|Boys working in the mining camp. They wash the raw material in the river to separate metal and dirt. Tents have been set-up along the river where prostitution, alcohol and drugs circulate.|
By Cornelia Walther
KATANGA PROVINCE, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 21 September 2011 – Daniel, 16, has his life back after three years of working in a copper mine located in the southern section of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – one of the worst jobs on earth.
When his father lost his job at Gecamines, a state-owned mining company, life became increasingly difficult for the family. To earn a living, his mother, a trained teacher, moved to a camp next to the Kamatanda mine, near the town of Likasi, and set up a little shop selling biscuits and peanuts. Daniel and his younger brother Christian, were left on their own.
Fear of death
“It was my friends who proposed me to work in the mines to earn some money,” explained Daniel. “At the beginning I was just working at the river, washing the minerals that the others were extracting, but eventually I started to work in the gallery.”
In the mines, youth were assigned different tasks depending on their physical strength. While the older ones extracted the raw minerals underground, the younger ones worked as transporters or washed the extracts in the river.
“It was horrible but well paid,” recalled Daniel. “On a good day I could make 5,000 Congolese Francs (roughly $6), on a bad one 2,000 (around $2).”
The daily grind of working for the company was physically punishing, and disease, accidents and hunger were a normal state of affairs.
|Christian (left) and Daniel (right) managed to exit the destructive mining universe, yet the past has not left them unscarred.|
“Usually we would go down under the ground at 7 am, staying there until the next morning,” said Daniel. “Everybody was taking drugs. It was the only way to fight the fear of death.”
Breaking the cycle
Poverty, lack of education and child labor form a vicious cycle; when parents cannot pay for food and school, the mines appear like a path towards survival and recognition. In turn, youth without education are likely to become parents whose children will be forced to work and so on. The key is to offer a viable alternative.
UNICEF and its partner, the NGO Groupe One, aim to interrupt the destructive chain by creating income generating activities. A pilot project started in 2008, provides the most vulnerable families in mining areas with professional training, basic equipment and economic coaching. Kits composed of clothing, rice, sugar and oil, have already been distributed to a total of 10,000 families.
After selling the commodities, Daniel’s mother had the money to enroll her boys in primary school, with enough left over to start her own business. She decided to purchase a smallholding, and today she has enough pigs to generate income and cover the expenses of her family.
“I am now in the final year at school and among the top three of my class,” said a smiling Daniel. “Next year I will take my exams and start to study at the university.”
Though his future has decidedly brightened, the dark memories of the past still haunt Daniel.
“I can’t forget what I saw, but It will get better, eventually… I think,” he said solemnly.