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Tanzanian gemstone finder living in poverty

28th Sep 2017
Tanzanian gemstone finder living in poverty

By Kizito Makoye


MAKANYA, Tanzania (AA) – A stunning pendant fitted with crystals that radiate rays of velvet blue from every facet, seen at the Tiffany & Co. store in New York, captures the enduring beauty of tanzanite — one of the world’s most sought-after minerals.

As anyone who has ever caught a glimpse of the jewelry on display can testify, tanzanite is certainly a precious stone, a thousand times rarer than diamond.

However, almost 7,500 miles (12,000 kilometers) away — at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro — the man behind the discovery of the glittering material lives in poverty.

Jumanne Mhero Ngoma, an 84-year-old Meru herdsman, stumbled upon the glittering crystals while herding cattle in January 1967 in Mererani, in Tanzania’s northern Arusha region.

“When I first spotted them, I knew they were precious stones and that my family would immensely benefit from it,” Ngoma tells Anadolu Agency.

However, five decades after the mammoth discovery, Ngoma and his family are huddled in a modest mud-walled house topped by a corrugated-iron roof, pondering what the future holds.

Muddy rainwater fills an unpaved courtyard riddled by potholes. Plaster crumbles from the walls. A cat gives birth to kittens under the belly of an old model jeep, standing immobile for a long time.

Ngoma struggles to eke out a living, depending on a few livestock, farming and handouts from his children who live in Dar es Salaam.

“I am very disappointed because a multi-million dollar business has refused to lift me up from poverty,” he says.

-Lucky find

The soft-spoken gypsum miner recalls how he discovered the stones lying on the ground.

“They were scattered everywhere. I collected many samples which scientists later proved were a rare type of zoisite mineral,” he says. In 1984 the government of Tanzania, through its Commission for Science and Technology, officially acknowledged Ngoma’s rare discovery.

He was awarded a certificate — seen by Anadolu Agency — a plaque and 50,000 Tanzanian shillings (US$22 at today’s exchange rate). The honor he still holds dear. “I was very glad to be recognized because that proved to the world that I was the one who discovered the stones.”

According to Ngoma, then-President Julius Nyerere named the crystals tanzanite because he wanted them to reflect the country’s national identity.

Despite his official recognition, Ngoma experienced many disappointments as other people were wrongly credited with his discovery. Even when it was corrected, he did not receive any tangible benefits.

Ngoma said he has for many years been involved in a fierce legal battle against one of the country’s biggest tanzanite mining companies for promoting Ali Juu Ya Watu, a Maasai tribesman, as the discoverer of the crystals.

According to Tanzanite One, the rare substance was discovered by Juu Ya Watu while walking through the Kilimanjaro foothills on the way to visit relatives. He then reportedly shared the stones with South African Manuel de Souza, a tailor and prospector.

However, there’s no evidence at the National Museum of Tanzania linking Juu Ya Watu or his family with the discovery.

“I am very disappointed because some people take advantage of my discovery to gain popularity,” Ngoma said.

-Big business

Prized between $600-800 per carat compared to diamond which is sold at $1,000-1,400 per carat, tanzanite is big business.

Despite being a relatively new gem, tanzanite has quickly become popular with modern stars and celebrities.

Actor Cate Blanchett famously wore an enormous tanzanite necklace to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Penelope Cruz’s engagement ring has a central tanzanite stone and Anne Hathaway wore tanzanite earrings to go with her blue Armani gown at the 2011 Oscars.

The owner of the country’s largest tanzanite extraction operation, Richland, reported in 2011 a profit of $3.5 million on revenues of $20.5 million.

Despite being a multi-million dollar business, Tanzania’s government has not benefited from its revenues, officials say.

President John Magufuli, who gained popularity for his anti-corruption crusade, said last week Tanzania gets just five percent of its revenue from the global tanzanite trade, adding that the rest of the precious gemstone benefits foreigners.

In an effort to seal off the loopholes that unscrupulous traders have been using, Magufuli has instructed the military to build walls around its tanzanite mines to prevent smuggling.

At the Merelani mine, the allure of tanzanite is to such an extent that people risk their lives to hammer the gemstones from the solid rock.

The area is dotted with wooden shacks. Local miners clamber down rickety wooden ladders into shafts and crawl on their bellies through tunnels into narrow caves to get the crystals.

Ngoma, however, remains hopeful: “I am still very optimistic. My grandchildren will, one day, get a fair deal from my discovery. Time will tell.”

[Tanzanite mineral from Tanzania. Photo by Didier Descouens/Creative Commons]

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