Izzy Henderson, Director of Pearl International, a charity raising awareness of the impact of mineral conflict on communities in D. R. Congo and fundraising to support these communities, visited Rubaya in D. R. Congo this Summer with Comfort International. Rubaya is a town overshadowed by a coltan mine in North Kivu, about a 2 hour drive from Goma. Izzy reports on her experience in Rubaya below:
“The journey north-west from Goma to Rubaya transports you from the overflowing, bustling city streets and the pervasive grey-black landscape of volcanic lava, along the edge of the Virunga forests and through scattered villages into rolling hillsides and green pastures, with roaming cattle and horses and a seemingly idyllic landscape. Yet, this area is steeped in conflict as militia, government forces and investors battle for control of the land, and the valuable minerals within it of coltan, cassiterite, tourmaline and manganese.
The significance of conflict minerals in the region is huge. When I speak with people about DRC, I will often tell them they have a bit of Congo in their pocket. Our smartphones, laptops, electric cars and batteries all rely on tantalum capacitors derived from coltan, 70% of which is mined in DRC. We love our ‘smart’ and ‘green’ technology, but what is the cost and impact beyond what we pay at the checkout?
This was my second visit to Rubaya and, as our vehicle forded the dark brown river, we were once again met by hundreds of adults, youth and excited children who had gathered to meet us on the flood plain. Warm smiles and embraces, exuberant worship and dancing, the wonderful youth choirs, hilarious dramas and the great joy of renewing contact after three long years of absence. And alongside the joy, the harsh reality of poverty: small children with jerry cans almost as tall as them tied on their backs and the tell-tale kwashiorkor bellies.
We met beside the primary school started by Comfort Congo in 2016; it is only a ramshackle wood building of three classrooms, one of which is so small it has no walls on one side and the children learn standing up as there is no room to sit on the floor, but it represents a beacon of hope for the community, who long for their children to be educated and escape the cycle of poverty for a better future. The current school is subject to regular flooding of the river, and we were privileged to visit the land, that the people of Rubaya have already collaborated to secure, for a new school on higher ground, in a green and sheltered valley. Their hope is also ours: that we shall be able to build a permanent and secure school of six classrooms. This will cost in the region of £90,000 – £15,000 for each classroom.
Our last visit of the day was to meet with community leaders to discuss the impact of the coltan mines which scar the hilltops overlooking Rubaya and dominate every aspect of the life of the town. Far from the flinty lava of Goma, Rubaya is like a giant sandcastle: our feet running with sand as we tried to climb the hill. Our hearts broke as we heard of the devastation of countless men losing their lives as they tunnel into the sand; of the destitution of their widows and orphans; of the despair as people are evicted from their homes by mining companies or rebel factions; of those injured and killed in armed conflict; of the violence when workers are killed for others to seize the minerals they have mined; of the old men, women and young children who will carry loads of sand from the mines to the river for washing for 20p per load; of the irreparable environmental damage as agricultural land is overtaken, waste is washed down to the river which now repeatedly floods, and who knows what other damage is caused to the health of the community through toxins and pollution?
Pearl International is a new initiative that was set up in 2021 to raise awareness of the impact of conflict minerals by giving people the opportunity to offset the cost of the minerals in their mobiles and other technology by directly contributing to grassroots education projects like the school Comfort International and Comfort Congo are seeking to build in Rubaya. The community leaders and teachers could not tell us of a single positive impact of the mines on the community and yet we benefit every day from their labour. I will never forget this journey to Rubaya: I know you may not have been able to visit with us, but can I ask you to help us make the difference for these children and young people because, right now, we can?”
On August 27th, 2022, on the day of his 60th birthday, Callum Henderson, the director of Comfort International, will be taking on an epic challenge to raise funds for the much needed new school in Rubaya. As we have seen, there is a desperate need for a way out of poverty and the dangers of working in the mines for the young people of Rubaya. Education is key to this. Callum will be swimming 1 mile, running 10 miles and cycling 100 miles all within 10 hours and including 1000 metres of elevation, to raise funds for this school. Please, if you can, support this exceptional challenge to make a real and tangible difference to the incredible people of Rubaya, today.