A Tanzanian woman, Pili Hussein wanted to make a fortune mining a stone thousand times rarer than diamonds, but women weren’t allowed down the mines. she dressed as a man and fooled her male colleagues for almost a decade
“My father treated me like a boy and I was given livestock to take care of – I didn’t like that life at all,” she says.
She left her abusive husband at the age of 31 and in search of work, she found herself in the small Tanzanian town of Mererani, in the foothills of Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro – the only place in the world where mining for a rare, violet-blue gemstone called tanzanite takes place.
“Women were not allowed in the mining area, so I entered bravely like a man, like a strong person. You take big trousers, you cut them into shorts and you appear like a man. That’s what I did.”
I acted like a gorilla – I could fight, my language was bad, I could carry a big knife. I was called Uncle Hussein, I didn’t tell anyone my actual name was Pili. Even today if you come to the camp you ask for me by that name, Uncle Hussein.”
In the tight confines of the hot, dirty tunnels – some of which extend hundreds of metres below the ground – Pili would work 10-12 hours a day, digging and sieving, hoping to uncover gemstones in the veins in the graphite rock.
“I could go 600m under, into the mine. I would do this more bravely than many other men. I was very strong and I was able to deliver what men would expect another man could do.”
Pili says that nobody suspected that she was a woman. A year later, she uncovered two massive clusters of tanzanite stones. With the money, she built new homes for her father, mother and twin sister, bought herself more tools, and began employing miners to work for her.
A local woman had reported that she’d been defiled by some of the miners and Pili was arrested as a suspect.
“When the police came, the men who did the r*pe said: ‘This is the man who did it,’ and I was taken to the police station,” Pili says.
She had no choice but to reveal her secret.
Many didn’t believe after the police confirmed until she got married in 2001.