Last week I had one of the most interesting and unique experiences since I came to Lesotho – I visited my friend who works at Letseng Diamond Mine!
Majake is my host brother from training, who I lived with during my first 3 months in-country. When I last saw him, he was interviewing for this position. Now, he’s been working at the mine for almost a year, and he loves his job!
Letseng is owned by Germans and employs hundreds of Basotho men and women. In a country with extremely high rates of unemployment, mining jobs are secure, pay well, and provide good benefits and opportunities for professional development. The mines aren’t without controversy, though. Foreigners still hold all of the managerial positions, and most Basotho who work here never even set eyes on actual diamonds. For Majake, though, getting this job has made the difference between economic uncertainty and providing well for his family.
I arrived to the mine, which is located in the north of Lesotho on the Butha Buthe/Mokhotlong border, and first had to check in at the gate house. I was given a short orientation, during which the guards stressed two points: be safe and don’t steal diamonds. Fair enough!
After I met up with Majake, our first stop was his room. It was a small dormitory not unlike the residence halls at UCLA. For Lesotho, it’s a swanky place, with heated floors and wifi! Majake planned to stay with his friend and let me have his room to myself – although we love each other like siblings, and he has a wife, sharing a room wouldn’t seem appropriate. After dropping my things off, we started a tour of the mine, and I learned all the ins and outs of a place like this.
At Letseng, most workers have the same hours. They work 7 day shifts in a row, followed by 7 night shifts in a row, followed by 7 days off. This schedule allows the mine to operate 24 hours a day, and it also gives workers sufficient time to make monthly visits to their families in different parts of the country.
In the area where workers live, there is a gym, church, cafeteria, bar, and clinic, as well as a rec room with TVs and pool tables. It seems like a great work environment, where co-workers really become family! Majake’s friends were thrilled to meet me and share their world with me, and a few of them tagged along on our tour.
Although I was not authorized to enter the actual mine, we found a good overlook point where I could still see the goings-on. The process begins with a daily “blast,” which breaks rock loose in a designated area, and which feels like an earthquake. The rocks (Letseng uses both Kimberley and Basalt) are then moved from the “pit” to the “crusher.” This is what Majake does – he loads and moves the raw materials at the beginning of the process. Next, the rocks are crushed into, well, smaller rocks. Then, they move along a system of conveyer belts through a few different washing points. The crushed and cleaned rocks then enter a building, where certified diamond sorters pick out the precious stones from the rest. Majake has been trained to sort, so the next time an opening arises, he will apply to transfer to this position. After being sorted, the diamonds are sent via helicopter to other Letseng points, and they eventually end up in Europe for pricing and sale.
I left this visit knowing more about the diamond mining process than I ever expected to. It was fascinating to have an inside look into one of Lesotho’s major industries, and of course, so nice to see Majake again.