The Human Cost of Diamonds

(Editor's Note: This interview appeared originally on

Katima Dieudonné (whose name we changed to protect her identity at her request) came from Sierra Leone to the United States in 1996 at age 12. She left a region that supplies a significant number of the world's raw diamonds, and that has been devastated by civil war and forced migration for more than a dozen years. The diamond trade in Sierra Leone and neighboring countries is widely recognized as a bloody business, fraught with violence and corruption that gave rise to the term "conflict diamonds." Hardly any of the proceeds go either to the government or to the bulk of the population.

Dieudonné, 22, talked to about her life in West Africa, her father's involvement in the international diamond trade, and her thoughts about the popularity and politicization of diamonds today.

Justin Warren: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

Katima Dieudonné: I was born in Sierra Leone, and I grew up, in Guinea, in Conakry (the capitol), West Africa.

When did you move from Sierra Leone to Guinea?

I was a kid. I was probably about 8 or 9. That was when the war started. So, we had to leave. And my dad is from Guinea, so we just went "next door" to Guinea instead, because Sierra Leone was going to have a war.

When you think of that part of your life, are they good memories?

They are. I loved it. I really did. I have very good memories. Because my dad owns a lot of property, he's rich there, and he's like a big person there. So I never had to really suffer anything, well, anything material.

When did you first realize that your father was involved in diamond trading?

I was born when he was already in it. He met my mother in Sierra Leone when he was there [trading]. As a child, I already had brothers and sisters that were way older than me that were already in it. It's always been his job, and it still is.

Did he do "work" around you? Did he go away to trade diamonds, or was it ever around the house or around the neighborhood?

He had an office at the house, and a lot of his customers would come see him there, and when they did, I would be there. I was younger, and I would just run into the office, and I remember the first time I saw diamonds. They were not pretty at all.

What do you remember about seeing diamonds for the first time?

One was black, actually. It looked like rocks. The other ones was really dirty looking. It looked very dirty, very brownish. And they were a bunch of different colors, different shapes.

I never really spoke to my dad [about diamonds]. We never really spoke about things like that. It was just I would do what I was told to do.

Anyway, my mother told me that you had to shape them, and my brother -- my oldest brother -- he started learning how to shape diamonds when he came to the United States: to cut, shape and file them. So that's what he did. And my dad would always try to pull all of my brothers to do the same business he did, but most of my brothers were criminals. They would just come back home and lie, and say the diamonds had dropped out of their pockets. Of course, they would get in trouble. They've been to jail before for that.

Do you know from whom does your dad buy diamonds and to whom does he sell them?

Actually he doesn't buy them, he pays people -- he has diamond diggers. They actually dig the diamonds for him, and then he gets them. He has two brothers that are involved in that group, so he trusts them. They're there with the guys when they dig the diamonds.

And where does he sell them?

Last summer, he was here [in the United States]. And last summer I know he brought some with him to sell. But he lied to us and told us he didn't get any money. But later we found out he did. My mom was really upset.

Does he wear diamonds?

No. My dad doesn't wear diamonds.

Have you seen Kanye West's video that deals with diamonds from Sierra Leone?

Yes, I have.

What do you think about it?

Before the video, I heard the song. I though the song was great. Because everything he said, it's really true. He didn't say it directly -- he put it in a better way. But it's true. And then when I saw the video, the video doesn't match what he says. The lyrics, they don't match the pictures.

What do you think about the pictures in the video?

Oh, I like it. I think I understand exactly what he's trying to do. I know the real deal. I know how the war was.

The rebels would come in, and they would actually kill each other over these diamonds and this property, which was dumb. But the way they treated people, and the way they killed people was really crazy. They would cut people's hands and ask them if they wanted "long sleeve" or "short sleeve" and if you say short sleeve they cut [your arms] all the way up, and if you said long sleeve either way you lose your hands. And that was crazy. They did that a lot.

I think I'd rather see [Kanye's video] than see a village getting burned, or see people killing each other, cutting each other's hands. Because if that video was all about that, they would not be playing it on BET that often. They wouldn't be playing it on MTV that often. They might play the song on the radio, but I don't think that's what the people want to see. So I guess I understood why he had to change the video a little bit.

But the words are powerful. I strongly believe that if the video was about the way it went down, about the whole war, people shooting each other, people wouldn't want to see that kind of video. They want to see hot cars, nice cars and stuff. And he tried to squeeze that in, and at the same time tried to squeeze something else in.

Did you know people who actually felt the violence from the war in Sierra Leone that related to this?

Our chauffeur -- I liked him a lot. I spent more time with him than with anybody else. He was shot. He was shot for the first time he came to Guinea, and he had a big scar. But he went back to Sierra Leone, and he got shot, and he died.

Do you think it's weird that Kanye West made a video that raises the question of whether it makes sense to buy diamonds considering that he's someone who also wears diamonds?

He's saying, "How could something so wrong feel so real? How could it feel so good, 'cause it's so wrong?" Diamonds are so wrong. I think it's evil. It's the devil behind it, just like money, you know? Money's very precious, at the same time it's very dangerous.

But at the same time, we all use it, you know? At the same time we want it, right? We want to have it; we want to hold it. I think that's how it is. But he's talking about how it is. And how people are dying for it. People killing each other for it. But at the same time we want those things. You want to wear them around your neck.

Do you have any diamonds of your own?

No, I don't. But, um, I wish I did. I really do wish I did.

My older brother, when he came here, he had a ring. And there was a diamond in it, like a dark one. And I knew it wasn't no regular diamond. I mean, it's not all bling-blinged out, it's not even shaped or nothing, but the ring was silver, and it was made, and the diamond was in it. It was a big, big dark one. And I asked him what it was, and he said nothing. He said it was just a rock. I don't think it was, though. But, you know, I didn't ask again.

But I don't have any of my own. I wish I did, and if I did, I think I would probably hold it and keep it until I really, really need it.

Why do you think diamonds are so valuable?

First of all, Africa is not poor, it's rich. But the only thing they have there is diamonds and gold. That's all they have. There's no food, there's no water. There's nothing but that. That's all they have. So that's all they try to kill each other for. The only thing left.

Do you think it will ever change, the idea of people wanting to wear something that you call "evil" around their neck even though they know?

It will never change, that idea, as long as people still want money in life. It's just a good example. It's never going to change. People are still going to want money. It's just how it is.

People want diamonds. It's just something you crave for, just something you feel like you want, you need. You feel like it's a lot of money, and when you have a diamond around your neck, I don't know, I guess it gives you some kind of a boost. You feel like you're worth something when you have diamonds.

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