DRC: The Church at the bottom of a mine

Despite the extreme poverty of its population, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the main suppliers of rare minerals in the world. The Church is committed to ensuring that miners are treated more fairly.

They live far from the cities, and can only imagine what the ugly grey rocks they extract from the ground are really for. Nonetheless, the men of Nzibira go out in search of them every day in the hillsides of eastern Congo.

Women working for the mine
Women working for the mine

The miners work with primitive tools, small pickaxes and shovels with shaved blades, so that they can use them in the narrow galleries. Their helmet lamps make little light – batteries are expensive – and the tropical humidity is merciless when they are underground. Without metal detectors, they dig by intuition. “You end up knowing where to look, but it’s not an exact science”, one of the veteran miners tells Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) during a recent visit to the country.

When a strike with the pickaxe reveals a nugget a murmur ripples through the galleries. “We’ve found some! We found it”, one can hear, though it is not clear who found it exactly. It takes a lot of practice to learn to navigate a place like this.

“We found a nugget!”

When the now famous “nugget” is brought into the light it doesn’t look very extraordinary. It is a brown, earthy stone, encrusted with some darker material. This is wolfram, a mineral rich in tungsten.

Visit to the miners of coltan, village of Nzibira
Visit to the miners of coltan, village of Nzibira

The mineral is carried in plastic bottles with the tops cut off, and entrusted to the women of the community, the “twangaisas”, which means “the grinders”. Equipped with rocks and hammers, they grind the mineral into a dust and sift it in the bottom of a basin, just like the gold diggers from ages past. Wolfram is very heavy, so it sinks to the bottom of the container, separating from the impurities. Some of the twangaisas are very old, yet they work all day, backs bent, striking and grinding the mineral between rocks.

Everyone in the community works for the mine, from the children to the elderly. Some dig, some separate, in the hope of scraping out a living. Because even though this is an essential metal, for them it is a hard living. The buyers negotiate from a position of strength, overwhelming strength. They turn up when they please, in their large off-road vehicles, and are greeted like messiahs. Many miners literally die of hunger, and the buyers take advantage of their situation to pay low prices.

“Not a cent to spare”

The DRC has a complex economic situation, due to a war which does not respect borders and is marked by political, economic, ethnic and religious interests; inhumane terrorism and a government incapable of bringing the conflict under control. ACN has highlighted the country’s problems several times over the years, and did so again in the recently published Religious Freedom Report, launched by the pontifical foundation last 22 June.

“Many of them don’t have a cent to spare”, explains Mr. Bahati, founder of the Comidea cooperative, which is supported by the local Church. “When the buyer comes, they sell what they have as quickly as possible, so that they and their children can eat.”

The miners are not aware of the value of their work, or of the fact that if they were to organise themselves, they might be able to stand up for their rights. Priests such as Fr Grégoire, who is in charge of the local parish, encourage them to join the cooperative in order to do just that.

Distribution of the communion during the holy mass
Distribution of the communion during the holy mass

The plan is simple enough: to gather all the mineral and sell it to a buyer only when the group decides, and for decent prices. “Those who need money straight away can get an advance on their share when they leave their mineral with the cooperative”, Bahati tells ACN.

Getting organised like this could change the lives of the villagers in this remote region, where there is no such thing as hospitals, schools, or other public services.

ACN is supporting the Diocese of Bukavu, which includes the village of Nzibira, through the construction of churches and housing, as well as training programmes to strengthen the Church’s presence in these areas that have been abandoned and forgotten by the Government.

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