In my last post, I promised to have more to say about Siddharth Kara’s Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives, and in particular about Kara’s reliability as a narrator. This post tries to make good on that promise and set out some markers for further discussion of an issue that comes up repeatedly throughout Cobalt Red — and in all human rights reporting. Highlighting it can, I hope, offer ways to engage critically with Kara’s work and help others do the same.
“Our daily lives are powered by a human and environmental catastrophe in the Congo.”
In Cobalt Red, Siddharth Kara sets out to confront that catastrophe, and to demonstrate that “the ongoing exploitation of the people of the Congo by the rich and powerful invalidates the purported moral foundation of contemporary civilization and drags us back to a time when the people of Africa were valued only by their replacement cost.” This “moral reversion” to the colonial past, he argues, is “itself a form of violence.”
Kara advances that argument in an unapologetically first-person account. Cobalt Red invites readers at every turn to see the conditions in the Copper Belt of the Congo through Kara’s eyes. The book is informed throughout by Kara’s reading of the history and literature of the Congo and colored by his own imagination. How could it be otherwise? Yet the very qualities that make the writing here so compelling, so readable and moving, are those which make it unsettling and disorienting.
At several points, Kara himself has a hard time getting his bearings or coming up with a satisfactory answer to the question put to him by a Congolese man named Josue: “What are you doing here? What are you doing here?…What good will it do?” (Even the Congolese ambassador to the United States tells Kara he does not think a “foreigner” like Kara should be the one to report the Congolese people’s story.) In his attempts to gain access to mining sites, Kara has to invent different answers to Josue’s question; and these cover stories contribute to the sense of uncertainty throughout the book.
To his credit, Kara doesn’t shy from the problem: he foregrounds and tries to make a narrative virtue of it. As a result, the main impression of the Congo one takes away from Cobalt Red is of a world that is often inaccessible, reluctant or afraid to reveal itself to outsiders, only disclosing its harsh and inconvenient truths in moments of frenzy, violence, death, and human suffering.
It’s a difficult storytelling project. It doesn’t help that Kara’s access to the artisanal miners and the artisanal mine sites themselves is checked at every turn, often with the threat of violence, and everything having to do with cobalt mining in the Congo is murky, “opaque and untraceable by design.”
Inevitably, Kara oversteps, imposing on his encounters or filling in where his interlocutors would prefer to remain silent. One striking instance comes about midway through the book, when Kara meets Nikki, a fifteen-year-old mother with a baby strapped to her back as she digs for cobalt in a trench. She works alongside a fourteen-year-old mother named Chance. They rise at dawn, walk thirty minutes from their village to the artisanal mining area, dig, and wash stones together. In a day, they can fill about one raffia sack with cobalt-bearing heterogenite, which will earn them between one and two dollars. Kara counts “at least two hundred children and several hundred adults” digging in the same trench.
Kara starts to interview the two teenage mothers, but Nikki’s daughter is crying and Chance tells him she can’t talk more because she has to get back to work.
Nikki was having no success at consoling her daughter. She tried to feed her, but the infant did not respond. Her cries turned to shrieks. Was she colicky? Had she soiled herself? How did one care for a baby in circumstances such as these, especially when the mother herself was a child? [Kara’s guide] Arthur motioned to me that we should continue down the trench.
Moments later, Kara and Arthur find themselves surrounded by guards, “red-eyed and stinking of liquor” and firing Kalashnikovs into the air. After some back and forth, and an examination of Kara’s phone and documents, a cool-headed Arthur persuades the militia to let them go.
As we exited the artisanal mining area, I caught a glimpse of Nikki one last time. Her daughter had finally calmed down and was sleeping on her back as she dug in the trench. Nikki stared at me blankly, coldly…then with the slightest tremble in her eyes, her expression changed to that of a terrified child. Our eyes locked in recognition. I think we both understood that she was doomed.
Of course, this may not be the moment of mutual understanding Kara makes it out to be. It reads like a re-telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, which would line up with Kara’s depiction of the Congo as “hell on earth,” a “hellscape,” but how much is Kara reading into this moment of “recognition”? What does Nikki’s expression convey? Why the dramatic use of ellipses? How much of this is projection? The last we saw of her, Nikki was tending to her child; Kara didn’t stay with her but followed Arthur down the trench. Nikki might well have drawn other conclusions about Kara’s passing interest in her or his intentions.
Kara makes similar moves elsewhere: at a brothel in Kasulo, Kara sees “a young girl wearing a deep violet dress, with her hair tied in pigtails” who gives off a “childlike radiance”; at a church service in Fungurume, “a child looked at me, his wide eyes alight and comforting.” From this look, Kara “understood at last how the people of the Congo survived their daily torment–they loved God with full and fiery hearts and drew comfort from the promise of salvation.”
At other moments in Cobalt Red, nothing so clear comes of such looks and shared glances. At Tenke Fungurume, “no one smiles,” or at least not in Kara’s presence. At the Shabara mine, after a fight distracts Kara’s official minders, Kara “locked eyes with some of the nearby workers. Some gazed back curiously, others defensively, and some looked right through me as if I were just another chunk of stone in the dirt.” Another teenage mother, fifteen-year-old Elodie, orphaned and forced to turn to prostitution to survive, grows “weary of [Kara’s] presence. I was just another unwelcome burden.”
For Kara, Elodie “was the nullity of the world,” and his meeting with her seems to move him more than any other encounter he has in the Congo. Upon hearing that Elodie has died, he sits beneath a tree to pray and ends up imagining her final moments. He cannot: he can only wonder what she thought and knew and felt, but he ends up imagining Elodie, too, praying “to whichever God might be listening, ‘Please take me home.'”
At times Kara has to leave out important details on purpose, to protect his subjects; at others, it’s unclear why he would. To take just one example: a distraught mother living near the Tenke Fungurume mine asks Kara for help for her child Makano, who was badly injured in a mining accident and is now dying. After agonizing over the risks of giving a source money, Kara admits: “I did what I could to assist Makano as discreetly as possible.” What, exactly, did he do?
The uncertainties that attend so many of the encounters in Cobalt Red are compounded by the fact that most of Kara’s interviews are conducted with the help of “numerous guides and translators” like Arthur, Oliver, and Augustin. How much gets lost in translation is impossible to say. At one point, Kara meets a girl named Aimee, who looks to be about eight or nine, rinsing and stacking stones.
I started to speak with her about her work as a group of women gathered around in a protective formation. I had just about managed to learn that Aimee’s parents were dead and that she lived with an aunt in Kanina when she suddenly began to scream at the top of her lungs. The women shouted angrily at me and moved to console the child. The commotion escalated, and the…soldiers rushed over. My translator tried to calm the situation, but Aimee would not stop screaming. I did not understand what I had done to upset her.
He leaves Lake Golf “amid a storm of protest” that he himself caused. Just a few moments earlier, he has been hearing from other workers about “the men” who buy the heterogenite at Lake Golf, but given “all the talking, shouting, and sloshing going on,” he can’t follow up.
His account of a meeting in Tenke seems to involve a similar lapse of understanding: a man named Kafufu tells Kara he has “something urgent” to show him — a village carpeted in sulfuric acid powder — but it is never clear in Kara’s telling why Kafufu is so insistent that it cannot wait. At yet another moment, Kara’s translator Augustin is “distraught after several days of trying to find the words in English that captured the grief being described in Swahili. He would at time drop his head and sob before attempting to translate what was said.”
There are no ready solutions to the brutalities Kara witnesses in the cobalt mines of the Congo, and there are no easy ways to ensure the reliability and truthfulness of what he, or any human rights researcher, witnesses. Kara seems painfully aware of his own project’s limitations, and he embraces the difficulties of translating the suffering of the Congolese people for readers in the rich world.
In an epilogue, he sets out what he considers a “first step” in surmounting these problems: “advancing the ability of the Congolese people to conduct their own research and safely speak for themselves.” We can believe him when he says that “voices on the ground tell a different, if not antithetical, story to the one told at the top.” Ultimately, we at the top have much more to fear from the truth than those at the bottom.