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“Diamonds for everyone.” That’s what fifteen-year-old Patson Moyo hears when his family arrives in the Marange diamond fields. Soon Patson is working in the mines along with four friends, pooling their profits for a chance at a better life. Each of them hopes to find a girazi, a priceless stone that could change their circumstances forever. But when the government’s soldiers come to Marange, Patson’s world is shattered.
Set against the backdrop of Zimbabwe’s brutal recent history, Diamond Boy is the story of a young man who succumbs to greed but finds his way out through a transformative journey to South Africa in search of his missing sister, in search of freedom, and in search of himself.
A high-stakes, harrowing adventure in the blood-diamond fields of southern Africa, from the critically acclaimed author of Now Is the Time for Running.
Table of Contents
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MARANGE DIAMOND FIELDS
How did you get here, Patson?
Sometimes the simple questions are the hardest to answer.
My tongue lay like a chisel in my mouth; my eyes leaden. I was swimming from a place of no feeling, moving steadily upward into a world of sensation to the dark, throbbing pain that lived in my leg. My old companion had not left me in this new place, waiting for me as I drifted to the surface, sharpening its teeth.
"Patson, how did you get here?"
Could it be the voice of my baba? I still feel his hand resting on my arm; hear his answer to a question, always far longer than it needed to be. Arguing with my father was futile. He would talk until your head spun with new ideas. Then, just when you were exhausted from the journey of his words, the answer you needed would surface, like a small cut diamond, sparkling with clarity.
The room had too many shades of white. The bed too high off the floor, the sheets starch-stiff, and the pillows too big. But I was grateful for everything, grateful to be alive. I rested my head against the oversized pillow and turned to the window. The enormous flat-topped mountain loomed over the city. A huge cloud rode the faraway cliffs, racing down the gray rock face as if being chased, whipped and driven by an invisible force.
"Where's Jesus?" I mumbled. "Is he here? And Grace? I must look to Grace." I struggled to rise but I was too weak. My head was far heavier than I remembered. My body pressed down into the bed.
"You're safe, Patson."
Can't it be any easier, Baba? Isn't there a shortcut I can take?
You have to tell everything, son. You have to tell it all. The story you tell makes you who you are.
"Shhh. Rest now. We'll speak again later."
Yes, rest now, son. That's the most sensible thing to do in these circumstances. The body needs time to recover. You will be strong again, but first you must rest.
You're right, Baba. You were always right.
Wake up, Patson," Grace whispered into my ear. "The diamond fields are close now. Just over that elephant-head mountain." My eyelids were gently prised open, and my sister's face came into focus. For a brief moment, I saw hints of my mother in her eyes. But then it was all Grace, poking my cheek with her finger, her breath warm and soft on my skin. "You've been sleeping too long, big brother."
My disorientation ended when my head bumped painfully against the window as the driver swerved to avoid one pothole only to hit another. Here in Zimbabwe everyone says that if a man drives a straight line down a road, he must be drunk. Outside, the sun rested above the thorn trees and the air filled with amber dust. I must have been asleep for a couple of hours. I remembered closing my eyes and wishing we had never left home, angry with my father for having no money, hating the Wife for the power she had over him. Even my perky sister's positive nature had irritated me. We had been driving for fourteen hours across the dry plains of Matabeleland, over the Runde and Munyati rivers and through the hills of Masvingo Province, and I longed to get out of this cramped car and go for a heart-pumping run.
My father says that a journey should always change your life in some way. Well, when you have nothing, I suppose a journey promises everything. As long as we arrived at a place better than the one we had left, I would be happy. I had known for some time that my family was heading downhill and something had to change. I could see it in the drawn, worried face of my father as yet another day passed and there was no food in the house. I could hear it in the shrill, hysterical voice of the Wife, who ranted and wept as she hid from the neighbors out of shame. And I could feel it when I hugged my little sister, with her bones now so fragile in my embrace. I knew we were poor but what I couldn't understand was why, after every month that passed, our situation only got worse.
My father leaned over from the front seat and handed me a water bottle. "Grace is right, son. We're almost at Marange."
Before I had a chance to drink, though, the Wife snatched the bottle away. "I'm thirsty," she said. "Joseph, ask the driver how much longer before we get there. My legs are stiff and my back is in a knot. I want to pee. Tell the driver to stop. Tell him to stop right now."
"Yes, Sylvia, but I don't think—"
"I mean it, Joseph. Tell him to stop now."
The driver looked at my father's wife in the rearview mirror and shook his head. "We can't stop here. In another thirty minutes we stop."
"You stop now. Or I mess in your car."
The driver was no match for the Wife. He was about to protest, but my father turned to him and shrugged his shoulders. The driver understood.
"Two minutes. Okay? Just two minutes. It's dangerous here," he warned, checking the road behind him before pulling off the highway. "The police check every car that stops on the side of the road."
The Wife insisted he open the trunk of the car.
"Joseph, I asked you to pack toilet paper," she berated my father, her hands on her hips. "Did you pack it? I should have done the packing myself. I can't trust you to do anything. This bag is a mess."
Because you're not looking, I wanted to say, and you do nothing but complain. Instead, I got out of the car and left them to fuss over the Wife and her toilet.
"I'll help you, Amai. I know where it is."
As always, Grace came to the rescue. My sister seemed to have a built-in early-warning system when it came to the Wife's moods. She would appear, sometimes magically, when the Wife was about to lose her temper, to smooth out an awkward moment or distract her from turning on my father. Somehow Grace was always able to restore the peace. As she did now by pulling out a small bag from the back of the car, quickly finding the toilet paper, handing it to the Wife with a smile. The driver, meanwhile, swore under his breath, anxiously glancing up and down the road, while my father fussed and fretted, doing the Sylvia-dance to keep his wife happy.
Grace's elephant-head mountain was really only a mass of boulders that rose above the distant flat-topped fever trees and towered over the surrounding smaller hills. I imagined myself running to the top to look out over the bush, east to Mozambique, at South Africa to the south, and back toward Bulawayo in the west. Inviting wisps of cool clouds hung below its highest point.
Something moved in the grass on the other side of the road. At first I thought it might be shy impala darting through the bush, but three boys cautiously emerged. They stared straight through me. Had they been there the whole time, watching? Perhaps it was the trick of the fading light, but their legs and arms, and even their faces, appeared to be dusted a light gray. We stared silently at each other, the tarred ribbon of the road between us. Then one of the boys lifted both his hands and slowly moved them together until his index fingers and thumbs met to form a diamond shape in front of his face.
Was he signaling me? I could not read his expression framed by the tight space between his fingers. Did he want me to do something? I shrugged and lifted my arms, not knowing what to say. He nodded abruptly at the space he had shaped with his fingers. Then the boy to his right pulled something out of his pocket. He was offering it to me, as he gently tapped his outstretched palm with two fingers of his other hand. The third boy stepped back a little, glancing furtively around. His eyes seemed to be pleading, as if I was his last hope.
"Where did those boys come from, Patson?" Grace was at my side, her hand slipped into mine.
"I don't know."
"Why are they so gray?"
"I've got no idea." I stepped forward to speak to them.
"No! Get back in the car. Now!" The driver grabbed my arm, pushed me back to the car, shoved me into the backseat, and slammed the door. He scooted Grace back to her seat and shouted at the boys across the road, but they had gone, disappearing into the tall yellow grass.
"Who are they?" I asked as the driver started the car and pulled away in a cloud of dust, gunning down the highway.
"They are mailashas—smugglers—signing their death warrants by sticking their necks out like that. They'll be dead in a week. This road is littered with their bones." He drove fast, straight over the potholes, fleeing this place of gray ghost-boys.
"What did they want from me?"
"Money. Money for diamonds." He lifted his hands from the wheel to make the diamond shape with his thumbs and index fingers pressed together. "Now is the safest time of day for them to sell their stones, when army patrols are blinded by the setting sun."
"But they were just boys," said my father.
The driver nodded. "Gwejana. Children diamond miners trying to sell their stones. They are gambling with their lives by becoming thieves and smugglers."
"I didn't see anything. Why doesn't anyone ever tell me what's going on?" complained Sylvia. "What are you talking about?"
I opened the window and the Wife's words were lost as I leaned out to study the bush flitting past. The orange glow in the sky sank slowly behind the distant hills but I could no longer see the boys. The driver was talking quickly, strangling the steering wheel.
"The closer we get to the mining fields, the purer the stones become and the more we are in danger," he said. "Those mailashas take the diamonds they find and try to sell them outside of their syndicate. They think they can fool the members and take the money for themselves. But there are spies everywhere and if those boys are reported to the syndicate bosses or the police catch them selling diamonds… well, let's just say that I've heard some terrible things."
"My brother, James, says there are diamonds for everyone," said the Wife. "And he runs the best mine in Marange, so he should know. I'm sure you are exaggerating."
"James Banda hates mailashas," muttered the driver, glaring at me in his rearview mirror. "You don't talk to these boys. Ever. You understand?"
Diamonds for everyone. Those were the exact words that had drip-dripped like a leaking tap into my father's ear at breakfast, after school, even late at night when the lights were out and I could hear the Wife's needling voice through the thin walls: "Why must I suffer here with a man who cannot provide for his family? Should I be poor the rest of my life? I could have had any man in my village and all I got was you. A poor, useless teacher. There is money to be made in Marange, Joseph. People all over the country are traveling to the diamond fields to make their fortunes. And we sit here with no money, no food, and no proper job. James says that in Marange there are diamonds for everyone."
I had never met Uncle James, but I knew I wouldn't like him. He was the one who told the Wife, "There is money to be made in Marange and all you have to do is pick it up off the ground. You don't need to stay a poor teacher's wife. If your husband were more of a man, he could become a rich Marange diamond miner."
My father did have a proper job. He was one of the best teachers in Bulawayo and had won the Outstanding Teacher Award at Milton High School for four years running. The Wife claimed it was not a real job because he made no money. That wasn't true either. He did make money. Suitcases full. Millions and millions of Zimbabwean dollars.
It was not his fault that the money was worthless.
I remembered him coming back from the government office, after being promised three months' back pay, and placing a large suitcase on the kitchen table. He opened the case and we all stared at the thick elastic-wrapped bricks of Zim dollars stacked in neat rows.
The Wife glared at the contents of the suitcase. "And what are we supposed to do with all this money? Eat it? Do you want me to make soup from this? What do you think this will buy us, Joseph? Nothing. Do you hear me? Nothing," she shouted, digging her hands into the suitcase and throwing the stacks of money at my father. "This is not worth more than two American dollars. Three months of back pay and they give you this? And you are mad enough to gratefully accept it?"
My father just sat at the table, cleaning his glasses, as Grace built a small house with the bricks of cash. The Wife ranted on about how ashamed she was to beg for food from the neighbors, how she hated wearing two-year-old clothes, how there was hardly enough money for even her cell phone. "I thought that when I married a teacher I would be someone important, but every year we become poorer and poorer and people stare at me and feel sorry for me. I would have done better marrying a beggar." Then, looking at Grace, she added, "That's all your back-pay money is good for, Joseph Moyo—child's play."
"There will come a day when our economy will recover," my father replied. "When Mugabe dies, things will be better. We just have to be patient."
"Patients in a madhouse, you mean," retorted the Wife. "And how are things going to get better when the old man dies? You're still going to be a teacher earning no money, and I'm going to be laughed at as the-girl-who-married-a-poor-simple-teacher."
My father always met every problem with thoughtful composure. He lived in a world of books, and was at peace with the life he had chosen. This inward contentment often infuriated the Wife, who, if she wasn't afraid of the power of his beloved books, would have thrown every single one of them at him. I watched how he gracefully bore his young wife's taunting, and how he smiled at his friends who teased him about who wore the pants in his house. And he never, not once in the three years they were married, ever said anything bad about the Wife to Grace or me. But there was one subject that even his pretty wife knew was sacred, and that was his occupation as a teacher.
"Teaching is not a job, son," he said to me once. "It is a calling. When you are born with a gift, God instructs you to use it carefully. You have been given a gift, too, Patson, and you may not allow it to lie fallow. Even though you don't know what your gift is yet, when you find it, you must nurture it, let it grow inside you, and let it become your life's work."
Sometimes my father sounded like he was reading from the Bible, like it was his way of tuning out his worries and the Wife. He said he loved her but surely no ordinary man could bear the tongue-lashings he endured.
So, without telling any of us, he phoned the inspector of education in the Chiadzwa district outside Marange, and offered his services as a teacher of mathematics and English. Two days later he proudly announced that he had received a fax from Mr. Ngoko, the headmaster of Marange's rural Junction Gate High School, and that there was an opening. And best of all, that he should come at the beginning of the next term.
"And did he say how many trillions of Zim dollars they would pay you at this Junction Gate High School?" the Wife asked scornfully.
"We will sort that out when we get there," my father replied, and quietly retreated to the sanctuary of his desk.
"You might have plenty of brains, Joseph, but you've got no sense," she called after him, and rolled her eyes at us. "You see what I have to deal with?"
I hated the way she turned us into her accomplices. We were expected to agree with her and sometimes it was hard not to. I wished my father would do something to make me proud of him. He might be a good teacher but it counted for nothing in Zimbabwe. If only he would stand up against the Wife and tell her not to shout at him. He always told me not to raise my voice, but rather improve my argument, but the problem was that as much as I was loath to admit it, there was a part of me that agreed with the Wife. My father could be very impractical. Junction Gate High School? What kind of name was that for a school?
"We are going to Marange. You got what you wanted," said my father, opening a book and closing the conversation with the Wife, who merely glared at him and stormed out of the house, slamming the front door.
"Shall I ask her if she wants some tea?" Grace said in the silence that followed the Wife's departure.
"That's a good idea, Grace," said my father, cupping her cheek. "I'm sure she'd appreciate that."
Grace and I exchanged glances as she left: Even when the Wife got her way she still wasn't happy.
"But can there really be enough for everyone?" I asked once I was alone with my father. He looked up from his book, puzzled. "People are going to Marange for the diamonds, Baba. At school, everyone knows someone who has packed up and left for the diamond fields. I read in the paper how the government is inviting people to come. How can there be enough for everyone? It just doesn't seem possible."
Though my father was a slight man with the hands of a piano player, his long straight neck gave the impression of him being taller than he really was. This was useful in the classroom, where he towered over his pupils, particularly those who, in the way of students, thought they could get the better of him. He was the owner of a formidable voice, capable of every nuance required from a teacher. He could bellow instructions across a soccer pitch, but also gently console a disheartened eighth grader.
"Patson, we are not going for the diamonds, son. We are going to start a new life. We are going to be part of Sylvia's family."
"So we're leaving because she doesn't like our family here in Bulawayo? Why do we have to listen to that—"
"Patson, I won't have you speaking badly of Sylvia. Remember, you must always keep your words soft and sweet…"
"Just in case you have to eat them," I said, finishing the old Shona proverb he was fond of quoting. "I know, Baba, but sometimes, well, she irritates me," I said, and immediately regretted how petulant I sounded.
"When your mother died, Patson, I knew I had to find another wife. I had hoped that you would like Sylvia, that she would be a friend to you and a good mother to Grace. But what you have to understand is when you marry your partner, you are also marrying a whole new family. We have to think of the Bandas as our new family, Patson. They will look after us and help us to settle into our new lives in Marange. You will meet your cousin Jamu. He's your own age, and you'll probably be classmates at school. And despite what Sylvia says, I'm not going to Marange to become a diamond miner. I am a teacher. I will always be a teacher, only now at a different school. The change will be good for us all."
I hated the faraway look in my father's eyes when he struggled to explain why we were so poor. This was not the future he had planned for himself when he was a young graduate fresh out of the University of Zimbabwe at Harare, and he was puzzled at how the mundane practicalities of food, money, and rent seemed so unattainable. It was one of those rare moments when my father gave me his complete attention. It was also the perfect opportunity to ask him why, of all the women he could have chosen, why he chose her. Did he truly love her? Didn't he see how she made him less of a man than what I knew him to be? But I let the moment pass.
For a while, there was peace in the house as we packed up our things, selling what would not fit in the trunk of the car Uncle James organized for us. Then, at the end of the term, we said our good-byes to our neighbors, and drove east for fourteen hours toward our new lives.
We sped past a donkey-cart clattering along the side of the road, a sign that read MARANGE 20 KILOMETRES, a burned-out shop advertising Coca-Cola, and an old woman selling pecan nuts from under a grass hut. On the road ahead, soldiers in olive-green fatigues jogged in formation, bearing down on us until the driver had no choice but to pull off the road to avoid plowing through them. They were singing a Chimurenga war song and the beating rhythm from the throats and feet of fifty men filled our car—until it faded away when we returned to the road heading toward the hump I had named Elephant Skull.
I reached for my mobile. There were two messages from Sheena:
How far are u? Running this afternoon. Wish u were here. I hate to do Uggy's Hill alone.
Back from my run. What's up?? How many bars u got!? Wanna Mxit!!
I was disappointed, and a bit relieved that she didn't mention what had happened between us in her bedroom a few days before I left Bulawayo. If she wasn't going to talk about it, then neither would I. I had kissed my best friend, and although a part of me wished I hadn't, another part wanted to kiss her again. I had known Sheena since primary school, and she was my running partner on the Milton High cross-country team. After we kissed, though, it suddenly felt as if we were strangers, embarrassed to be alone with each other. I knew if we could go for a good, long run up Uggy's Hill, we would sort out the huge question mark that hung between us. During the last few days of term Sheena and I had circled each other, making sure that we were never alone and always in the comfort of a crowd. And then term ended and I left without really sorting anything out. My thumbs flew over the keypad but the reception was patchy and the message didn't go through. I groaned. If connectivity in Marange was bad, I would be stranded in off-line oblivion. Sheena would not be happy; she had to know everything.
Around the next bend the driver swore at the sight of a police checkpoint in the middle of the highway.
"Nobody say anything." He slowed down as a policeman stepped out onto the road and stopped us.
"I have my letter of appointment," my father reassured the driver, reaching inside his jacket pocket.
"What use will that be? Let him do the talking, Joseph," the Wife snapped. "He knows what he's doing. Remember what my brother said about the security around Marange? We will be fine if we do what the driver says."
The Wife took out a mirror from her handbag and refreshed her hibiscus-red lipstick. She grinned at herself, dabbed a tissue in the corner of her mouth, and polished her teeth with her finger. The policeman peered into the car, taking in my father in the front seat, Grace sitting in the middle of the backseat, me, and the Wife, who straightened her back, fluttered her eyelashes, and gave him her most radiant smile. The policeman stared longer than needed at the curvy outline of the Wife's breasts, before turning away.
Our driver spoke politely; the policeman officially. My father started cleaning his glasses with his handkerchief—a sure sign that he was worried. The policeman ordered the driver to open the trunk. He turned off the engine and together they walked around to the back of the car.
On the other side of the road, policemen were searching three women whose arms were lifted above their heads while the men ran their hands over their breasts, down their backs, and between their legs. One of the women caught me staring as an officer half her age snapped her bra strap and made a crude joke about where else she might be hiding her jewels. I quickly looked away, embarrassed by her humiliation. All around the checkpoint were the stains of police at work: cigarette butts, empty whisky bottles, bullet casings, and the scorched earth from cooking fires.
The trunk was slammed shut. The policeman walked slowly around the car, to peer one more time at the Wife's breasts.
Then he turned to the driver. "Kill yourself," he said, "before I kill you."
The driver nodded up and down. "Okay, okay. No problem," he said, climbing back into the car. "This is not good, not good at all. We must pay him."
"He's going to kill us?" I asked my father, bewildered at how calmly he had reacted to the policeman's statement.
"It's a code, Patson," he reassured me. "He wants to be bribed but cannot say it out loud. Instead he is asking the driver to make him an offer to let us continue to Marange."
My father's dollars quickly went from his hand to the driver's and disappeared into the policeman's pocket.
Once again we were speeding down the highway. "The police have begun Operation End to Illegal Panning," the driver explained. "There are too many people going to Marange to look for diamonds. They are trying to stop them from coming to this area. We were lucky to find one who could be bribed." He angrily punched a number into his phone, and then spoke so rapidly I couldn't understand anything of what he said.
"This is not good," he muttered again, stuffing the phone into his shirt pocket. "You will have to walk. I can't take you all the way. It's too dangerous."
Suddenly we were off the highway, bumping and jostling along a dirt track heading deep into the bush. The Wife shouted at him to slow down, while my father attempted to find out what the policeman had told him and who he had phoned. Grace squeezed my hand tightly.
"I think there's a problem, and no one wants to talk about it," she said.
"We'll be okay, Grace," I whispered. "I'm sure we're almost there."
Twenty minutes later we stopped beneath an enormous baobab tree, its rootlike branches reaching toward the sky. When I was a child my father told me a story about Father Baobab, the Goddess Mai, and how the moon found its way into the sky, but I couldn't remember the details. Under the enormous baobab's outstretched limbs a group of men sat on their haunches upon mats laid out on the ground.
"Who are those people?" asked my father.
"They are diamond dealers. This is the Baobab Diamond Exchange," the driver replied, stopping the car and shouting a greeting to the men through his open window. Two of the dealers hurriedly rolled up their mats and trotted off into the forest. "Diamond dealers are always nervous of strangers. Wait here." He got out of the car and walked quickly over to the rest of them, talking rapidly and pointing back to us. Whatever he said had no effect, as all but one of them rolled up their mats and disappeared into the forest.
Praise for Diamond Boy: An Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award FinalistAn Amazon.ca Best Books of December 2014 for Children and Teens Selection—VOYA (starred review)* "A compelling novel that brings home the desperate lives of exploited poor, and Diamond Boy will give every civilized reader pause...More than simply a good read,Diamond Boy is a multilayered, teachable novel with a variety of approaches and is highly recommended for middle and high school collections."
- *"[A] riveting tale...Williams draws from real events to bring this harrowing story to life, infusing Patson's narrative with terrifying accuracy. Along the way, the story crosses over with Williams's 2011 novel, Now Is the Time for Running, though readers need not be familiar with that book to be gripped and horrified by the troubles facing Patson and his nation."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "[A] compelling epic...operatic in scope and intensity...A haunting, harrowing tale guaranteed to give "bling" a whole new meaning."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Deft, unflinching prose. Teens will be left haunted by Patson's harsh yet essentially hopeful journey, where greed, despair, luck, and wonder intertwine on the diamond fields of Marange."—SLJ
- "Williams' fast-paced, tension-packed story is filled with cliff-hangers, [and] perils...a satisfying and eminently readable novel."—Booklist
- "Williams's portrayal of middle-class, cell phone-carrying African youth will give readers a different perspective on the modern continent, even as some of its people still cling to the belief in shavi, or luck granted by the ancestors. Patson's shavi is strong, but the diamonds' ability to either transform or destroy a life is something he continues to wrestle with through the very last page."—Horn Book
- "This is a harrowing read, no doubt, ... but Williams ably weaves in moments of kindness and small successes that keep things from feeling completely hopeless. Extensive end material offers historical context for the diamond industry in Africa, land mines, and the connections to the author's earlier work."—The Bulletin
- "Diamond Boy is an important and eye-opening book, told with heart."—Patricia McCormick, author of the National Book Award Finalist Sold
- On Sale
- Apr 5, 2016
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers