During the following four weeks (Feb 2-24 2018) Nick Rahier, a doctoral researcher at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa (IARA) at KU Leuven University (Belgium), will be sharing some reflective notes about his field research in and around Lubumbashi., carried out in the Summer of 2016. Drs Rahier is currently in Nakuru, conducting a second part of his project.This doctoral project is embedded in a larger research project dealing with technology cultures in the DR Congo.
Irradiated fieldwork: exploring Shinkolobwe mine in Katanga (part 1)
The southern province of Katanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo is known for its rich mining culture. Under the rule of Belgian colonial administration, the mining of minerals was brought to industrial levels. The Katanga region provided all kinds of strategic mineral resources (coltan, copper, uranium, diamonds, etc) but it was the mining of uranium that highlighted Katanga’s significant impact on human history. The most famous mine is Shinkolobwe, near the village Kipese, which provided uranium for the US Manhattan Project producing two atomic bombs. In 1960, the year of the DRC’s independence, Belgian colonialists sealed the Shinkolobwe mine and commercial production ceased. Or did it not? Today, illegal mining, smuggling and mafia activities take place in both Lubumbashi and in the various surrounding mining sites. It’s generally known that illegal mining activities are being undertaken by des creuseurs artisanaux, but one of the most contested cases is illegal uranium extraction at Shinkolobwe. Lushois (residents of Lubumbashi) talk about millions of tons that were extracted during the Mobutu era. Since 2003, uranium has been officially classified as a restricted material and Shinkolobwe is being heavily guarded. Since 2004 however, reports of illegal uranium smuggling became a hot topic among intelligence agencies around the world (try the search string Shinkolobwe on Wikileaks) Opinions about the urgency of these reports differ. One of my research participants explained that industrial uranium mining ceased just before Congo’s independence . Consequently, the most uranium enriched ore at Shinkolobwe was buried under a layer of concrete. Shinkolobwe’s contested history fueling the nuclear age frightened the Americans and Belgians. Once they felt they were losing control in the region, they sealed the mineshafts with concrete plugs in an effort to avoid others accessing the precious uranium. To date, the most uranium-rich ore is located underneath groundwater level.It would require heavy and expensive equipment to re-enter those parts of the mine. According to my research participant, artisanal miners extract ore at the surface of the mine where uranium levels are negligible. Illegal extraction is a fact, he added , but the consequences are questionable as extracting amounts of uranium suitable to enrich until dangerous radiation levels are reached, would ask for equipment that cannot stay under the radar of intelligence agencies.
Image by Nick Rahier
When I asked questions about Shinkolobwe, Lushois insisted to be careful with my phrasing. They claimed I would not be the first to disappear if I didn’t keep my nose out of those dangerous ‘businesses’. However, the more I got to know about the topic, the more I was tempted to further explore the uranium stories haunting the Katanga region. One night, I woke up in cold sweat after dreaming about my supervisor and me flying a bomber aircraft transporting an atomic bomb, destination unknown. We were both possessed by a Mami-wata like figure that, according to locals, haunts the flooded mine. Even worse, we were Kamikazes attracted by the easy-to-earn money associated with the illegal uranium business. A creuseur told me the story of ‘friends’ who were asked by a mafia-style middleman to “dig up a certain amount of ore from a certain place” and were given lots of money for this. They were picked up around sunset and given basic protective gear such as a dust mask. According to them, extracting that ore was a kazi rahisi (easy task). But soon after these ‘kamikazes’ celebrated the easy earned money, “force yao imezima” (their strength vanished) until they collapsed and died. I guess his use of the word kamikaze was probably what triggered my rather vivid dream. Some of these miners would protect themselves by drinking local beer before heading off to extract the ore as they believe that burping helps to get rid of the dangerous radioactive particles they swallow during mining activities. Others would ask a local Muganga (traditional healer) for protection. Despite these personal protective measures, stories about miners being so radioactive they interfere with television images or cause lightbulbs to explode, are omnipresent in Lubumbashi.
Image by Nick Rahier
Talking with my friends about going to Shinkolobwe, they jokingly (at least I hope they were joking) asked whether I was crazy or just stupid. One of them, however, was surprisingly interested. Later on, during fieldwork, I found out that he had personal interests in knowing more about uranium mining. Information about these businesses is a precious good that people are willing to pay for. He put me in touch with a “facilitateur”, a person able to arrange the required stamps that would allow me to visit the surroundings of Shinkolobwe without running into trouble. It took me a few days to go through the hierarchical Congolese power structures ranging from the head of the Congolese secret service to the “chef coutumier” (a paramount chief) of the region I was heading to. Once I felt I was sufficiently supported, I left for Likasi, the first stop on my way to the Shinkolobwe region. Not long after getting off the bus, I was asked – by what appeared to be a casual civilian – to identify myself. I ignored his ordering tone of voice and stubbornly walked on without a backward glance. Soon after, I was surrounded by police and the man dressed as a civilian identified himself as an officer of the ANR (Agence National De Renseignement – the Congolese secret service). I showed the collection of stamps I had gathered the previous days and surprisingly enough the officers backed off and kindly wished me a pleasant day. The administrative hassle paid off and my co-researcher and I celebrated with a simba baridi sana (a beer called simba, served very cold).
Image by Nick Rahier