This is one of the most intriguing stories that have popped up in recent times; thanks to BBC Outlook. It’s all about Pili Hussein, a young lady that wanted to make her fortune prospecting for a precious stone that’s said to be a thousand times rarer than diamonds. However, Pili had a great obstacle blocking her ambition: she is a woman. And women weren’t allowed down the mines. But instead of giving up, she came up with a way out – she dressed up and behaved like a man, and was able to fool her ‘fellow’ male miners for almost a decade!
How it all Started
Pili Hussein grew up in a large family in Tanzania. The daughter of a livestock keeper who had many large farms, Pili’s father had six wives and she was one of 38 children. Although she was well looked after, in many ways, she doesn’t look back on her upbringing fondly, and had this to say about her growing up:
“My father treated me like a boy and I was given livestock to take care of – I didn’t like that life at all.”
In addition to this was an unhappier marriage which grew unbearable that at the age of 31, Pili ran away from her abusive husband.
Pili Hussein as a Male Miner
In search of work Pili Husssein 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. Her chances of employment was grossly limited by her illiteracy – she didn’t go to school. And as mentioned earlier, women are not allowed down the mining pits. But she was brave!
“I didn’t go to school, so I didn’t have many options. 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.”
To complete the transformation, she also changed her name.
“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,” Pili said.
In the tight confines of the hot, dirty tunnels – some of which extend hundreds of metres below the ground – Pili worked 10-12 hours a day, digging and sieving, hoping to uncover gemstones in the veins in the graphite rock. According to her, she could go 600m under, into the mine. Pili said she did the mining work even more bravely than some men. And for this reason, no one suspected that she was not a man.
“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. I acted like a gorilla; I could fight, my language was bad, I could carry a big knife like a Maasai [warrior]. Nobody knew I was a woman because everything I was doing I was doing like a man.”
After about a year, Pili struck it rich, uncovering two massive clusters of tanzanite stones – 1000 grams and 800 grams each. With the money that she made, she among so many other things built new homes for her father, mother and twin sister, bought farmlands, more tools, acquired a mining license and began employing miners to work for her. Pili’s bravey actually made her the first Tanzanian female miner.
Pili Hussein’s camouflage was so convincing that it took an extraordinary set of circumstances for her true identity to finally be revealed. A local woman had reported that she’d been raped by some of the miners and Pili was arrested as a suspect.
“When the police came, the men who did the rape said: ‘This is the man who did it,’ and I was taken to the police station,” Pili says.
Under such serious allegation, Pili had no choice but to reveal her secret. She had asked the police to find a woman to physically examine her, to prove that she couldn’t be responsible, after which she was released.
Pili Lives Her True Self – Gets Married
After the rape allegation incident, her fellow miners still found it hard to believe they had been duped for so long.
“They didn’t even believe the police when they said that I was a woman,” she says, “it wasn’t easy for them to accept until 2001 when I got married and I started a family.”
Pili found it very difficult to find a husband since everyone is accustomed to regarding her as a man. But she eventually succeeded. She however revealed that just like other people in the community, it was also difficult for the man who got interested in her and eventually married her to accept her as a woman.
“The question in his mind was always, ‘Is she really a woman?’” she recalls. “It took five years for him to come closer to me.”
Pili Hussein has built a successful career and today owns her own mining company with 70 employees. Three of her employees are women, but they work as cooks not as miners. Pili says that although there are more women in the mining industry than when she started out, even today very few actually work in the mines.
“Some [women] wash the stones, some are brokers, some are cooking,” she says, “but they’re not going down in to the mines, it’s not easy to get women to do what I did.”
Pili’s success has enabled her to pay for the education of more than 30 nieces, nephews and grandchildren. But despite this, she says she wouldn’t encourage her own daughter to follow in her footsteps.
“I’m proud of what I did – it has made me rich, but it was hard for me. I want to make sure that my daughter goes to school, she gets an education and then she is able to run her life in a very different way, far away from what I experienced,” 60-year-old Pili Hussein concluded.