Diamond mining in Koidu Sierra Leone by Katrina MansonHead for the mining town of Koidu to see the hard graft that goes into hunting down the mythical big find © Katrina Manson 

The centre of Sierra Leone’s gold-mining industry, Koidu has lured in many a traveller with its promise of riches.

Like gold-rush America, Sierra Leone’s diamond-mining capital can feel just as madly exciting, and just as desolate. Known as the Wild East, it has lured in many with the promise of riches, and yet the techniques employed are not much changed in 70 years. Next to pitifully scarred roads – a cruelly ironic reminder that mining rarely makes communities rich – men, and children, still scrabble around in pools of muddy, golden water with enormous pancake-like sieves, trawling the depths for a speck of something special. They can go months without finding anything.

Horribly pillaged during the war, Kono district became its shifting frontline, as factions and, later, UN troops vied for control of the lucrative diamond fields fuelling the violence. People dug up their roads, their gardens, even their floors in the hope of bagging a gem. Dusty and empty, the town feels eerily quiet on some days, exuberant on others. A babble of languages and nationalities – Australian, Russian, South African, Indian, Chinese, Israeli, Bulgarian, Korean – throng the late-night drinking dens to swap tales of success or despair, or lose themselves to the charms of the beer and local girls. The local Kono people (of the same name as the district) long ago lost their own control over the land – ethnicities from all parts of the country park themselves in Koidu in the hope of a bright spark. That gives the town some edge, particularly when politicians come touting for votes – it’s one of the few potential tinderboxes in the country.

There’s little shine to the town itself, however. It might be sitting on top of a big foreign-currency earner, but it’s a hardscrabble and hard-edged kind of place, with few obvious charms, though if nothing else, the roads are looking much better these days. Coffee and cocoa are regularly dried out in their tons on the roadsides during the dry season, and the weather is positively sweater-worthy from December to February, with chilly nights continuing well into the morning, even after the sun is up.

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