"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


admit that the waters around you have grown

Tuesday night I dropped my phone. With disastrous results. The cables that connect the LCD screen and the speaker to the rest of the phone split in two. It wasn't pretty. The funny part was that the keypad and battery still worked, so I could see, for example, that my message light was flashing, but I had no way whatsoever of retrieving it.

So I had to go to the Sprint store.

I should preface this by saying that I hate going to the Sprint store. In my mind it's in the same category as a car dealership: a place you have to steel yourself before visiting, because no matter what happens, you're in for a long wait, a pushy salesperson, and various attempts to talk you into buying more than you want or need. Plus I had to go to McLean, which is suburbia on steroids. That makes me nervous.

This visit to the Sprint store (stores would be more accurate) exceeded my expectations on those counts. After two hours, I finally had a shiny new phone with lots of features I don't need, but it was on sale, has a lot of memory, and has good battery life. Etc., etc. Then the attempt to get my contacts from my old phone and onto my new phone began. Seems there was an issue with the technician at the McLean store, but the one at the Reston store could handle it - "Are you familiar with Reston, m'am?"

No. No I'm not familiar with Reston. Reston is even more of a suburb than McLean. And I had to get on the toll road. But after four hours, the nice technician at the Reston store managed to save all my numbers onto my new phone, so it was worth it. I guess.


I didn't want a new cell phone, especially one with an LCD screen. There wasn't much choice on that count - every single phone in the store had one. To be honest, I didn't really need a new phone. Okay, maybe I did. My old one was pretty much beyond repair, and it was going to cost a lot to get it fixed.

But I didn't want to need one. See, as wonderful as it's been to be back home, and as much fun as summer in Washington has been, I've been missing Congo lately. Thinking a lot about it, and about my friends there, and about the things I saw. People ask about it all the time, and I'm finding it really hard to put my experiences there into words. How do you talk about suffering? How do you talk about the world ignoring death on the scale of the Holocaust? How do you explain it such that your friends won't feel useless guilt, but will believe that they can take action?

I don't know. What I do know is that the pretty LCD screen on my new phone contains a mineral ore called coltan. And I know that Congolese men and boys spend their lives in dirty streams trying to make meager wages by mining coltan. It's not very hard to mine coltan, in the sense that you don't need heavy equipment. It's more like panning for gold, which is terrible work for minimal wages. You can read about it here. It gets sold to middlemen, who sell it to businessmen, who smuggle or transfer it over borders and onto planes. If it's anything like the diamond market, those planes go to Dubai and Hong Kong, where that coltan finds its way into the supply chain, into LCD screens.

Congolese coltan is not supposed to be used by the major electronics manufacturers. Despite the fact that 80% of the world's reserves are found in the eastern Congo, they claim that they primarily use Australian coltan.

I don't buy it. I'm sure they try, but there's no way to tell where a mineral came from, especially when it makes it to a shady city full of shipping containers. All that Congolese coltan is going somewhere. A lot of it goes to Rwanda, where coltan is a major product, despite the fact that there are no coltan mines in the country. There has to be a market for central African coltan; otherwise no one would bother.

And that's why I'm so ill-at-ease. Like it or not, something I deem a necessity connects me to child miners in the Congo.

I don't know what the right answer to this problem is. The system we have that says that you need the latest and best of everything, and that stops making the products that aren't, it's troubling sometimes. It is both product and cause of prosperity. The whole system depends on the creation of new wants and needs, on products that are designed to not last too long.

The system also gives people jobs and gives us a strong economy. Would it be better if we all stopped buying products with coltan in them? That would cause the wages of coltan miners to plummet. Do I really want to be responsible for eliminating a poor family's only source of income? Do I want to be responsible for keeping them in poverty with the low wages they currently have no choice but to accept? How would I even begin to tackle a problem this big?

I have a new cell phone today. My friends and family will call this afternoon and I'll see who they are on an LCD screen. I'm blogging on a computer with an LCD screen this morning. I'll take pictures at dinner tonight with a digital camera with an LCD screen. And I hope I won't forget the cost of each one.


Blogger Christopher said...

i saw a nightline about this and had a similar ethical delima; i'm glad that there are others who wonder about such things that so many never blink an eye of consideration over. take care.

Thursday, August 17, 2006 10:18:00 AM


Post a Comment

<< Home