Miners dig for diamonds in Marange, eastern Zimbabwe. Image: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / AP FILE

Are Zimbabwe’s Marange diamonds cursed?


Some of the stories of illegal dealers of rough diamonds in Zimbabwe appear as if they are plucked from fiction novels— stories of lavish lifestyles followed by sudden deaths or loss of their ill-gotten riches. 

Between 2009 and 2023, several illegal diamond dealers have died mysteriously in Zimbabwe. Among them are: Bothwell Hlahla and Courage Kasipo who tragically lost their lives in horrific car crashes; Never Chikwena died due to a mysterious illness; and Ziko and Osondo died after short illnesses; Eddie Gondo and Mabota were brutally murdered, possibly in diamond deals gone wrong. Several other little known illegal diamond dealers have faced different misfortunes including deaths, illnesses or mysteriously losing their ill-gotten wealth. 

In June 2006, local villagers discovered diamonds in the Chiadzwa area of Marange district, which geologists estimate to be spread over a 26-square-kilometer area. The diamond fields are commonly referred to as the Marange diamond fields. The discovery of diamonds, which are mostly alluvial gems, in Marange triggered a massive diamond rush.

More than 20,000 illegal miners descended on the diamond fields to hunt for the precious mineral. They tore down trees and clogged rivers and other water sources with tailing. The illegal miners used rudimentary equipment to mine— hoes, picks, shovels and sacks were used to carry ore from the fields to a nearby Odzi River for processing. 

However, in 2009 fate changed for the illegal miners as they were violently evicted by the government under a military operation, codenamed Operation Hakudzokwi (you will not return). More than 200 illegal miners were killed by the army, according to global rights body Human Rights Watch (HRW). The removal of illegal miners from Marange paved the way for mining by companies with strong links to the ruling party, Zanu PF and the country’s military. 

Regardless, some daring illegal miners continue to sneak into the area to mine without permits, stealing diamonds worth millions of dollars each year. The illegal diamonds are then smuggled out of Zimbabwe through a network of local and international syndicates. Illegal foreign diamond buyers smuggle the diamonds, mostly through Mozambique where they are shipped to various international markets. In 2016, the late Robert Mugabe, then president of Zimbabwe argued that diamonds worth US$15 billion had been stolen from the Marange area between 2009 and 2016.

But as some local illegal diamond dealers are reportedly experiencing various misfortunes, many people in Zimbabwe are convinced that the Marange diamonds are cursed, and anyone who steals them would likely face bad luck. 

A former diamond dealer, who wants to be identified as Jay, opened up about the illegal diamond activities. Jay once worked for the late illegal diamond dealer, Bothwell Hlahla—who was also known as Boss Bothy— running errands, picking up and dropping packages, and collecting or making payments. 

Jay says Hlahla grew up homeless, a street child who hustled on the streets of Mutare, a city nestled in Zimbabwe’s eastern highlands about 90 kilometers from Marange. He washed cars at an informal car wash in the city center. How he became a prominent illegal diamond dealer remains a mystery, however as per legend, he stumbled on a very expensive rough diamond piece in a car he was cleaning. Hlahla allegedly stole the diamond and sold it. He used proceeds from the stolen diamond to kick-start his own illegal diamond business. 

“Within a short space of time his net worth shot from zero to more than US$5 million,” Jay says. 

Hlahla started buying luxury cars and at the time of his death he had more than 15 posh cars; some were parked at his home, others at his office premises in the city center, according to Jay. 

“As someone who grew up poor, he was thrilled by fast cars. He loved speed. And speed later killed him,” Jay says. 

Before his death, Hlahla could be seen racing dangerously with his friends in the city of Mutare. But today, nothing remains of his illegal business, everything vanished after his death. Hlahla is now buried at a poorly maintained cemetery in Mutare.

Jay counts by name at least 20 dealers who suffered various misfortunes, now dead or broke. 

“As for Gonyeti [a once prominent and pompous illegal diamond dealer], he is dead broke. He was now selling scrap metals to earn a living but it all failed,” Jay says. At the height of his notoriety, Gonyeti was named in a leaked cable from the US embassy in Zimbabwe as one of the leading illegal diamond dealers in the country.

Gonyeti later tried to venture into other legitimate businesses, probably, to launder money from the illegal diamonds but all the businesses failed. 

Some people also believe that these diamond dealers mess with black magic to get rich quicker which often backfires. Some claim that as part of the black magic initiation process for illegal diamond dealers, a shaman known locally as n’anga throws some maize kernels to a rooster. And the number of kernels the rooster eats is the number of years an illegal diamond dealer can enjoy the life of riches and opulence, after which he dies. But no one has evidence whether such rituals take place.

“Lots of things are happening among the illegal diamond dealers; lots of black magic or juju, serious drug and alcohol abuses,” Jay says.

George Kandiero, the president of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association says a person can make a lot of money after being involved in such black magic but there’s always a downside to it.

“Our advice is that people should not be involved in these occults to get rich quickly. Let’s work hard, there are cleaner ways of making wealth without any serious repercussions,” says Kandiero who is an expert on Zimbabwe’s traditional beliefs.

But the real truth of the diamonds may be more prosaic. 

Farai Maguwu, an expert on Marange diamonds and director of the Centre for Natural Resource Governance, has done extensive research on Marange diamonds for over a decade. He has been fighting hard for the local people to benefit from the diamonds. 

“I don’t think Marange diamonds are cursed,” Maguwu says. 

However, Maguwu adds, the early demise of most of the “successful” local diamond dealers might be due to lifestyle and lack of discipline.

“Majority of these guys had rags to riches stories and somehow lived on the fast lane always. Driving at high speeds, night life, excessive drinking and show off are some of the characteristics of diamond dealers,” Maguwu says.

But he adds that there are unconfirmed reports that some of the most prominent dealers also engage in dark arts to be lucky with the illegal diamond businesses.

“This, it is argued, makes one wealthy for a short season but will meet an early death,” Maguwu says.  

Donald Masvaure, a village elder who was relocated to ARDA Transau—a desolate government farm a few kilometres outside Mutare— to make way for formal diamond mining agrees with Maguwu.

“The diamonds are not cursed. If you can find a diamond piece from Marange, sell it [to the illegal buyers]. But you will be shocked by the large amount of money you will get. And you will go on an uncontrollable spending spree,” Masvaure told me.

“They [illegal diamond dealers] go on spending sprees, I saw some abusing alcohol. They drink nonstop for the whole day. Such reckless behaviours are killing them,” Masvaure says.

But while illegal dealers are enjoying the fruits of Marange diamonds—albeit for short seasons— Masvaure says people who were relocated to ARDA Transau to make way for diamond mining continue to sink deeper into poverty. 

 “We don’t have reliable clean water. We don’t have sources of income. Life is becoming tough for us,” Masvaure says.

Andrew Mambondiyani

Andrew Mambondiyani is a science journalist based in Zimbabwe with bylines in local, regional and international publications including BBC, MIT Technology Review, Yale E360, The Telegraph, Aljazeera, Mongabay, Vice News, Long Now and The Daily Beast among others.

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