Congo’s Graveyard Gems

Asked what he hopes to do in life, the Congolese youngster doesn't hesitate. "I'm going to be a medical doctor," declares Kamwala Bijicka, 13. He's interrupted by a tug on the rope he's holding. His 15-year-old brother, Marcel, is signaling from the bottom of the 40-foot hole in the ground: the next load is ready to go. Kamwala and his other brother, Kalombo, 14, begin hoisting yet another 50-pound sack of earth and rocks to the surface. The boys would be in school, but they can't go back until their fees are paid. For now they're hauling bag after 50-pound bag of dirt out of the pit. Their mother, Marie, meticulously screens every sackful in hope of discovering a few tiny diamonds. With luck, she'll find enough to buy food for the family. They haven't had a meal for a couple of days. They wish for a stone big enough to give them a real future. "I want to become a doctor because there are so many people suffering, and I'd like to help them," Kamwala says.

His dreams, along with those of Congo's 63 million other inhabitants, depend largely on whether the country's civil war has finally ended with the United Nations-sponsored presidential election on Oct. 29. The merciless fighting killed an estimated 4 million people and practically destroyed every chance of economic development in a nation that could be among the richest in Africa. Congo has rich deposits of not only diamonds but of everything from uranium and gold to cobalt and tin—not to mention coltan, a crucial mineral in manufacturing cell phones. "They say every element in the periodic table is here," says Jean Tobie Okala, a spokesman for the U.N. mission to the Congo. "Illegals are doing a good job of getting the stuff out of here one way or another." Such a good job, in fact, that neighboring Uganda, which has no gold of its own, has become a major exporter of it, and Rwanda, with no coltan deposits, has markets in the capital where the rare substance is bought and sold.

Desperation brought millions of people to the diamond fields of Mbuji Mayi. Most have found nothing but the same grinding poverty that afflicts Kamwala and his family. The city was built around Congo's richest gem deposits, in the remote Kasai Oriental region, but it's one of the poorest parts of a desperately poor country. With a population conservatively estimated at 3.3 million (the mayor claims it's 4.3 million), Mbuji Mayi may well be the largest city on earth without running water or citywide electricity. The country's only major mining company, Société Miniere de Bakwanga (MIBA), state-run but 20 percent privately owned, holds concessions to huge tracts of diamond-rich land around the city. Even so, Congolese authorities have been unable to stop hordes of wildcat miners from digging for diamonds by hand.

They barely survive. Every month, MIBA produces between $6 million and $8 million worth of diamonds; the individual miners collectively produce some $30 million worth. But these days the place has far more inhabitants than carats. Some miners work on public lands with quasi-legal claims; others sneak onto MIBA's concessions—or even into the company's active mining areas—to grab what they can. The haul is mostly industrial diamonds, each only a fraction of a carat. A one-carat stone is a major find, but even then, the local diamond brokers pay as little as $10 or $20 a carat. Most miners are lucky to take home a dollar a day.

On an average day, Mrs. Bijicka says, she and her three sons dig up roughly 700 Congolese francs—about $5—from their pit at the Matempu mine, five miles outside Mbuji Mayi. Out of those earnings they have to buy protection from local extortionists and pay for water to run through the mesh while screening for gems. The family's dig is typical of the many claims dotted around the Matempu mine: a hand-dug vertical shaft in the red clay. Everyone's clothes end up stained orange from the soil. One of the boys climbs down to fill the sacks, while the other boys haul them up. It's dangerous work; lacking reinforcement, the shafts often collapse. At Matempu alone, where several hundred such shafts are working, an average of 10 to 15 people a month die in such accidents, according to Pierre Karela, secretary of the local miners' association. "It's a game of chance," he says. "The Congo is a rich land where the people live by working and suffering. No roads or hospitals, no infrastructure, nothing."

Mbuji Mayi is a desperate place even by Congolese standards. The city was built 30 years ago as a company town, with housing for 6,000 MIBA employees and their families—some 30,000 people in all—along with medical, school and sports facilities. But as the population exploded into the millions, the city's infrastructure scarcely grew at all. "The moment you land in Mbuji Mayi," says Mike Mutombo, a MIBA director, "you realize you're in a village, one without electric light." The mayor, Marcel Kinlgwa wants the company to put more money into development. The city has so few paved roads that large areas turn impassable whenever it rains, and erosion threatens to wash away entire neighborhoods. "We have 4.3 million inhabitants and 85 percent unemployment," says Mayor Kinlgwa.

But MIBA is struggling, too. The company has been unable to meet its payroll for the past six months. (Congo's incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, made an eleventh-hour bid for votes by promising that the central government would pay miners by Election Day.) Most of MIBA's earnings go to prop up Congo's cash-strapped central government in Kinshasa and to pay the company's private shareholders. "Foreign exploitation is the reason for all our problems," the mayor complains. It's a perpetual refrain in the Congo, even as everyone bemoans the almost total lack of foreign investment. To take advantage of Mbuji Mayi's tremendous untapped wealth, MIBA needs to modernize its equipment and methods. Recently the company signed agreements with the South African mining giant De Beers and other investors. Still, nobody is making any big commitments until they see if the killing resumes.

The cruelest thing is that the wildcat miners are only adding to Congo's poverty. The illegal trade deprives the government of desperately needed tax revenues—and discourages anyone from putting cash into more productive mining methods. "Finding a way to solve the problem of millions of artisanal miners is going to be a real challenge for the new government," says a Western diplomat in Kinshasa, speaking off the record, in line with his government's rules. "But they're going to have to do it if they want foreign investment, which they desperately need."

Kamwala, for one, would love to give up mining and go back to school. He especially enjoys French, which he has just started learning; he already can read and write in his native Tshiluba language. "He's a very smart boy," says his mother. She sifts through a pile of red dirt, checking for a big stone. When she finishes that job, she'll use a fine-mesh sieve, looking for tiny ones. "We'll find some diamonds and he can go back to school," she promises. First, though, the family has to buy food. On this day, there hasn't been even a 10th of a carat.