United Nations soldiers arriving in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo last year after 30 Congolese soldiers were killed in clashes with M23 rebels.

Photo by GLODY MURHABAZI/AFP via Getty Images

In short, I was afraid

Spending two weeks in the Democratic Republic of Congo seemed a good idea up to the moment it didn’t.

Cobalt is a key component in lithium batteries. More than half of the world’s cobalt supply is mined in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Which means there’s a good chance the battery in the phone in your back pocket contains cobalt from ore dug with a pickaxe by a 10-year-old earning $1 a day working in a mine in Congo.

Or the electric car you felt such moral purity buying as your blow against global warming also helped underwrite a system where Chinese metal conglomerates exploit a trouble-ridden African nation.

Opinion bug


I learned this reading “Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives” by Siddharth Kara, in preparation for a two-week visit to Congo next month, guest of the Canadian international advocacy group Journalists for Human Rights. The plan was to go and train journalists there.

They speak French — Kinshasa is the largest French-speaking city in the world with 1 million more residents than the Paris metro area. I took French for a year in 7th grade. Translation would be provided by the former editor of this newspaper, Michael Cooke, who is board chairman of JHR, which also explains how they came to invite me.

We’d go together, visit schools, maybe take in a refugee camp. Some 6 million people have been displaced by violence in Congo.

We’ve talked about this trip for more than a year, and recently, a departure date was set for the end of May, the proper journalistic credential acquired. Last Wednesday, I had a fruitful conversation with JHR’s international program manager. We discussed some of the stories I’m interested in covering. Moved by Kara’s book, I wanted to visit cobalt mines.

But those are in eastern Congo, which the government has closed to journalists because of violence there. No problem. Plenty of other stories. They were working up an itinerary.

The next step was to get my yellow fever shot. Thursday, I visited PassportHealth in Vernon Hills. They spent over an hour explaining the numerous ailments endemic in Congo, and the shots and pills available to most likely combat them.

I opted for the yellow fever — they won’t let you on the plane without it — and typhoid, promising to come back after I’d checked my status on Hepatitis A, B, polio, rabies, tetanus — quite a list. I paid my $525 and left with a bandage on each arm and a prescription for $150 worth of malaria pills.

This was really happening! Hooray! I’m glad, I told myself. Glad glad glad. This is an adventure! I repeated that thought enough that the thought started to feel threadbare, like a toddler’s adored blankie.

No lolling in the cool mire of comfortable Midwestern America for me. I’m Mr. International Journalist, circling the globe to the world’s hot spots for the Chicago Sun-Times — I told my editor, who didn’t object. I’ve held off telling my mother (sorry mom!), the idea being to let her know as close to the time of departure as possible so she wouldn’t worry excessively.

But excessive worry is hereditary, apparently. Once I had those shots, the trip suddenly seemed real in a way it hadn’t before, and I asked myself why I was going. The stated purpose — to train Congolese journalists to better their craft — was actually third in my internal calculus.

First, I wanted to set foot in Africa, to eyeball vistas, like a magnificent volcano, also in the now inaccessible east. Eat interesting food. Tourist stuff.

Second, I wanted to be the sort of person who did things like this. Which made me feel fraudulent, going through the motions of helping while trying to have an adventure on the sly.

Not so far removed from the colonial deceptions of the past. King Leopold II piously denouncing the Arab slave trade while at that same moment creating his own on a far vaster and more cruel scale. Teaching the heathen the value of hard work by cutting off their hands if they didn’t gather enough rubber.

Friday morning I woke up and typed “Visits to Congo” into Google. This message came up: “Reconsider travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo due to crime and civil unrest. Some areas have increased risk ...” Words popped out: terrorism, armed conflict, kidnapping. Don’t go anywhere alone. Avoid national parks. I was flying to Africa to cower in a hotel room for two weeks.

I’d read these warnings before. But they hadn’t resonated as they did now. So I did what the State Department suggested and reconsidered. I span the old mental wheel again. This time the ball settled on: This is a bad idea.

“And in short,” as T.S.Eliot writes, “I was afraid.”

Journalists for Human Rights was kindness itself when I told them. They thanked me. Some people don’t have that realization until they get there, lock themselves in their hotel room and won’t come out.

So fear won this round, Along with, maybe, cynicism.

There is a moment in “Cobalt Red” that already had me questioning the trip. Wondering whether I was investing a lot of time to demonstrate something that I already know is true.

Kara interviews a 69-year-old grandmother in a village in the east. When they’re done, her face hardens, and she asks: “Why have you really come here?”

Kara explains he’s trying to uncover the truth about children working in the mines.

“My grandchildren are there now,” she replies. “Would you rather they starve?”

Kara tells her he believes if only people around the world only knew what is going on in Congo, they might care, might change things.

She looks at him as if he were a fool.

”Every day people die because of the cobalt,” she says. “Describing this will not change anything.”

Is she right? I suspect so. Go back and re-read the opening three paragraphs. Knowing that, what will you do differently? What can you do?

Then again, the world is divided between those who believe they can make a difference — that they must at least try — and the rest of us.

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