Monday, 8 February 2010

all that glitters

I still can't work out what it is about gold and diamonds that makes them valuable? Why through time have we given them such worth? Surely their appearance isn't enough for us to give them such value? It can't be their rarity, as a four-leaf clover is worthless but less common. It could be characteristics, one warm soft and malleable the other cold and so hard- People who lust for diamonds end up being cold and hard - it's all right for them but we have to suffer them. Gold and diamonds - the world could so easily exist without them they have no function other than their value and an ability to make some humans rich and others miserable.
There's gold in the low hills rising up south of Bolgatonga in northern Ghana and people move their whole lives there to try and sift, sieve, pan and dig a better life out of the earth. It's a hard life in a horrible place. Scattered amongst the trees and long dry grass are makeshift shacks and huts that are used for either or sleeping or working, the only two options here. Rocks and rubble lay in piles and everywhere is covered in rubbish and faeces. The area is devoid of luxuries and comfort, men are held captive here by their need to make money and children grow up simply to add to the workforce.
Small amounts of gold dust are separated from the crushed rock that is either dug up on the surface or more often from hundreds of feet underground. The mines are unregulated and men and women work in teams sharing any profits. I am told that at any one time there are more people underground than on the surface and that people stay down for up to a week once they have made the dangerous one hour climb down a manhole cover sized shaft, no steps lift or rope the shoring of the shaft acts as a ladder. I watch a man emerge drenched in sweat his whole body pumped and taught from his exertions. Everyone here is super strong and well adapted to live easily in this environment that I find hard to handle.
Gold powder and sludge, laying on the bottom of a metal tray used for panning looking like fine Demerara on coffee grounds useless, yet to be separated smelted and turned into bullion, rings and necklaces. Here amongst the chaotic desperation of a Klondike style mining community it seems so worthless and it is mind boggling to think that this residue is the base element of the whole world's economy. Here it is in the hands of young people that will never appreciate the full worth of the metal they risk their lives for and have no need for it apart for the wealth it can bring them. An element destined to bring others a status and enhance their own sense of worth. But it is a lie
You are only worthy to wear gold if you are able to extract it from the raw earth it comes from, if you are strong and fit enough to mine it from the land where it is found. Alchemists look for shortcuts whilst others betray, murder and invade for it. The gold remains when the body decays, Fool's gold is there any other?

The sun is reflected like a thousand jewels from windows below as our plane descends and is thankfully reunited with its shadow on the runway. Two weeks later and I am in a diamond mining area and it couldn't be more different. Kimberly in the northern Cape Province of South Africa has probably produced more diamonds than any town in the world. Originally a town for prospectors that slogged their way through 500 miles of inhospitable land to dig their way to a better life there is little mining done now but its history lies below the surface like the diamonds. At its centre is a giant hole 100 metres deep the biggest hand dug hole in the world where over the years men working for DeBeers shovelled their way down It now a tourist attraction with a museum made up of original shops hotels and houses gathered round a Protea hotel boasting a view of the hole.
Though South Africa is so different to Ghana There is something both these towns have in common. Mining by nature is a tough uncompromising and destructive industry. It does not ally itself with the arts and a cerebral existence, though those that profit from it certainly can.
Kimberly has all the appearance of an American Midwest town- a settlement with a collection of malls, houses and industrial units thrown together on a landscape so vast the whole place seems pointless, why be there? History is in the architecture but you have to look for it as the old is constantly being usurped by the new, perfect Dutch colonial veranda-ed houses by art deco shops next to 19th century churches and civic buildings dwarfed by 1960's square blocked offices and the inevitable 20rh century malls. There is history in the people too. Apartheid was finally smashed 15 years ago but it is hard to believe. Driving around the town it is only black faces walking the streets on the outskirts are large sectors of temporary housing with only black Africans living there and there are large areas of townships and squatted land all exclusively black inhabited. This is Afrikaans Africa and they are the people who fought nature, the British and the African to be here they are the people who didn't want a change in south Africa they are big strong proud and confident. They move around this town as if they own it and are contemptuous of everyone but their own. They also appear to be totally lacking in grace art and humour. Conscious of the need to play along with the new order they start most explanations of their world view with 'I’m not racist but...'
I am working with Louise from vso and Andrea from the British council making a film about global school partnerships a great initiative connecting schools from the south with schools in Britain sharing curriculums, thoughts and adjusting preconceptions. When asked by our sweet and charming guest house host Heidi which school we were visiting in Kimberly her faced registered discomfort when she understood that Isago junior school was an all black school in a township. It's just so deeply ingrained a dislike stemming from fear resulting from injustice. Isago school was built in the 1990's and is similar in size and style to a secondary school in the UK except this is primary and kids attend until the age of 12. Of course the classes are crowded up to 50 a class but so orderly and attentive, teachers are called educators and seem to be respected by their students or learners. The twinning with Juniper Green Primary in Edinburgh clearly works and I was astonished to hear 9 yr olds talking about global climate change, democracy, human rights and the benefits of a good diet. The two schools share their thoughts on the subjects by letter and the educators relate to each other.
Isajo is located in what is termed a township but it is well kept, paved, lit and the small single storied houses are generally well kept. It seems like a British council estate but the houses smaller. Elsewhere there are wooden and corrugated iron shacks that are less orderly and regimented but are connected to council services also estates of council built houses. There is other much less formal housing that is yet to be linked up to electricity or sewage, bright shining corrugated iron shacks shining in the sun yet to cultivate gardens they look like fields of pig sties. Common between all these houses is a barbed wire barricade against intruders impenetrable to all but small rodents. The learners from the school come from all these types of houses but their appearance gives no clue as to their home they are all impeccably turned out with identical uniforms and smart shoes, no trainer or fashion wars here and they are all children still, no provocative dressing or gangster styles.
Sadly there are areas that are just unsafe to move at night, families living there close their doors at dusk and don't come out at dawn. These are mainly the less formal housing areas that remain lawless, unpoliced and dangerous.
Kimberly has always been like a Wild West town perched on the edge of civilization it exists purely because below the earth it is built on are diamonds and there still are. Once everybody in Kimberly worked mining, or in a service industry serving the mines life was tough but money could be earned. Nowadays unemployment is the curse of the town thousands of people are out of work whole estates of people that cannot earn. This is why areas are so dangerous they are feeding grounds for those that have nothing. The grand irony is that below almost any of the yards surrounding all the houses there is the potential of finding diamonds. Dig down and there may be a fortune there could be a diamond anywhere even the giant mounds of rubble that surround the town may contain raw diamonds as when they were dumped there mining methods were less efficient. But you need a licence to dig for diamonds not just anyone can dig. De Beers own all the diamonds in Kimberly even those that have been thrown away. It seems you need a licence to get rich here.
There used to be two big holes in Kimberly one was in the middle of the townships. That was filled in recently to stop people throwing themselves into it so sad that they die on the rocks that could make them rich.