my philosopher’s stones
I often notice contrasts here, especially when I compare my life up against that of my friends and family in the UK, of course. But this week I came up against one in particular that really made me think. It was simply this.
During my week I took some time to take a look at tanzanites – a stunning gemstone which is found only here, in Tanzania. The ‘tanzanite legend’ has it that they were discovered by a Maasai who spotted the raw blue gem in the ground near Kilimanjaro only 40 years ago. Their unique, often very intense, colour range is certainly part of what makes them special, but the fact that the foothills of Kilimanjaro are the only place they can be found and it is believed there is only as much as 20 years of mining left has lead to them being referred to as ‘the generation stone’, a stone no one from the next generation will be able to buy, they will have to inherit one. They are 1,000 times rarer than diamonds (though thankfully not as expensive, for now).
Not only did I look (and buy!) I also had a chance to photograph the stones. A learning opportunity that allowed me to try out some new photo techniques and mess around with the new lens my brother bought me for Christmas. All very pleasant, as you can imagine.
But it was this morning when I noticed another type of stone that I really started to think. Mwanza is known as ‘Rock City’ due to the fact that much of it is littered with giant, often very attractive, boulders. In fact an especially famous one is Bismark Rock, which is bizarrely balanced at the edge of the Lake. Anyway, mostly we rather like these rocks, but it had never really occurred to me how inconvenient they are when it comes to wanting to build.
Just meters from our house on Capri Point (a sort of hill which many of us refer to as ‘the mountain’) a site is currently being prepared for foundations to go in. For months men have been there heating and cracking the giant boulders in half, and half again, and again, until they are small enough to lift and move. It’s a process that has moved so slowly I have barely noticed each step, only the incredible end result.
And now, at the periphery of the building site, women and young men sit with piles of rocks arranged according to size and they spend their entire day in the boiling sun breaking each in half and building a new pile, repeating their action again and again until they eventually have quite literally made gravel.
The stones I worked (played) with this week and the ones they work with every week struck me as wildly world’s apart: in value, in the level of work, in their reflection of wealth. And yet the stones they were working with will be turned into building materials and crafted into something lasting, I might wear mine around my neck.
There are always several sides to every story over here and the issues of destruction and the natural geography of the land requiring the support of these boulders in order not to slide into the Lake is also being raised as a concern by some, just as the debate regarding mining in this very mineral-rich country rages on. But I only saw a simple comparison – my life and theirs.
So much of ex-pat life is about these stark contrasts that we develop coping mechanisms and filter them. After so many years I have got used to standing in the local market bargaining in Swahili and knowing I can’t get mushrooms one week and then standing in a queue in Tesco’s, surrounded by imports from all over the world the next. That’s life. Those contrasts are almost too obvious these days. It was this subtle one that made me look again this week.