It has been a number of years since I spent three months in Nairobi
consulting to a client who was breaking into the gemstone market
there. Nonetheless I will give you some tips which may prove to be
useful. Nairobi is a major center for commerce in East African gems.
By the same token, that commerce is devious and nefarious and should
be approached with a certain amount of caution, Very little of that
commerce is open and visible.
Traditionally the Thorn Tree Cafe at the entrance to an old hotel
was the principal meeting place of dealers in stones. As I recall it
was located on Kimathi street in the center of town. That same
street has many dealers located in offices in high rise buildings
throughout the area. Some of them deal only in rough and others deal
in cut stones.
My contact there was a man by the name of Mwange ( wahng ee ). He
was a former school teaxher and he speaks good English. He was a
front man for Mumba who was a big dealer in rough. Mwange is a very
honest guy, but Mumba is a hard driving very shrewd guy who will
usually get the best of you. On the other hand, Mumba is so well
connected that if you want something that is otherwise hard to get
he will have it or know where to get it.
Down near the central market building there is an American dealer
who might also be helpful…seems to me his name was David Epstein.
His sign is out on the sidewalk.
The central market is a good place to get beads and other
handcrafted articles.One dealer in particular dealt in antique
artifacts and had a marvelous selectio n of items that are no longer
generally available. Most of the stuff in other booths is pure
"airport art" …cheap crap that is mass produced in factories using
labor that is paid next to nothing.
Downtown Nairobi is a dangerous place and one should never venture
out at night. Never wear any kind of jewelry and never make eye
contact with anybody on the street.
If you really want adventure you might consider traveling to Namanga
on the border with Tanzania. This grubby little Maasai village is a
center for goods smuggled out of Tanzania. It also has a pretty good
selection of stuff from Kenyan mines nearby. There is a large
cafe/bar behind a gas station in the center of town where the
dealers congregate. ( As I recall I think it was called “The Meeting
This town was very picturesque…most of the businesses there
operated out of shipping containers and cardboard boxes with
grandiose signs such as “The Grand Hotel” or “Best Butchers” I
stayed at a so called Motel and Resort, but it was a sad place with
cold showers and grimey mosquito nets over the beds ( They stank so
bad that I risked yellow fever and malaria by not using them ) Their
restaurant served up plat du jour type fare which seemed to me to be
road kill…yuk ! I was awakened one morning by a towering Masai
warrior who held out a bag full of rhodolite rough. I asked him how
much and he uttered a ridiculously cheap price. Being somewhat
apprehensive I gave him the asking price whereupon he broke into a
childlike grin and danced away uttering gibberish and laughter !
During the many times I have been to Africa this was my best
adventure. Do be careful…
Ron Mills at Mills Gem Co. Los Osos, Ca