High quality ruby is being mined in the province of Rukwa , in the southern highlands of Tanzania , according to local sources. Miners in the region are calling the material Burma ruby or “pigeon blood” ruby, a reference to the most desirable colors on the market today.
It’s very high quality ruby, said Gedion Kasege, head of the government’s Southern Highlands Zone Mineral Office in Mpanda, Rukwa. Most of the material is being found in Naende, near the village of Chala , approximately 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of Sumbawanga, the capital of Rukwa.
He explained that the area hasn’t been officially surveyed to determine the potential of the deposit due to a lack of equipment and funds. Estimating based on what has already been mined, however, the area is quite large. According to descriptions from local miners, the Naende mining area alone could be 10 square kilometers (3.9 square miles).
Naende is producing good material, but the Ministry of Energy and Minerals does not endorse calling it “Burma” ruby, Kasege cautioned, “The names ‘ Burma ‘ ruby or ‘pigeon blood’ ruby, as used by miners here in Rukwa, are not officially recognized by the mineral experts from the government. But the ruby found in Chala is commendable and unique when compared with what is mined in other parts of Tanzania , like Matombo in Morogoro and the Tanga region,” he stated. Discovery of the deposit has been credited to a local small scale miner named Nswila Samson Kalimoja.
“It was some time in early April 2002, 1 don’t exactly remember the date,” recalls Kalimoja. “I was mining in search of zircon in Naende, near Chala in the Nkasi district. Suddenly I found two pieces of a gemstone which I didn’t know. So I decided to send those two pieces to one Rwandan person believed to have experience with gemstones.”
The Rwandan took a half gram to Nairobi , Kenya , where an Indian dealer identified it as ruby and bought the sample for US$350 and a set of tires. Pleased with the quality, he asked to see more.
“The Indian businessman wanted large quantities as soon as possible,” said Kalimoja. But through a series of mishaps he lost touch with the dealer, and without the money to invest in mining equipment, he had no way to produce more in large volumes.
The name “Burma” ruby became very familiar to the miners in the Chala area and among gem dealers in Sumbawanga after June of last year. As more and more miners joined the hunt, Kalimoja set out to find more.
“After the good news from the Nairobi gemstone dealer that the ruby was ‘Burma’ ruby, I decided to utilize the US$350 from the sample sale to search for more areas around the Lyamba la Mfipa ranges [in the Mbizi Mountains], stretching through all the three districts of Rukwa region,” including Sumbawanga, Nkasi, and Mpanda.
“From June 2002 to January 2003, my effort was repaid by God,” he said. “In June, I got pigeon blood[ color] cabochons in Kisumba, about five kilometers [three miles] from the Naende mines in Chala. Then followed Kantawa village, about 25 kilometers [16 miles] from Chala, and the village of Katuka . There I saw children playing with pieces of this pigeon blood ruby, so I established a local mine there and at Lyapoma respectively. All these villages where I found ‘Burma’ ruby are located in the gemstone rich Nkasi district.”
He believes that the ruby will be found over a very large area. “We small [ scale] miners estimate ‘Burma’ ruby deposits in Chala to be found in an area of about 20 square kilometers [eight square miles]. But this estimate is not an official or scientific one. A survey is needed by the government or investors with enough capital to establish the real amount of the deposit and the depth to find it underground,” Kalimoja noted.
Attracting outside attention has not proved easy. Rukwa is on the opposite side of the country from Dar es Salaam , the capital of Tanzania ; the distance from there to Sumbawanga is about 1,500 kilometers (930 miles), and Chala is 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Sumbawanga. From Chala, visitors need to walk about eight kilometers (five miles) to the Naende mines, crossing three rivers.
Rukwa is the second largest province in Tanzania , with an area of about 75,250 square kilometers (27,900 square miles). It’s also among Tanzania’s most forgotten regions in terms of development. The transportation infrastructure is poor throughout the region most roads are seasonal, and none are paved with few reliable trains or buses. Communication is also a problem: There is virtually no telephone or Internet access, which combined with the difficulties of transportation makes the region isolated even from the rest of Tanzania.
Ironically, however, Sumbawanga has some of the most reliable electricity service in the country. Chala gets its electricity from a river in the Chala mountains via hydroelectric facilities owned by the Roman Catholic Church.
Despite Chala’s remoteness, the Naende mines have attracted many small scale miners from all over the region and other parts of Tanzania , including Mererani, Mbeya, Morogoro, Dar es Salaam , Mwanza, and even Zambia, Rukwa’s neighbor to the south. To date, there has been no large scale mining, but hundreds of local miners are now seen digging with spades, hoes, and the like. Just a few feet under the surface they are able to get cabochonquality, semi gem quality, and sometimes fine color rubies, said Kalimoja. Many of the mines in Naende have reached 10 meters (six feet) in depth. They cannot go deeper due to a lack of modern equipment to break hard rock and pump out water.
“It’s characteristic of ruby to be found together with blue sapphire. So the discovery of this ruby went together with the discovery of blue sapphire in the same mine,” explained Kalimoja. Although he wasn’t sure how much blue sapphire was being produced, he said it was also being found in mines across the Nkasi district. He showed Colored Stone other places where he had found good quality ruby. “At Kantawa, one can see how villagers mine ‘Burma’ ruby just in an alluvial sand,” Kalimoja said.
Bilali Rashid Mustafa, secretary of the Rukwa Regional Mining Association, said that the mines scattered throughout the area provide employment to about 250 youth, elderly people, and women from Sumbawanga, Nkasi, Mpanda, and Tanzania at large.
According to mineral observers in Sumbawanga, if there was more investment in mining, the industry could employ more than 1,000 people. In Chala, there are more than 10 mines owned and operated by small scale mining companies, including Mwinzaje Mining Co. Ltd., Kalimoja’s company.
In order to develop the mines, local miners need financial backing to buy better equipment and provide for the daily necessities. In other mining regions of Tanzania , that financing is provided by professional gem dealers, who then get the mine’s production, or at least first pick of the goods.
Small scale miners in Rukwa lack a market for their gemstones, so local illegal dealers buy them at “throwaway” prices, lamented Albert Alfred Chelelo, a longtime gem miner based in Surnbawanga. He said that the prices are not fixed but negotiable, and accused dealers of purposely undervaluing the stones to increase their own profit. Other miners in Sumbawanga echoed Chelelo’s complaint, saying that unlicensed gem dealers generally come from Arusha, Mbeya , Zambia , and Dar es Salaam and buy gems for US$10 to $20 per lot without regard for quantity or quality.
Outgoing Rukwa Regional Commissioner Jaka Mwambi emphasized that the Rukwa ruby miners’ main obstacles to development include lack of a reliable market, modem mining equipment, training, transport, lapidary facilities, and capital and investors to operate joint venture gem mining with the local miners.
“Miners in Rukwa are calling upon foreign investors to come to Sumbawanga, Rukwa, to establish jointventure ruby mining businesses,” he said.
As word of the find gets out, those miners may find new dealers beating a path to their door. In the meantime, existence remains hand to mouth in this undiscovered gem country.