A Journey to Remember, with Gem Legacy Adventures
Olga González FGA DGA went to northern Tanzania and southern Kenya with Gem Legacy Adventures, the financial partner of a not-for-profit that works to benefit East African coloured gemstone miners. Here, she provides a day-by-day accounting of her trip. This article was published in the Autumn 2022 issue of Gem-A’s Gems & Jewellery Magazine.
For many people, the summer of 2022 will go down in history as the summer of rescheduled 2020 travel plans. The inaugural pandemic year had many people under strict lockdown, and in 2021 most people were not at liberty to travel extensively. But this year, much of the world has adapted to the idea that we may live alongside COVID-19 for a much longer timeline than originally imagined, if not indefinitely. As a result, people are moving ahead with their holiday bookings, even for overseas travel as permitted. In 2022, Gem Legacy Adventures became the financial resource for Gem Legacy, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organisation that supports entrepreneurship, vocational training, and community development in East African coloured gemstone mining communities. It will offer excursions in East Africa that include wildlife safaris, gem mine visits and touring various Gem Legacy initiatives. The profit from the trips will, moving forward, fund the administrative costs of Gem Legacy. The first of these expeditions, in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya, took place in the summer. of 2022. Olga González FGA DGA traveled on a Gem Legacy Adventures itinerary and provided G&J with a diary of the trip… a journey that was worth the wait and then some.
Days 0-1: As a New Yorker, I sought a direct route to Tanzania, with as few layovers as possible — JFK to Nairobi to Kilimanjaro. On our first evening as a full group, we stayed at the New Safari Hotel in Arusha, Tanzania. The next morning started with an orientation run by Rachel Merisheki, our gracious host and go-to for everything. The next day we drove to the Longido region to visit the Kitarini Primary School the next day, which is attended by Maasai children. After a presentation and the handing out of lollipops, the kids played outside and enjoyed having their picture taken. Gem Legacy helps the school by supporting the meal program, so parents are motivated to send their children, as it is one less meal to cover at home. As housing issues have kept school staff retention rates low, Gem Legacy also helps with on-site housing for teachers. After our visit to the Kitarini School, we visited a small ruby mine in Longido that was protected by wood scaffolding and sheet metal, materials used across construction locally for homes and businesses. The owner, Sendeu, gave us a tour and answered questions about the geology of the area.
Day 2: The next morning began with a tour of the Arusha Gem Faceting School where we met four students and their professor. They demonstrated the steps in preforming and preparing the dop, as well as faceting. Students learn how to practice on marbles before practicing on donated stones. I faceted my first table at the bench, which was exciting to learn. The students were confident in their skills, and all enjoyed learning from them.
In Tanzania, ruby, sapphire, emerald and tanzanite over two grams must be faceted within the country before it is exported, so it is essential to have schools where lapidary training is provided. Donations to Gem Legacy have led to the purchase of the equipment, including Facetron machines – American made precision faceting machines – along with dops, transfer tools, laps and other accessories necessary for precision faceting. Gem Legacy also supports the instructor, Diana, along with student scholarships, which are $750 for the five-month program. Upon completing the program, the Arusha Gem Faceting School assists students with job placement. While there, we heard of a ruby mine that would need to hire five hundred people for faceting positions; current and former students of the school would be contacted for the positions. It was wonderful to see proactive job placement in action. After visiting the faceting school, we began our drive towards the Merelani Wall. For those unfamiliar with the setup of the tanzanite mining operation there, the area inside the Merelani Wall is separated into four sections, or ‘blocks’. Beginning at the southern end is Block A; continuing to the northeast are Blocks B, C and D. Blocks A and C have been assigned to large mining companies, while Blocks B and D are divided into numerous small-scale mining interests that are all owned by native Tanzanians.
The JW vein is the most famous of the veins of tanzanite that occur at different depths. It is named after Ali Juluawatu, the farmer who became the first miner to work the deposit in the late 1960s. Juluawatu is reported to have mined between 200 and 400 kilos of tanzanite in a three-year period. The JW vein is the most productive tanzanite ore zone. But most of the small-scale mines have produced tanzanite rough, with some having produced hundreds of kilos of gem-grade material. In general, the quality of the stones increases to the north, with Block D having produced the best grades and colours.
Sune’s mine is in Block D. Sune was assigned ownership to his claim in 2003, as a result of a government allocation. His application was one of several hundred filed in an attempt to receive claim ownership. Sune won the claim rights because he owned a compressor and jackhammer, with which he had previously helped several other small-scale miners successfully produce tanzanite.
Sune’s mine would be considered an ‘average’ or ‘medium-sized’ mine. There are many mines that have hundreds of workers, much longer and larger shafts, with equipment that blasts frequently. There are also some mines that are still very much unworked. For our group, visiting this mine was the adventure of a lifetime — it was especially great if you love rock climbing. Holding onto two metal cables, one by one, we descended approximately 400 ft (121.9 m) down the tunnel, each with a miner to help us. We brought our own headlamps and gloves, but to say it was difficult is an understatement — I had trouble walking downstairs for days. That said, I am so glad we went down and experienced it. After only ever experiencing large commercial mines, it gave me an appreciation for the physical difficulty of artisanal mining, alongside the challenges of sustaining extended periods in the heat and dust. What took our group forty-five minutes to climb took the miners only twenty minutes.
On the way back, we stopped for some samosas on the go, and checked into the Marangu Hotel for dinner and an overnight stay before the next day’s adventures.
Day 3: From our latest lodging, we had a delightful morning walking tour of a Chagga village. For me, it felt like home at my grandparents’ place in Puerto Rico, with coffee and bananas growing, and chickens all around. Our host, Roderick, explained the lifestyle there and showed us his farm and animals, with additional pigs, rabbits, goats and more, as well as other local homes. In Tanzania, wealth looks quite different; it often lies within one’s livestock, so animals are kept as a savings account.
The subsequent border crossing into Kenya was an experience. When we arrived, there was one person in line, and our group was eighteen in number. Yet somehow, it took three-and-a-half hours for us to officially cross the border. If you ever need to cross by car, my advice is to bring patience and a book. Once we arrived and dropped our things at the Voi Wildlife Lodge, we visited the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which acts as an elephant orphanage. Earlier this year, I adopted Thamana, a saucy and adorable cutie of an elephant. The trust sends monthly updates from the keeper’s notes, which I enjoyed reading in anticipation of meeting her. The experience of meeting the elephants was even better in person. The orphaned calves are grouped by age and have time to roam around and play with friends. Eventually, they are re-introduced to the reserve to prepare for the wild. We fed the elephants straw, pet their trunks and scratched them behind the ears; in turn, they loved snatching cameras. The view from the orphanage was breath-taking, and it was wonderful to support the wildlife in the area. A monkey popped into our car, and we spotted our first dik-diks and impalas in the area, reinforcing the country’s balance of people living in harmony with the surrounding wildlife.
Day 4: While in Kenya, we had the option of rallying early for a 5:30 a.m. game drive through Tsavo East National Park. Most did not partake, but for me it was certainly a highlight of the trip, and it offered those not doing the five-day safari add-on at the end of the trip a true safari experience. First, the lighting was magic. The dust of the desert makes sunrises and sunsets seem otherworldly in Kenya. The sun looks massive, and the colours are spectacular. I felt like I was in a film. We saw roaming elephants and zebras, hundreds of buffalo, four lionesses, more dik-diks and impalas, and and mongooses. After arriving at our hotel we had breakfast overlooking a watering hole, where two elephant families were meeting and greeting, complete with teenaged elephants embracing trunks – it was the most beautiful morning I had ever experienced. That day we visited three mines. The first, in Kamtonga, was a woman-owned tsavorite mine, where we met with the owner, Gladwell. Surprisingly, the Bishop of Taveta was there with a large party when we arrived. He visits annually to bless the mine, so we met and prayed for the welfare of the mine and miners. The second mine we visited was owned by three friends, one of whom was Maina (see Big Picture, pp. 8-9). There, tsavorite and green garnet was mined. The third mine, owned by Peter, hosted green garnet and a tourmaline vein. At each mine we went down with our headlamps and gloves, inspecting the host rock and viewing the veins and indicator minerals. On the way to the mines, we drove through sisal fields, which locals used to make handcrafted baskets to sell at the local market. Along the way, the road also went through the Bridges Scorpion Mine, which was interesting to see.
Day 5: The day started with breakfast while watching a family of elephants at the watering hole, a view I never tired of. We then drove to a mine with parallel tunnels of golden tourmaline and green garnet. There, they followed feldspar as the indicator for the golden tourmaline. This mine is owned by Antony, who is related to Peter from the mine we visited the day before. In a fun bit of trivia, we learned that Antony’s father was the first person in Kenya to obtain a mineral mining permit.
From the top of the open pit, we made our way down to the tunnels. The green garnet tunnel had a steep, six-foot drop at the beginning, and most opted out of further exploration after seeing that. After our visit to Antony’s mine, we went to the Mwatate Children’s Home, where children are placed by the government as a last resort, when there is no place to go. We met Edith, a volunteer who is a single mom and the house mother, who acts as a parent to all forty-two children in the home. There, it costs $550 (£462) per year for each child to attend secondary school, and Gem Legacy supports the home in several ways via donations to initiatives, including solar panel installation, new beds and library books. Everything we brought was so deeply appreciated – from the toys to the candy. Gem Legacy also delivered new mattresses on trucks the day we arrived at the school.
Day 6: On this last official day of the tour, our group of eighteen would now become seven (those that chose to stay for the optional safari). Before leaving Kenya, I visited the gift shop and found a beautiful jacket, locally made with a ‘spiderweb meets trees’ African print. The full day was spent driving back from Kenya to Tanzania – admittedly a long day. Saying goodbye was sad, but our WhatsApp group is still going strong, and we will be having a reunion at the 2023 Tucson gem shows. Arriving at the Boulevard Hotel in the evening was delightful, with delicious food and lovely views from the hilltop. For those looking to explore East African mines with industry experts, or to support the mining communities in an impactful way, I recommend contacting Gem Legacy (gemlegacy. org) or Gem Legacy Adventures (www. gemlegacyadventures.com) to organise or join a coloured gemstone tour. With their feet on the ground, Gem Legacy provides the trade access to support artisanal mining communities. It is our responsibility as an industry to ensure that those at the source of our supply chain are taken care of, and this is a fantastic way to educate oneself while giving back.