Adventures in the Congo – Part 2

It’s never easy starting a new blog entry… There’s always the ‘where do I start’ factor, waiting for inspiration to kick in, and it’s even less easy when you gotta wait for a rare alignment of free time and a stable internet connection. On top of which is the none-too-subtle pressure to focus on my rapidly-warming glass of Jack Daniel’s and, in the words of one bloke just now, “put the fuckin’ computer away.”

But like the Congo native I saw today, slashing down a sea of grass his own height with an old machete, I’ll battle on.

To kick off blog entry number two I’m gonna be informative and share a few facts about this distant, obscure place called Kinsevere… shed some light on why it is all these people – Aussies, Safas, Congolese, even a random Polack – live and work here at this remote base in the humid bowels of Africa; the middle of nowhere in the middle of nowhere.

Kinsevere is part of a string of mines that dot the ‘copper belt’ along the border of Zambia and the Congo. The ground here is so fertile with minerals that everywhere you see aqua-coloured rocks that seem to glow like they’ve been coated in glow-in-the-dark paint… This is malachite, a form of raw copper produced by the Earth over millions of years, and the whole reason this massive operation runs day after day, week after week, and will do so for years to come.

Kinsevere’s actually not that big a mine – the pit, though still one hell of a massive hole, is only a fraction in size of the Grand Canyon-esque pit at Century, the Queensland mine I visited a couple of months ago. Then Sepon mine in Laos, MMG’s biggest asset, apparently makes Century look like a kindergarten sandbox.

Big or small though, every mine is still an enormous and complex operation that impacts – positively as well as negatively – on the environment, local community, government and even the national economy… Sepon’s performance, for example, makes a significant blip on the entire GDP of Laos. And a mine isn’t just a hole and some high-tech infrastructure – it’s housing, offices, diner, medical clinic, lifestyle facilities, power station, transport network… and, in the case of Kinsevere, security with machetes and high-powered machine guns.

It requires a lot of manpower and a lot of money. The most expensive part, of course, is the relentless digging and then refining of what’s dug up. When I arrived here I was given an overview of the process that converts the vast mounds of dirt into 99.99%-pure copper… chemistry so staggering in its complexity and cleverness that Walter White himself would be proud to call it his own. The journey from pit to market is an extremely intricate one that takes weeks to complete and involves various acids, centrifuges and finally electric current – the end product being 60kg tan-coloured plates that look pretty unimpressive on the surface but sell for a pretty penny indeed.

I remember joking when I got the job at MMG that I was heading over to the Dark Side. Mining is generally seen as a necessary evil at best and at worst, a blight on the environment and a symbol of the excesses of capitalist exploitation. Certainly coming from a not-for-profit town planning organisation with strong environmental, left-wing values, the joke did not feel entirely like a joke.

And yet, while I can’t speak for the industry as a whole, I’ve been impressed at how seriously MMG takes its corporate social responsibilities. It digs holes in the ground that would make Dale Kerrigan cream his pants, but it also contributes immense sums of money to its local communities around the world, whether it be kickstarting and subsidizing Aboriginal businesses in Queensland, funding science education programs for Innuit children in Canada, partnering with UNICEF to deliver life-saving micronutrients for Lao children, or supporting an orphanage right here in Lubumbashi, DRC. Nor is this just a matter of some drone in Corporate Finance transferring money from our coffers into someone else’s – staff are encouraged to get involved on a personal level whenever they can. As I write this, there’s a big bundle of clothes donated by employees back at Freshwater Place that have travelled the 15,200km with me to Congo and are awaiting delivery at the nearby orphanage, which me and a bunch of expats will be visiting this Sunday to distribute presents for Easter. Earlier this year, I was encouraged to take time out from my usual work to participate in a teleconference with UNICEF on how to promote their micronutrients program, so that it can be rolled out to more countries around the world.

So it’s not just bulldozers and super-profits and the greasy abomination that is Gina Rinehart. At least with the progressive players in the field, there’s rehabilitation and compensation and employment and training and community involvement… not to mention, of course, the dozens of things you use every day made of metal, from cars to cookware to computers.

There’s also, lest we forget, once-in-a-lifetime trips to exotic & faraway destinations… And for a First World office-bot whose biggest challenge is normally a substandard coffee followed by back-to-back meetings, it’s one hell of a perspective-changer.

First and foremost, there’s the mosquitoes. Nothing more than a nuisance in Oz, in Africa these tiny flying syringes kill far more people each year than any other animal – more than half a million – by transmitting a whole smorgasbord of potentially lethal diseases… So it’s no surprise that keeping the little pricks away from human skin is one of the primary concerns of life at Kinsevere. When I was shown my room upon arrival, the first thing I noticed was the ghostly white mosquito net hanging above the bed, and shortly afterwards, the fat green cans of Baygon Multi-Purpose Insect Spray on both the bedside table and bathroom sink. Along the bar where I’m sitting now are two cans of repellent so powerful the shit could seriously double as a crowd-control device.

Along the ceiling, a series of mosquito zappers glow bright blue throughout the day & night. Most impressive is the ‘fogging’ that takes place daily – big utes roaming the camp that sound like freight trains, equipped with what looks like a sawn-off tank turret on the back. This turret blasts out a subtly sweet-smelling, blue-tinted vapour that hangs in the air and informs mosquitoes this is not friendly territory.

A much less insidious but also very real danger is snakes. I’ve been badly wanting to see one, which is half the reason I’ve been going from A to B by foot rather than ute whenever possible, but no cigar just yet. One of the ladies here showed me mobile footage she took of a black mamba last month – a long, shiny black thing, like a hooded land eel, that a couple of trained staff managed to coax into a big thin pipe that, as soon as the bugger’s slithered in, they turn upright so it can’t get out again. I’m assuming they let it back out into the jungle afterwards but given some of the weird-tasting meat I’ve had lately, I wonder.

Mozzies and snakes aside, I still think Australia beats Congo (and probably the whole world) in one area– the Big Fuck-off Spider. All I’ve seen here is the odd Daddy Longlegs in the toilet – no spawn of Shelob around as far as I can tell, though I did see a cockroach two nights ago that must’ve soaked in the same shit that created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Even a fair dinkum Aussie huntsman would have to think twice before tackling a filthy Goliath like that.

So that’s the Congo. Definitely an experience; not somewhere you’d take your missus.

There’s so much more to write, but I’m knackered after what’s been a gruelling schedule of training the last week or so. It’s never easy training people in IT stuff, and it’s even harder when you’re talking blue-collar mine workers for whom computers are both alien and irrelevant. Make them French-speaking Congolese with only a rudimentary command of English, and you are playing the game on fucking Nightmare difficulty… But I’ll save all that for another entry, if I survive the malaria that I most likely received from a mosquito bite late yesterday.

Stay tuned friends – be grateful for your tender meat, reliable hot water and 8-hour workdays coz those things are certainly not tender, reliable or 8 hours long where I’m sitting! Merci beaucoup for reading and til next time, bonsoir.

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