded me in bewilderment and I decided not to justify my lack of a bikini and sun block again. I informed him that I would like to walk along the beach and perhaps have a drink or two.

He nodded and led me through a copse of palm trees to a beach on the other side of the jetty, which was scattered with loungers and hammocks. The only people around were a couple sunbathing – they were Swedish, the young man said, and an older man fast asleep in a hammock – he was German. I spent a pleasant hour and a half on the island. After a little walk on the beach, I climbed into a hammock (this is not as easy as it looks and I was glad that no one was there to witness my ungraceful clambering). The time went all too quickly though, and before I knew it, I was on the boat and on my way back to the mainland. I also happened to be late and rushed into my panel with wet pants and sand in my hair. No one seemed to notice.

The panel I was sitting on was a review of research carried out by a number of PhD students in South Africa, Uganda and Tanzania in the area of HIV/Aids. Each of these countries had been impacted on by the Aids pandemic and what is interesting were the differing state responses to it.

The South Africans had initially denied the pandemic drawing from the Aids denialist school of thought. Indeed a minister of health famously advocated “garlic, beetroot and lemon”1 as a way to delay the onset of Aids as opposed to antiretroviral treatment. A genuine commitment to treating HIV, therefore, came rather late to South Africa.

Uganda on the other hand has been described as the first country in Africa to fight Aids with the necessary urgency. An anecdote suggests that this was propelled when Uganda’s military sent 60 of its best officers to Cuba for training and 18 of them tested positive during a routine medical test. Fidel Castro, so the story goes, said to President Yoweri Museveni “Brother, you have a problem.”2

Methods of prevent the spread of HIV have also been interesting. Uganda initially adopted a campaign known as “Zero Grazing” an allusion to the circle created when livestock are tethered to a post in order to feed off a limited section of land. Likewise Ugandans were encouraged to transform their sexual behaviours and restrict their number of partners.

More recently, Kenyan press reported that Tanzania’s President John Magufuli was planning a ban on miniskirts to curb the spread of HIV. The Tanzanian government has since denied this but the incident points to an ever prevalent perpetuation of patriarchy and gender inequality.

Tanzanite gem stone affair

The next day I once again sought out the trusty hotel events manager to ask him his advice. I told him that I wanted to buy a piece of Tanzanite and asked if he could recommend a reputable jeweller. I wanted the actual stone, I explained, rather than a stone set in a piece of jewellery. Tanzanite is a gemstone, which was discovered in the Mererani Hills in Tanzania in 1967.

It appears alternately as sapphire blue, violet or burgundy. It was originally named “blue zoisite” but then re-christened “Tanzanite” by the jewellery house Tiffany & Co who, capitalising on its rarity wanted to avoid it being associated with “blue suicide”. It is estimated that until 1971, when the mines were nationalized, over 2 million carats of Tanzanite had already been mined.

“How big a stone are you looking for?” asked the events manager, eyeing me carefully.

“A good size,” I answered vaguely.

“How good?” he probed.

“Very good,” I assured him.

“Yes, I know somebody – we will go and see him later – come back here at 5pm.”

At 5pm precisely, I presented myself at the events manager’s office and followed him to the parking lot.

Instead of catching a cab though, he led me out of the parking lot and into the street, where we proceeded to walk a block or so before turning into an upmarket complex of holiday villas flanked by palm trees and fragrant frangipani. I began to feel anxious.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“This is where my colleagues live,” he explained, “They deal a lot in Tanzanite – they also deal in gold. Do you also want gold?”

“Er no,” I said feeling more anxious.

By this time we had reached a double volume wooden front door, which he knocked on. It was opened by a frightened looking slightly built young woman in a maid’s uniform. She ushered us to a large dining room table piled high with food. There were crepes and canapés and a variety of other edibles that I did not recognise.

The table was round and had a revolving belt so that the diner could access something on the other side of the table with a mere spin of the wrist. The young woman invited us to sit and we obeyed. There were two other people seated at the table. The first was blond, tall and lean, he was throwing canapés down his throat in the style of a circus act.

He completely ignored us. The other was dark haired and heavyset, he was chewing voraciously and evaluated me as though wondering what I would taste like – if I was to be eaten that is. I was by this point most anxious. I leaned over and whispered to the events manager that I thought we should leave, as it was just rude to arrive at dinnertime. Before he could answer, a booming voice behind me said something in a very foreign voice – I judged it to be Russian and this was confirmed later.

He was clearly talking to the two men at the table, who he referred to as “Yuri” and “Sasha”. I decided that this particular adventure had gone far enough and standing up I grabbed the events manager’s arm and walked him firmly from the room. On our way out I smiled politely at the newcomer and said “good evening, Sir.” No one tried to stop us as we marched into the hall, out of the front door and down the driveway onto the street.

Had I been alone, I would have probably broken into a run, but I thought it best to maintain decorum. The events manager seemed completely nonplussed at the evening’s events and as we walked back to the hotel chatted easily about how Russians appreciate Dar’s excellent weather at this time of year.

Recounting my adventures at breakfast the next morning, I learned from my Tanzanian colleagues that Tanzanite was rarely owned by locals because despite it being mined locally, it was simply too expensive for the local market. It was therefore the preserve of European jewellery stores such as Tiffany’s, Graff and Van Cleef & Arpels. Furthermore, despite the fact that Tanzanite mines had been nationalised, rough stones were still sent out of the country to be cut and polished – usually to Jaipur in India where the “master cutters” were located.

Little had been done to develop local skills in this regard. Tanzanite is but one more example of Africa’s riches which have yet to genuinely benefit African people.

source: Shauna Mottiar

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