Magazine article The Spectator

Wild Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Wild Life

Article excerpt

Laikipia

A Christmas gift of perfume smelling of chocolate caused my wife Claire to burst into tears. 'I have never received such a lazy present!' she wailed. 'Hang on, ' I reasoned, 'it's popular in Japan. That's what the girl at the shop said.' Claire growled, 'Maybe among schoolgirls!'

Claire is wonderful at Christmas. She begins buying and secretly hoarding presents in July. Every gift is thoughtfully chosen, beautifully wrapped. I am hopeless at giving in return. One year, she nearly brained me with Le Creuset cookware. Kinky lingerie bombed. Neither a Garmin eTrex GPS tracker nor war history books (read only once) did the trick.

I can tell this story because I know Claire will not read it before the 25th, but this year I have not been lazy. Some time ago I stood by the Ituri river in eastern Congo's jungle, near the mines of Kilo-Moto. Along the water's edge, dozens of youths swished muddy water around in aluminium dishes. I crouched to watch one of them more closely.

Occasionally, the boy poked a finger into the bottom of his pan and picked out a flake of glitter - alluvial gold. The flake was deposited into a little plastic bag containing gold dust, the result of many days' toil. I felt its weight in my palm and it gave me a dark and greedy thrill. I immediately decided I must have some.

In Africa, a foreign correspondent often faces temptation, from changing money on the black market to scoring contraband booze on the cheap. After interviewing the Angolan guerrilla Jonas Savimbi, a Guardian hack I know accepted a present of two rough diamonds for the ears of his wife. While dining on Mobutu Sese Seko's riverboat, an FT correspondent slipped the solid-gold cutlery into his pocket and got away with it. In Rwanda I looted President Juvenal Habyarimana's best claret from his captured cellar and drank it on the veranda of his game lodge while watching rebels barbecue his pet chimpanzees.

But smuggling gold dust out of the killing fields of Kilo-Moto was a riskier business than usual. The blood of thousands has drained into the waters of the Ituri. Gold and diamonds have fuelled the war and corrupted many who go there. A short time before my visit, two United Nations peacekeepers had indulged in the illegal gold trade and they ended up dead. …

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