The open-topped white Land Rover pulls up beachside on the outskirts of Port Nolloth, an isolated village on the Diamond Coast of South Africa. The vehicle is filled with four blond men with identical crew cuts, barrel chests and fat faces, all in their mid-30s. They are friends of the former head of security for the local diamond mine, the frighteningly serious man I interviewed earlier today. He organized this ride for me. I climb in back and these men, perhaps because they refuse to be named, quickly lose their individual features, personalities. I will not remember their faces.
The men are dressed in yellow overalls, their hands on steering wheels or brandy bottles or the butts of shotguns. I sit on the flatbed’s metal bench between two of the men. It’s still afternoon, and they’re drunk, driving fast on these forbidden roads owned by the near-omnipotent De Beers mining conglomerate, stirring up the dust. We are mere specks in the middle of the Namaqualand region, 444,000 square kilometers of arid desert that encompasses the western coasts of Namibia and South Africa.
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From 1925 to 2007, the heyday of diamond mining here, resident workers were kept distracted with trucked-in luxuries and social programs. De Beers furnished houses, set up schools for the children and supplied various entertainments—all for the goal of isolating the mining communities it wholly owned. There even existed a shadowy agreement with the operators of orbiting satellites to redact the images of this so-called Forbidden Zone from their recorded files. It was, officially, an erasure from the earth. Then, in 2007, De Beers deemed much of the region “over-mined” and began to downscale, forcing some residents to seek jobs in other parts of South Africa. Only a bare-bones workforce now remains amid a crumbling infrastructure.
This hasn’t stopped mine laborers from taking huge risks to smuggle out diamonds. Most ingeniously, they bring trained carrier pigeons into the mines concealed in lunchboxes, pack diamonds into specially sewn bags attached to the birds’ feet, and set the pigeons into the air, where they fly back to their homes and the laborers’ family members. When over-eager smugglers began affixing too many diamonds to the birds, though, the exhausted pigeons sometimes faltered and landed along scruffy local beaches.
De Beers caught wind of this, and having infiltrated local governments, declared it illegal to raise pigeons in the region. In fact, in 1998, a local lawmaker made it illegal to not shoot a pigeon on sight, should one have the means to do so. Still, many raise pigeons in secret. Those who are caught suffer various consequences—official and unofficial. Sometimes they simply disappear. The disposal of outlawed pigeons, however, is less clandestine.
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The men drink from the bottle and pass it to me, and I sip, and their saliva on the bottleneck tastes vile and bubblegummy. They are playing with their guns, filling chambers. They shout to each other—in English, for my benefit—but I struggle to understand what they’re saying over the truck’s engine and the wind.
One of them says something about a pair of terns that landed on the outskirts of Port Nolloth two years back. The bands around their legs were marked Museum of Zoology: Helsinki, Finland. They had flown off course and were trying to find their way back to their flock. A local bird enthusiast planned to send the bands’ reference numbers to the museum, so it could further record the details of the migration, but the birds were dead by nightfall. Rumor has it that De Beers officials, believing the terns to be potential accomplices to smugglers, put a bounty on their heads.
From the back of the Land Rover, I watch a tall man walk into the desert, carrying a wriggling white puppy by its foreleg. The driver shouts something to him that sounds mean, taunting. The tall man doesn’t turn, keeps walking toward the old Angler’s Club, its roof caved in, now a shelter for those who have nowhere else to sleep. The wind is too loud to tell whether the puppy is making a sound. One of the men points to a helicopter in the distance, talks about how rich poachers rent them to flush herds of gemsbok from Namibia over the border into South Africa, so they can shoot them here, where it’s easier to bribe the authorities.
Soon, in the middle of the dunes, the driver parks the truck, and the men leap out with their guns. Single file, we walk to the beach, the sun reflecting from the ocean turning everything into a silhouette. Lone strands of beach grass angle away from the ocean.
Though not officially sanctioned by De Beers, these small anti-pigeon militias thrive here, kidnapping people’s pets from their coops on nighttime stealth runs, and bringing them here, to this spot on the beach hidden among the labyrinth of dunes. These stolen birds are kept in stacked cages. These men are bored. What with nearly every recreational outlet in the small towns along the Diamond Coast having been shuttered, this is what they do for fun. In one cage, I spot eggs. I think of the all the poor would-be smugglers, waking up to find their pigeons missing.
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Two days ago was the last time I saw Msizi, the 13-year-old diamond miner with whom I’ve been speaking for the past month, who admitted to me that he has been smuggling diamonds with the help of his favorite pigeon, Bartholomew. Though workers pass through an X-ray machine upon entering and leaving the mine, South Africa has made it illegal to over-radiate a person, so the machines light up and whir whether or not they’re conducting an actual X-ray. The worker never knows whether he’s being scanned or given a placebo. I hope that Msizi and his lunchbox received only the dummy scan today.
I can picture him at the local mine: From under his tongue, Msizi picks out the rough diamonds he earlier dug up from the sludge. He packs them into the four little bags he’s fashioned, and binds one to each of Bartholomew’s feet, and one beneath each wing. He looks around. The other miners keep their heads down, their backs bent. If they’ve seen what he’s done, they’re pretending not to notice. It’s never good to call attention to oneself here, to fall under the scrutiny of the guards, some of whom have smuggling agendas themselves. Msizi opens his hands and the pigeon lifts off. He bends to the earth again, resumes his digging.
From the sky, the mine looks like a terrible network, cogs and gears made of boys and men. Below, the sifting crew sifts, and some of them have their own pigeons hiding in their lunchboxes and clothes. Another team takes this sifted rubble and passes it through smaller drumhead-size sieves, separating the pebbles and diamonds from the sludge. I imagine Bartholomew flying over columns of hand-dug gravel that line the edges of the immense open pit, and earth-bridges that connect bank to bank. I hope the bird makes it. I hope he isn’t caught by this militia and brought here.
When one of the men opens the cages, the birds look confused, but not frantic. They bob their heads, but do not fly away. I know that it is in vain that I root for their safe escape. The men put on their shooting hats. Light cigarettes. Call birds as if corner pockets. One of the guys brags about having once shot a rare Eastern bronze-naped pigeon—member of a protected species, sporting a golden hindcollar, amethyst nape and dusky breast—that was clearly the pet of a fancier and not a smuggler. One of the guys passes me a bottle of Castle beer.
The shooting begins, and it’s softer than I anticipated, dampened by the dunes. Some birds are shot right in their cages. Others, startled, descend to the beach and are shot where they land. They are too slow to lift off, too slow to escape. Over the pops, the men posture and cheer. They keep saying something-something-American, something-something-American, performing for what they believe is my benefit. I don’t know. Maybe it is.
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Most of the birds are dead, and some are twitching, their beaks wrestling with the air, but no sound is coming out. I wait impatiently for the men to plant their gun butts and bottles in the sand, walk over to them, and wring their necks. They do, and rinse the blood from their hands in the seafoam.
From the back of the truck, they take jars of beetroot salad, and we eat our snack with our fingers, the tips purpling. One of the men talks about keeping a CB on his nightstand, by which pigeon spotters communicate their reports. Two pigeons slump against a dune, and I swear to God, they turn to each other and make eye contact, before dying.
The men make a beach fire with brush. They bring a pot of seawater to steam and plunge the bird carcasses into it, scalding them to loosen the attachment of feather to skin. I drink more brandy, and they invite me to help with the plucking. As we skewer pigeons onto bamboo spears and roast them like marshmallows, the mist thickens, and every so often, I see a yellow arm reach through it, the hand filthy with pigeon blood and beach grit, offering me another swig. I feel drunk and hungover at the same time.
We flavor the meat with shakes of barbecue spice. We eat without plates and burn our fingers. I spit out not diamonds, but pieces of spent shot. In eating these pigeons, and in thinking that they are delicious, I can’t help but feel a little blasphemous. Maybe I’m eating a retired smuggler. Maybe, as I teethe on the sail-thin meat that once connected rib to rib, my tongue buzzing with paprika, someone’s still waiting for it to come home.
We’re eating rarefied food, pigeon meat being reserved, for centuries in Old England, for the plates of the aristocracy. For hundreds of years, even pigeon feces, all of it within English borders, by legal decree was claimed as property of the crown—a portion devoted to increase the agricultural output; a portion used to fabricate saltpeter, an ingredient essential to the production of gunpowder, the sort of which was responsible for England’s swift colonizing of much of the world. Without the shit of the birds we’re eating, history would be different, South Africa would be different, as would the mining industry and the number of shipwrecks under the surf rolling into this beach. Would the British have been such atrociously effective imperialists, I want to ask these men, without it?
Instead, I say nothing, and the men piss the heat out of the embers. The sun sets and the first stars reveal themselves. Full and a little nauseous, we pile into the truck and rove along the beach. A couple of the men are taking bags of dead pigeons back to their families for supper.
Inexplicably, someone has strung a new barbed wire fence across the beach. It blocks our path. The man in the passenger seat hops out to inspect it. Running along the top of the fence is a string of pink yarn—hundreds of feet long. Someone deliberately twisted it around the barbs. The passenger, curious, begins to unwind it, and pull it toward him. I’m eager to see what’s at the end of the line.
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After 10 minutes of pulling, the passenger comes up with his catch, a crooked crucifix of plastic translucent pipe and hose, cinched with a rubber glove, about the size of a plate and decorated with waxed and curled feathers. Surely, we’ve disturbed some sacred site down the beach. Desecrated some omen or idol.
The silence of the men is unnerving. Then they argue about whether or not to take this weird sculpture with us. I ask if I could photograph the thing, and they look at each other. The driver says, “I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t do that.”
The passenger claims to have a “colored friend” who may know what this thing is. Reluctantly, we bring it onboard. Nobody says a word as we drive into the mist, looking for the path that will get us out of here.
The driver keeps his eyes peeled for the legendary female ghosts said to hitchhike here, causing fatal accidents. Even they avoid us tonight. To restore the sense of festivity that attended the pigeon shoot, the passenger passes around a wallet-size picture of his two pomeranians. When the picture is returned to him, he kisses it.
We come to a shack of sheet metal and burlap. The place is lit with purloined electricity, a jumble of spliced wires beneath the sand. A single bulb flickers inside. A man in blue overalls sits in the dust out front, antagonizing an anthill with a wooden staff that looks like the sort of rod that once urged water from rock. We stop, and this man stands, waves to the passenger. The passenger swings the yarn, landing the talisman between the man’s gumboots. He seizes up, and his hands, as if electrified, pop open, his fingers splayed. His staff falls to the sand. He stares at the thing, and the passenger asks him something in Afrikaans, but the man does not answer.
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I see the shadow of a bird as it passes overhead, and I wonder if it’s Bartholomew. I wonder if Msizi and his pigeon have smuggled diamonds today, and so will be able to afford enough cornmeal to feed himself, his mother and his siblings for weeks. I wonder how long Msizi will be able to get away with this before he is caught.
The man is still fixated on the idol between his feet. The men shift uncomfortably in the Land Rover, whisper the name Tokoloshe, the evil dwarf-like water sprite of Zulu mythology, a harbinger of bad luck and death in the night.
The passenger impotently holds the pink yarn. The driver puffs from an asthma inhaler. As if defibrillated, the man in the blue overalls turns and sprints away into the desert. The passenger cuts the line with a utility knife. The man runs until we can’t see him anymore, his path traced by a cloud of dust. I wonder if he’ll ever return home. The men force their laughter, try to convince me that this is no big deal. There are bits of feather and blood pasted to the toes of our shoes. Through the doorway of the shack, something is cooking on a hot plate. Whatever it is, it is boiling over.
Excerpted from Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa by Matthew Gavin Frank. Used with permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.