In the Land of a Thousand Hills, Congo Bound

Tuesday, July 6, 2004 | Kigali, Rwanda (map)

Enjoying a Congolese brew (Primus) on my first night in Kigali
It was night when we landed in Kigali. Unlike the crisp white twinkles of European skylines, yellow splashes like flame winked across the city's hillsides. They wavered, small yellow points among flapping foliage, smudged by the dark and muggy air.

Dr. Sussman, his daughter Lisa, and I fetched our bags and trundled out to Edouard's Land Cruiser. I made out the dimly lit "Bienvenue à Kigali" sign as the driver rolled the vehicle slowly out of the airport parking lot, then charged off along the darkened road.

My first images of Rwanda were the stores along the roadside, each glimpsed for a second as our car sped along, each a glowing diorama in the dark night. People entered or exited as storekeepers stood behind counters minding their wares. Jaunted doorways framed the rapid-fire scenes, punctuated by the silhouettes of pedestrians as we sped past. Music and chattering laughter blared
from the vibrant interiors.

We drove onward toward Kigali's center and our destination for the night, the Hôtel des Mille Collines.

* * *

I arrived in Rwanda haphazardly. At the end of my freshman year at Georgetown, I wanted a summer job, internship, or chance to travel back to France, a country I have already visited and grown to love. While I searched in vain in Washington, back in Baltimore my mother discovered an opportunity to accompany a family friend, Dr. Robert Sussman, on a business trip to central Africa. After retiring from his practice in middle age, Dr. Sussman had practiced medical work in a series of fragile countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (the DRC, formerly Zaire). In the late 1990s, he met Edouard Mwangachuchu, a former cattle rancher from the eastern DRC. Edouard and his family had fled to the United States as refugees in mid-1994, when the genocide in neighboring Rwanda spread into eastern Congo.

As the two recounted to me, Edouard's home in the hills of eastern Congo was destroyed and his cattle butchered by marauding génocidaires flooding in from Rwanda, but he still held title to the land. In the late 1990s, a dark sludge called coltan—which was found in large deposits near riverbeds in the region—began skyrocketing in value worldwide. An essential mineral in the manufacture of semi-conductors, coltan boomed as cell phones, laptops, Playstations, and iPods proliferated. Dr. Sussman and Edouard soon formed a partnership, named Mwangachuchu Hizi International (MHI) and began to mine Edouard's land for the mineral, which they soon found in abundance.

This summer, Dr. Sussman's daughter Lisa and I are accompanying him for several weeks on one of his periodic trips to oversee the operation along with Edouard.

Before leaving the US, I read up on the subject of mining in the DRC. Like the majority of the world's mineral-rich countries, Congo shares in the "resource curse"; though the country's precious minerals should be its saving grace, the struggle to control them ends up dragging the country into conflict. Since Rwanda's genocide spilled into Congo in 1994, provoking a complex civil war and humanitarian crisis, coltan and other minerals had become the "blood diamonds" of the region. One harsh UN report, among others to that effect, describes the havoc that mineral wealth is wreaking on the region. In the absence of government oversight (Congo's central government, located 1,000 miles to the west in Kinshasa, barely exercises even a loose control over the region), the presence of militias—supported by Congo's neighbors—and hundreds of thousands of refugees make for a fatal mix.

Before leaving, however, I uncovered a New York Times article from 2001 which, though otherwise critical, included segments of interviews with both Dr. Sussman and Edouard, and praised MHI as a "legitimate business in an illegitimate state." As for Dr. Sussman and Edouard, the article pointed out, "They run a company that even their competitors say treats miners fairly. It supplies shovels and picks to about a thousand men who operate as independent contractors in mines located far from national parks, protected forests and endangered gorillas."

Nonetheless, in the past few weeks, I continued to read up on mining in the region as much as possible, wary of getting myself in over my head. At the same time, cause for yet more caution arose: several weeks ago, the region's historic instability again surfaced, as fighting broke out in Bukavu, just south of our destination of Goma. Edouard tells me that Interahamwe militias, remnants of the vicious génocidaire forces, still roam the outskirts of the city.

Update: For those interested, two more reports—published since my trip—discuss MHI's role in the region: "Digging Deeper: How the DR Congo's Mining Policy is Failing the Country" (2005) and "Blood Minerals in the Kivu Provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo" (2007).

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