Mining the Congo: From the Earth to the moon – by Jennifer Wells (Toronto Star – June 25, 2011)

Jennifer Wells is a feature writer with the Toronto Star, which has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on Canada’s federal and provincial politics as well as shaping public opinion. No stranger to the mining industry, Ms. Wells won the 1999 National Business Book Award for Fever: The Dark Mystery of the Bre-X Gold Rush as well as covering many other major mining stories.

In the first part of the series Mining the Congo, Jennifer Wells recounts a trek through the Congo toward a remote, cratered mountainside where miners toil.

The heat of the day was coming on. Suspended above a smoky fire a meaty gnarl of antelope, the size of a small ham, twisted lazily. A group of women sat nearby, having lowered their heavy panniers, seeking a moment’s respite.

Mari stood in the umbra of the woodland, her sloe eyes, her round face, a funny little knit cap on her head, tatty pants under a blue and yellow floral piece of cloth that she had tied about her waist. Her pannier of cassava leaves lay at her feet.

Those eyes. They seemed to scan in slow motion before Mari swiftly and dismissively swept the back side of one hand across the palm of the other. “You will not make it to Bisie before nightfall,” she said firmly in Swahili, steadying her gaze not upon photographer Lucas Oleniuk, but upon my determinedly un-weary person. “You will have to sleep in the forest.”

As the “forest” was a jungle deep and high in the eastern reaches of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mari’s was not the cheeriest of predictions. The Mai-Mai Cheka, one of more than two dozen armed militia groups that continue to destabilize the Congo’s eastern provinces, had raided the area the day prior. This grim news had fit neatly, if unpleasantly, into the common trope of the Congo as a fearsome place to which a wise person would not want to travel.

We were two hours into what was estimated to be a nine-hour trek. Backing out was not an option. The slog to the infamous Bisie cassiterite deposit was essential to our adventure, the purpose of which was to explore the region’s “conflict minerals,” assessing the extraterritorial reach of American legislation which, intentional or not, has placed a heavy jackboot on the neck of Congolese artisanal miners. These miners eke out what can’t reasonably be called a living by pulling cassiterite, which begets tin, and coltan, which begets tantalum, as well as tungsten and gold, from this wreckage of a country. In the richest of ironies, the Congo possesses vast untapped mineral wealth, which in turn has provided an irresistible lure to armed groups that have wreaked havoc in the region — the raping of women in horrific numbers, the funneling of misbegotten mineral proceeds into rebel arms.

The time had already sped past 10 a.m. There were some certainties. We knew that when the sun sets in the Congo, it sets like a stone, heavy and fast.

We had made an admirable beginning. We had risen in the pre-dawn in the town of Walikale, our movements buoyed by the birdsong of Swahili voices spiriting morning hymns into the dark air.

There was scant reason to stay put in Walikale, a dust-bowl town where the soot filters through the gaps in the clapboard of the village’s dirt-floored resto, weathering the posters that proclaim Forever Love, whatever Forever Love might be, and depositing a gritty film across the luscious photographic image of Jessica Alba. You can buy a litre bottle of Primus beer, the pride of the Congo. Or a Coke, the marque of global enterprise. But bottled water? No.

We had sat in that resto the afternoon prior to departure, killing time, as if waiting for a stagecoach, or the next interesting-traveller-with-a-complicated-background to blow into town. The weight of Congolese anomie made its determined descent, morphing travellers into flotsam from a Graham Greene novel, burnt-out cases from a bygone era.

The Congo can get like that, dystopian and oppressive. There were many uncertainties. A pre-departure briefing with MONUSCO, the United Nations stabilization mission in the DRC, included the dispiriting assertion that Bisie had been abandoned. There were no miners there, the UN major insisted. It would be a lie to say now that our resolve had not been shaken.

The Walikale cast of supporting actors did nothing to dispel the mood. The head of mines for the territory, wearing a pair of flash boots and sitting astride his electric blue motorbike, wanted to know what business had brought us to this place. An army colonel, in the company of a sour-looking sidekick, wanted to know why we had not made a formal appearance before him upon our arrival. Just as suddenly he disappeared into the night, as the local market shut up shop and the merchants packed away the jerry cans of palm oil and the dried snakes, coiled like black dung, for the next day’s commerce.

Under the promise of morning we had gathered our gear — tents, clothing, modest rations, miner’s lamps, two boxes of water ferried in from the provincial capital of Goma. By the time we had driven to the launch point of our expedition — the all-but-invisible village of Biruwe — the hour had sped past 7, and only then did we start arranging for the young porters to assist us on our journey.

With strips of raffia they lashed the water, tents, camera gear and energy bars into elongated backpacks framed with twigs that would be supported by a brace of fabric fit snugly across the forehead.

It was a hopeful sign of imminent departure.

And then it wasn’t.

The porters suddenly vapourized, off to suss out their own meals for the long march, leaving two white folk standing like beacons on the red earth roadway. In a heartbeat we were joined by Kilima Thabu Doris, a local chief grandly outfitted in a black velvet jacket worn to a shine, a black leather fedora and a tie in the pattern of the Congolese flag. When informed of our interest in minerals, he sent a runner to quickly fetch a small stash of coltan, from which comes the magic tantalum powder, used in the electronic circuitry of laptops, cellphones and such. It was as if we had asked to borrow a cup of sugar.

Next came an emissary from the regional security forces who, sure enough, ordered us to appear before them.

This routine was one with which we had become familiar: petty potentates sitting grandly behind rudimentary desks asking who we were and where we were going and taking forever to read our media accreditation and hemming and hawing over earlier signatures placed thereupon and signing and stamping the same — now limp — paper with many flourishes. Upon our arrival in Walikale, the administrative head of the territory had cast an especially doleful stare my way. Turning to our male translator he asked, “How old is she?” The trek to Bisie is arduous and would require great strength. Did we understand?

The authorities in the village of Biruwe had a different point to press: why were we travelling without security, by which they meant armed military from the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo, the FARDC?

We had come so far. So much had gone wrong. We had been bumped from a chopper flight from Kinshasa to the provincial capital of Goma. And dumped by our fixer, who announced he was throwing us over for Ben Affleck, which I imagined meant $200 a day and air con and caused me to think even less of Mr. Affleck as an actor, which took quite some doing.

Why had we not hired security?

“Because,” Lucas replied, “we don’t want to take guns in there.”

Why this turned the trick I cannot say. The gentlemen of Biruwe gave way to the jungle landscape — to the evil, toe-tripping liana vines that lie in wait, to the fantastic buttress roots of the lombi trees, which flare across the forest floor like stiff crinolines dipped in verdigris.

It was not Mari herself who caused us to stop.

A rough “security” gate had been set across the path, manned on this day by the gun-toting personage of 1st Sgt.-Maj. Dimbi Toko Papy, FARDC, kitted out in his camouflage gear, with his green beret and jungle-appropriate white rubber boots.
For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website:–mining-the-congo-from-the-earth-to-the-moon