Shakara Strayhorn is a normal seventh grader – with one exception. She is deeply troubled by the suffering that is being inflicted on the people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo because of that country’s precious minerals. So, in her own small way, Shakara has decided to do something about it.
The Disciples teenager has begun collecting and recycling cellular telephones in hopes of reducing their demand. Cell phones are among several electronic products that contain coltan, a metallic mineral found in the eastern Congo.
"Coltan is mined by 10,000 men, women and children forced to dig in the mud for long hours," stated Shakara, a member of Light of the World Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Indianapolis. "It is a highly-toxic mineral causing birth defects and is a longtime health risk to the men and women, especially to the young children who are forced to work in the mines at a very young age."
"People are dying every day over coltan," said Eyamba Bokamba, who will attend an upcoming Congo Symposium sponsored by Global Ministries that will take place in Indianapolis May 21 and 22.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to 80 percent of the world’s known reserves of coltan. The mineral is a high conductor of electricity and critical to the circuitry in products such as cell phones, laptops, cameras, game consoles, hearing aids, jet engines, pacemakers and x-ray film.
Bokamba, who was born in the Congo and lived there until age 17, is a professor of linguistics at the University of Illinois. "This is the same old story," he said. The exploitation of the Congo dates back to Belgian dictator King Leopold II, who ran the country as a brutal tyrant and used mercenary force to suppress the Congolese people for personal gain.
The theme of the symposium is "Natural Resource Wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Impact on Women and Children." The featured speakers will be Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, professor of political sciences at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill; Keith Harmon Snow, a war correspondent, photographer and independent investigator based at the University of California Santa Barbara; and Muadi Mukenge, regional director for Sub-Saharan Africa – Global Fund for Women.
The symposium has been organized to educate the ecumenical community about the resource war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of its goals is to provide practical strategies to advocate through religious, governmental and non-governmental organizations. The war is impacting the lives and ministries of the Disciples’ partner church in the Congo, the Community of Disciples of Christ in the Congo, which serves approximately 650,000 members.
Nzongola-Ntalaja is author of The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History and Revolution AND Counter Revolution in Africa: Essays in Contemporary Politics. Snow is known for his investigative work on war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. And Mukenge’s work is focused on issues related to women’s health, sexual violence, human rights, conflict resolution, and foreign policy toward Africa.
Other precious resources found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo include diamonds, tungsten, which is used in light bulb filaments, cobalt, gold, crude oil, coffee and copper. Professor Bokamba said they are fighting over control of these minerals, which Western countries are exploiting with the aid of Rwandan and Ugandan surrogates.
Coltan is processed and converted to capacitors, and then sold to companies such as Nokia, Motorola, Compaq, Alcatel, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lucent, Ericsson and Sony for use in a wide assortment of everyday products ranging from cell phones to computer chips to electronic games.
"They are killing Congolese every day or else Congolese are dying every day by running into the forest to avoid being murdered or being raped on behalf of coltan. It’s a criminal enterprise," said Bokamba.
Meanwhile 13-year-old Shakara keeps collecting cell phones, and has rounded up nearly 50 so far. "Just by doing this it will someday put an end to the rebel war and the people in the Congo would no longer have to work in the coltan mines," she said. "And the Congolese people could live in peace again."
By James Patterson