Can We Talk About The Democratic Republic Of Congo?

Former NFL player and current BBC commentator Osi Umenyiora has said that Colin Kaepernick is destined to go down in history alongside Muhammad Ali. Ali transcended boxing, famously refusing to fight in Vietnam, a decision that led to him being stripped of his world title and prohibited for fighting from 1967-1970. His most famous fight in his comeback was The Rumble in the Jungle, held in Kinshasa, Zaire. It was immortalised in the documentary When We Were Kings, which I must have watched over 100 times throughout my youth.

If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you do. It is beautifully shot, making it easy to fall in love with the charisma of Ali, Bundini Brown, Don King, Norman Mailer and many others. But the true star of the documentary is the country of Zaire itself. The children that run alongside Ali, the crowds that chant Ali! Buma ye wherever he goes and the various images sunrises and sunsets makes you believe that Zaire was a country of unparalleled beauty.

Today, Zaire is called the Democratic Republic of Congo and is a country that has known almost continuous conflict since 1960, when Belgium and the US conspired to remove the democratically elected leader, Patrice Lumumba, replacing him with the despot Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu was a classic kleptocrat, using his power to embezzle funds and enrich himself, whilst allowing the infrastructure of the country to fall into disrepair. The military turned on him in 1997 and the country has been involved in the most violent conflict on the planet since. How violent? Over 5 million died between 1998 and 2008; 400,000 children are on the verge of death due to starvation caused by the conflict; there is an outbreak of ebola and UNHCR, The UN refugee agency, spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said last month:

“It is estimated that more than a million people are displaced in North Kivu. This is the highest concentration of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the DRC. An estimated half a million people have been forced from their homes this year alone.

There’s more. Ulrika Blom, the Congo director for the Norwegian Refugee Council said:

“It’s a mega-crisis. The scale of people fleeing violence is off the charts, outpacing Syria, Yemen and Iraq…For the second year running, DR Congo is the country worst affected by conflict displacement in the world. Communities in DR Congo are being double pounded — by brutal conflict and a worsening political crisis.”

There are many reasons for the ongoing conflict: the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most mineral rich countries on the planet. Its cobalt is used on the phone you’re probably reading this on. It is also home to water, copper, diamonds, uranium, coltan and, oil. Why does a country with such an abundance of resources have such problems? As the BBC says:

DR Congo.png

Guardian columnist Owen Jones was more frank:

Congo 2.png

The average person on the streets knows about Syria and Yemen, but the Democratic Republic of Congo is largely forgotten. Stories about it don’t lead the front page of newspapers as those other conflicts do. The lack of stories feels like a tacit admission that people in the “developed” world, people like me, are silently complicit in the suffering of its people. Can I truly care and buy the newest Microsoft product? I really don’t know.

I’m interested in raising awareness and changing the narrative. Living in the north-east of England, I have seen that every place has a story to tell, and that story is often more interesting, richer and fuller than a lazy cliché can convey. One of my close friends used to joke that there are 3 places that no person should visit: Hull, Halifax and hell. Well, I live in Hull and it is a place that has breath-taking beauty and a million fascinating stories to tell. Last year it was the UK City of Culture and the title did much to shine a light on the rich tapestry that the city has to offer.

I look forward, in my own small way, to shining a light on the Democratic Republic of Congo in my blog, which I will be doing soon.

This is only the briefest look at the country. If you want to learn more, consider reading this, a blog written by a friend of mine that worked there for a couple of years, this, the aforementioned article by Jones, or this, which looks at which companies are making the most efforts to ensure the cobalt that they use from the country is ethically sourced.

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