“May it never end”

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © James H. Smith. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.1.002

“May it never end”

Price wars, networks, and temporality in the “3 Ts” mining trade of the Eastern DR Congo

James H. SMITH, University of California, Davis

In this article, I examine some of the ways in which artisanal mining communities in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo experience digital age capitalism. I show how an extractive economy in tantalum, tin, and tungsten (referred to in NGO circles as the “3 Ts”) shapes experiences and understandings of space, time, and value. Making use of oral narratives and other ethnographic data, I focus on the interconnections among time and price, as well as the war over price in an extractive economy characterized by great temporal uncertainty and rupture.

Keywords: artisanal mining, price and price wars, value, temporality, digital age, Democratic Republic of Congo, infrastructure

This article shows how an extractive economy in tantalum, tin, and tungsten (referred to in NGO circles as the “3 Ts”) shapes experiences and understandings of space, time, and value in the Eastern DR Congo. Using oral narratives and other ethnographic data, I hope to illuminate what kind of world the only partly visible penumbra of an extractive economy makes, while describing some of the imaginative ways that miners and middlemen account for and respond to their situations. I focus on the interconnections among time and price, as well as the war over price in an economy characterized by great temporal uncertainty and rupture. An important aspect of the argument is that Eastern Congolese involved in the artisanal minerals trade grasp capitalism as a socially produced reality rather than an abstract totality, and that this is clear from their apt theorizations about how social networks influence price (bei). Price is a total social fact, and fluctuations in the prices for minerals create and foreclose opportunities, as well as connections with [2]other places and possible futures—indeed, there are places where, when mineral prices drop, cargo planes stop going back and forth, food is no longer imported, and peoples’ very survival is put at risk. Price fluctuations also symbolize the capacity of others to manipulate and control peoples’ lives in the DR Congo. Eastern Congolese try to understand and, if possible, control price so that they can have the predictable social relations and incremental temporality that also make predictable prices somewhat more possible. Those involved in the trade do this, in part, by modeling their interpretations of other people’s powerful social networks. If defunct material infrastructure produces rupture and uncertainty about price, those involved in the trade try to build up their social infrastructure to produce incremental temporality and predictability—making themselves, in the words of one interlocutor discussed below, “better than machines.”1

Coltan, the ore from which tantalum and niobium are derived, has been the main subject of my research, but people who mine and trade coltan never limit themselves to this ore: they move between this and other artisanally mined minerals that are found in similar locations. The so-called 3 Ts share certain properties in common (appearance, weight, density, visibility), are mined in the same way and often even in the same location, pass through the same networks, and require similar permits from diggers (creseurs) and traders (negociants).2 Mines vary greatly in size and are governed by a diversity of often overlapping regulatory and taxation regimes; in contrast, the organization of work at mines, the divisions of labor, and the titles employed to describe these divisions, are remarkably consistent throughout the artisanal mines3 of the region (Nest 2011).4 The mechanics of this trade [3]are not the subject of this article but, briefly, these minerals pass through multiple middlemen via fluctuating geographic routes and networks of state and non-state actors before they make their way to smelters outside Congo and Africa. Much of this product is eventually sold to electronics manufacturers, ending up in many high tech devices.

All of these aforementioned substances are essential to digital devices: tantalum is needed to produce digital capacitors, and tin is used for wiring. Tungsten is found in laptop screens and is used to make cell phones vibrate, among many other things. Global demand for tantalum increased by 24 percent per year during the 1990s, alongside the emergence of the “information age” and so-called knowledge economies; over half of tantalum demand continues to come from electronics companies (Johnson and Tegera 2005; Roskill [2002] 2009, 2012). Not only will our vaunted twenty-first-century digital technologies not work without these minerals, but these minerals’ prices are also strongly influenced by digital cultures. Congolese “3 Ts” are traded on spot markets, so their values fluctuate radically and rapidly: for example, online speculation helped produce the spike in coltan prices in late 2000, when Sony ran out of the tantalum it needed to meet Christmas demand for PlayStation 2 (the time Eastern Congolese know as bisikatike, “may it not be broken” or “may it never end”).

Many Congolese state authorities and people involved in the trade argue that, although they have been the object of armed conflict, these minerals have the capacity to positively rebuild a tentatively “postwar” Congolese society and transform state-society interactions in a way that gold and diamonds can not. This because of their weight and manifest transparency, and the fact that they bring together many different kinds of workers (porters, diggers, transporters, and people who sell goods to miners) who either pay “tax” directly to state figures, purchase permits for their work, or both. And the visibility of these minerals makes them open to official government taxation, whereas gold and diamonds are more easily smuggled. The labor conditions around these mines are often described as more democratic because there are few barriers to this kind of work—except for “strength,” a trait perceived as masculine, underscoring that this work is usually gendered in very clear ways (see also Cuvelier 2011).5 But there are subtle differences among these minerals that make it possible for people with more information, higher up on the “commodity chain,” to trick the people “below” them, those with less information. Though they look very similar, these substances fetch different prices at different times. In the case of coltan, the percentage purity of tantalum varies from site to site and changes over time at a given site. Only middlemen are really aware of what is in demand at any given time and they try to fool diggers about this when they can. And only those higher up in the chain have the machines necessary to determine [4]the purity of coltan (although these machines can also be manipulated). Moreover, the rapid fluctuation in prices, combined with the temporal delays produced by bad or nonexistent infrastructure, leads to a great deal of conflict and confusion about price and value between buyers and sellers on the ground.

The rupture of incremental time and predictable work is central to the experiences of those involved in this extractive economy. Elsewhere I have drawn attention to the process of “temporal dispossession” in Congolese mining areas— or the usurpation, by others, of the ability to produce social relations incrementally (Smith 2011). Within this broad theme, the main focus of this article is on what I describe as a war over price on multiple fronts: many Eastern Congolese experience war as the instrument through which the price for these minerals is determined, and time and price are among the many “resources” through which war is carried out. Transnational networks are experienced as the main mechanism through which outsiders have expropriated Congolese resources and been victorious in the war over time and price, and Congolese try to mobilize their own social networks—along with the “resource” of mobility—to exercise some control over the volatility and insecurity that characterize their lives. Among Eastern Congolese miners and traders, price is not merely a measure of value but also a representation of the viability or nonviability of social networks, and a mechanism for altering space-time in ways that could be positively or negatively transformative for a person, a group of people, or an imagined nation. Price fluctuations are also sources of collective memory and of hope for the future.

This article relates to a larger literature on temporality under neoliberalism (also post-Fordism and the post–Cold War, terms that refer to the same historical moment with different emphases). Most of this work has focused on how, in poststructural adjustment Africa, established ways of getting ahead and getting by were sabotaged, producing a sense of ruptured temporality and reversed or forestalled “development” that has been felt and acted upon in multiple, overlapping registers.6 The West Africanist Jane Guyer has argued that the erasure of incremental time is a global phenomenon: the precarity brought about by neoliberalism has made the “near future” inconceivable, leaving us only with the instantaneous now (“punctuated time”) and the far away future, be it utopic or apocalyptic (Guyer 2007). In a related vein, Daniel Hoffman argues that the “just in time” production of military actors in Sierra Leone responds to post-Fordist economic shifts, which take place at a moment’s notice (Hoffman 2011). James Ferguson’s pioneering work examines how colonial era social investment in African mining underpinned an expectation of the longue duree, and of mining futures now past (Ferguson 1999, 2006). The historic, neoliberal shift from socially and temporally “thick” to socially “thin,” hit-and-run extraction informed a number of other changes related to work and [5]time in Africa, including the concentration of political sovereignty around “mining enclaves” where multiple historical and political repertoires come into play.7 Drawing a connection between the experience of time and the experience of price, the material below builds on these concerns, while also focusing on the work that people do to produce incremental time in the wake of rupture.

I consider narration, and the telling of stories—whether “true” or “false,” or false in ways that point to larger truths—to be part of that effort to shape events, but conspiracy theories are certainly not the only kind of action addressed in this article. Below I elaborate upon four narratives that at first glance appear unrelated, connecting them with reflections regarding their social and historical conditions of possibility. The first is one version of a widely held conspiracy theory about the Second Congolese War (1998–2003), portrayed as a predetermined plan in which price, value, and temporality loom large. Specifically, this story concerns the transformation of Congolese social value and incremental time into volatile price, set by outside players. The second narrative concerns the creation of an alternative world, or what I refer to—building on the descriptions of my Congolese interlocutors—as a “wormhole,” produced by the coltan boom of 2000. The third narrative concerns the imagined international demand for albino skeletons and hangman’s ropes in South Kivu. And the fourth and final case examines one miner’s efforts to become the state and establish meaningful social networks in a small town in Maniema.

Vignette #1: On the benefits of planning ahead

I came to know a rather mysterious person I will call Bush (like many former combatants, he used a pseudonym) while conducting fieldwork near the coltan mine of Numbi, North Kivu when it was under the control of the Congolese army. Whether it was actually the Congolese army was never entirely clear, because the officers were former “enemy” soldiers (adui) who had been absorbed into the army following the “brassage,” and continued to send tribute from the mine to their commanding officers, who were Tutsi.8 Bush was neither Rwandan nor a Congolese “Rwandaphone” but a Shi person who had fought alongside them during the First Congolese War (1996–1997) and was now very close friends with some of the officers (more about these historical events and concepts below). Bush had fought with Laurent-Desire Kabila, current President Joseph Kabila’s father, but found himself [6]demoted from his top position after Laurent’s assassination in 2001. According to Bush, when he was with Laurent Kabila he was lucky to have a chance to read the official “Top Secret documents” that contained the “Hima plan for the future domination of all Africa,” which Kabila’s spies had allegedly stolen from Julius Nyerere, the former Tanzanian president. Bush was stunned to learn that their plan to occupy Congo was bigger and more complex than anyone had ever imagined and that, according to him, “eventually they must win.”

Bush began by introducing the context: beginning in the early 1990s, “the Hima” organized an international, anti-Bantu plot to take over all of Central Africa and its resources. The term Hima confused me, for I knew only two of its uses. One was to refer to an aristocratic pastoralist clan of the Ankole Kingdom in Uganda, and the other was derogatory, used by Burundian Tutsis to refer to low-status Tutsis, some of whom were agriculturalists (Malkki 1995). In either case, I knew the term to refer to a discrete group or groups, and not the international cabal Bush had in mind. Did Bush mean a “Hamite” conspiracy—the terms Belgians gave to Tutsis and others that they imagined to have come from the Middle East, and to have been something other than African? He insisted that these terms referred to the same thing: the conspiracy included all Nilotic people from the North—the entire nations of Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and others, all of whose people traditionally raised cattle. Bush said that Nyerere was the chief originator of this conspiracy, claiming he was a Kikuyu (he wasn’t), an ethnicity that he also claimed to be Nilotic (it isn’t).9

According to Bush, Nyerere had forged his plan for conquest in collaboration with Western powers, which wanted to “eat” Congolese resources. He explained:

In Rwanda, before the genocide, the Tutsis had a plan to kill and bury all the Hutus in holes. Each Tutsi had dug a hole in his backyard to bury the Bantu in, but President Habyarimana [the Rwandan president whose plane was shot down just before the genocide against the Tutsis] found out about it, and that’s why his plane was attacked. Then the people tried to kill the Tutsis with a genocide, in order to protect themselves from the genocide the Tutsis were planning. But after the genocide against the Tutsis in 1994, when the Hutus returned to Rwanda, the Hima realized that guns and force were not enough to rule Central Africa, so they came up with another way. The presidents of each of these Hima countries sent emissaries with AIDS to the Congo on a secret mission to spread the virus, and to silently kill everyone over a course of 10 years. So now, even when the war is over, it continues.

The war continues after it is over and is aimed at destroying women and the communities they produce through marriage and childbirth. Bush explained that the Rwandan-backed Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) and their subsequent offshoot, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), kept “wives” who they never married but whom they purposefully infected with the HIV virus, so that they would go on to infect others. This was followed by what Bush referred to as “economic colonialism”: the Tutsis and Congolese Banyamulenge [7](South Kivu pastoralists that the RCD tried to recruit into their new government) set about making life in rural Congo unlivable, ultimately driving villagers into the city. Bush explained how they imposed a “taxation” regime on rural household income and agricultural produce that was as high as 90 percent of what these families were earning through their labor. The RCD combined this regime with a policy of constant harassment by local military authorities, who came to inspect and carry away household wealth, while lower ranking soldiers raped women. Both of these planned actions—the expropriation of household wealth and the rape of women— Bush figured as forms of “theft” aimed at uprooting people from their lived worlds and making them available for a particularly capricious form of extractive capitalism. Over time, this constant harassment forced people out of the countryside and into Eastern Congolese cities, like Goma and Bukavu.

As more people moved into these cities, they encountered a food shortage because of the high demand for food in the city and the fact that there were now fewer people in the rural areas producing food (rather, they were mining coltan and gold). The food shortage and the density of the urban zones led to generalized price inflation and dependence on imported food, especially from Rwanda. Then, these Hima/Tutsi, who were secretly organized by Nyerere (who was, again, working alongside Western powers, including the United States), developed a massive real estate project, which included a plan to build ten million luxury homes throughout the country. They set the prices for these homes artificially high, so no ordinary person could live in them. They then sent for, and filled these houses with, other Nilotes and some Europeans, all of whom were NGO employees, mostly working for human rights groups.10 As a result of all of this demographic and economic pressure, Eastern Congolese people—both women and the men who pimped them out—turned to prostitution, selling the only thing they still possessed to make ends meet. Even this was part of the original Hima plan, Bush explained, synergizing with the first prong of the plan, to spread HIV/AIDS.

Bush concluded by asserting that the war would only be over when the “Hima” have succeeded completely, and he believed that ultimately they would (for him, the discovered document alone was very strong evidence). When I pushed Bush on this conspiracy and questioned whether it was possible for everyone who was of some Nilotic, or even Rwandan, descent to be aware of the intricacies of this well laid plan, he offered an explanation that sounded to me a lot like science fiction. “Most Hima do not know about the conspiracy, or that they’re part of it. They don’t even have anything against Bantus,” he offered, “But when the leaders find the moment to be right, these people will be directed to act.” In my field notes, I wrote that the social network of Hima were like Battlestar Galactica’s Cylon “skin jobs,” cybernetic beings who have, unbeknownst to themselves, infiltrated human society without yet being “switched on.” Though it is my metaphor, derived from science fiction, it does convey the local recognition of there being a highly ordered and integrated network controlling events in Congo from afar, compelling seemingly [8]disparate monads to become part of a unified transnational force when the time is right.

Bush’s story about the economic conspiracy that drove the war was more detailed than most others I have heard. But nearly universal is the idea that there are powerful international networks mobilized to capture the immeasurable and inscrutable value that everyone knows lies in the Congolese ground. Moreover, it is widely understood that these transnational associations and conspiracies are complex and only barely visible, such they require much thought, investigation, and interpretation to understand. “Who is really behind that militia, and what entity is behind the person behind the militia?” Such are the eminently social questions that people pose in their efforts to understand the ruptures brought about by war and price fluctuations. What seemed to be most meaningful about the above story, for Bush, was the spatial-temporal encompassment entailed in the plan. The entity that is imagined to control Congo’s destiny manages events according to a predetermined design that it is able to realize: the plan’s principal object is the management of price, while the destruction of autochthonous generative social worlds (produced through agriculture, livestock, and women’s re/productive powers, among other practices) is its main strategy. It may seem that the proliferation and mutation of militias on the ground is based on nothing but a Hobbesian struggle to control land, but behind this illusion of chaotic fractiousness there is incremental cohesion. Moreover, these seemingly disparate events (a price hike, a real estate project, a violent assault, the presence of UN troops from Kenya and Eritrea, sex work) are ingeniously tied together by powerfully networked outsiders bent on producing temporal rupture through generalized dispossession. It turns out that Bush’s theory is much closer to the truth than the Hobbesian notion that informs how most of the world thinks about Congo, “experts” included.11

It bears mentioning that price is not an inscrutable mystery for this transnational entity (nor is disease for that matter), but an instrument that it wields for its benefit, knowing full well what it does. As a result, these foreign others do not experience the dialectics of “movement” and “chaos” brought about by global and regional price fluctuations. Rather, they consolidate their control over others incrementally. [“Mouvement” and “desordre” are French terms that Congolese in the mineral trade use to describe what happens during price hikes: first there is movement, as money, things, and people change hands and end up in unpredictable places. But movement is followed by chaos, as diverse state officials and others seeking “movement” follow these various workers (the porters, the middlemen, the diggers, the vendors, the sex workers, etc.) into the forest, collecting “tax.” Ultimately, these authorities produce constriction, conflict, and stasis, which put an end to movement.] One of the subtexts of the story is that Congolese should work to model some aspects of these foreigners’ behavior by forging generative social networks that encompass space and time in a way that works for them.

[9]I want to step back now and provide context for appreciating the truths in Bush’s narrative before considering the possible futures opened up by price fluctuations. What follows is meant to provide the barest historic context so that the ethnographic material can be put into greater perspective.12

A history of the wars over price: Dispossession, dependence on minerals, and vulnerability to price

The Eastern Congo has been an extractive economy at least since King Leopold established the Congo Free State, when ivory and rubber were the chief commodities in demand.13 The ruthless system of violently enforced labor that got under way during that time made Congo and King Leopold internationally infamous and led ultimately to the formation of the Belgian Congo (a supposedly “regular” colony), where forced labor nevertheless continued in mines (Marchal 2003). International competition for Congolese minerals in the period of decolonization—and in the context of the Cold War—led to the “Congo crisis” of civil wars and assassinations between 1960 and 1965 (Congolese uranium was used to make the bombs that dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and both the United States and the Soviets vied for Congo’s mineral wealth). “Resources” were crucial to the strife of that period, as they would be later on: The mineral rich province of Katanga tried to secede with Belgian support; Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba (who reached out for help from the Soviets during the Katanga secession and made populist promises about Congo’s vast wealth) was murdered; and the Simba insurrectionists (in some respects a precursor of today’s Mai Mai militias) founded a short-lived state supported by the Soviet Union and China, based in present day Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville).14 From 1965, the US-backed Cold War ally President Mobutu Sese Seko presided over a notoriously kleptocratic regime until he was ousted in the first Congolese War (1996–97) with Ugandan and Rwandan support. The unwillingness of Laurent Kabila’s foreign allies to leave the Congo precipitated the Second Congolese War (1998–2003).

While the Second Congolese War was not caused by the struggle for minerals (it was triggered by the Rwandan genocide and the extension of that war into the Eastern Congo, but it’s causes were multiple), the war became an opportunity for neighboring countries, or particular state elites, to compensate for their own bankrupted treasuries in the poststructural adjustment era (Prunier 2011). Different [10]armed groups controlled the mines during the war, Congolese army, indigenous Mai Mai, Hutu “rebels” from Rwanda, the Ugandan army, and the Rwandan-backed RCD being the main ones. The United Nations confirmed that foreign corporations, from the United States, Europe, and Asia, were major players behind the scenes during both wars (United Nations Security Council 2002). While the invasion of the Eastern Congo by Rwanda and Uganda was given a “Congolese face,” as Thomas Turner puts it, most Eastern Congolese knew that the “rebels” and their governments were networked with neighboring African countries, which were in turn receiving support from other nations and companies, just as Bush noted (Turner 2013).

Eastern Congolese continue to speculate about the actual allegiances of various Congolese military figures, and even of President Joseph Kabila himself, imagining him to be “really” connected to a larger network that includes the Rwandan government (or to have at various points ordered the Congolese army to fall back in its battles against allegedly Rwandan-backed militias like M 23, the March 23rd Movement). The point is that, behind the conflicts that they are observing, Eastern Congolese are convinced that there is another, more meaningful and determining level of conflicts, which they struggle to comprehend and narrate. While Bush and many other Eastern Congolese may overstate the extent to which militias, states, companies, and ethnicized groups are networked together in a struggle for Congolese resources, their insights are also experientially true. As Turner puts it in reference to the war, “An elite network exported mineral and other wealth (including timber and coffee) from each of the three [occupied] zones [of the DRC]: Congolese, Rwandan, and Ugandan … the three networks varied in composition, and included Congolese, foreign Africans, and non-Africans of many nationalities (including Lebanese, Israelis, Indians, Pakistanis, Americans, Britons, and Belgians)” (Turner 2013: 158). Indeed, generating the right social networks, typically with militarized actors, became the main coping strategy for displaced people during the war, and mining provided a means for communities to accomplish this.15

The armies and militias that invaded the DR Congo waged a war on ordinary people and communities, as well as the means through which they produced their social and economic lives, incrementally. As Bush suggested, the dispossession of people from their livelihoods and their related capacity to produce incremental time was accomplished in large part through attacks on women, and through the impact these attacks had on families and larger communities (broken marriages, unwanted pregnancies, abandoned fields, etc.). Since women are the main agricultural producers in the DRC, and agriculture was the main source of livelihoods, the “war on women” has also been a war on agriculture and agricultural sustainability (see also Turner 2013). The outcome has been that men and women have been driven into the artisanal mining economy in one way or another, where they are [11]subject to the vagaries of prices for imported food and exported minerals. (Ironically, while mines were fought over during the war, they have often been safer places to live and work than the towns and fields that surround them, if only because soldiers need work to proceed regularly). The dollarization of the economy during the coltan boom of 2000 combined with decreased food production to exacerbate inflation, which was compounded by the gradual decline in the value of the dollar (Jackson 2002, 2003). Dollarization has fuelled the local conviction that foreigners are controlling economic processes and prices for their own benefit.

Despite the important aforementioned events, there is no single history of mining in the Eastern Congo, as these histories vary tremendously according to location. In some places, such as the towns of Kalima and Punia in Maniema, industrial mining towns have a long history: built as model towns, they came complete with picket fences, basketball courts, and swimming pools—at least for the company manager’s house. In other mining areas, such as much of Walikale and Masisi, mining companies conducted some surveys, but actual mining came much later and was pioneered by Congolese artisanal miners. Even where there were colonial mining towns, most Congolese were outsiders looking in, and throughout the region they remember legal and cultural prohibitions on mining (e.g., stories about how they were told that gold was poisonous, such that even touching it required incessant hand washing for long periods of time). Regardless of the region, most people were occupied with farming, some with grazing, and others still with hunting, and today claim that they knew little or nothing about the value of what was in the ground. Where there was a mining company, townspeople saw the planes going back and forth, and knew something of value was there, but they couldn’t distinguish one kind of “rock” from another, to say nothing of the mystery of price. While Mobutu Sese Seko is widely credited with liberalizing artisanal mining in the 1980s, most people say that it was the wars that introduced people to the real value of minerals. It was then that they saw Rwandan and other invaders dealing in them, and came to know their true worth, represented in price, a worth that was often realized through horrible and memorable acts of violence. While some of the worst violence of the period correlated with price increases for certain minerals (specifically, the coltan boom of late 2000, when prices went up tenfold), many miners and traders also point out that the price was especially good during that time, and that the war “democratized” mining (this is their phrasing).16

I have heard several different people in different mining areas say that they or other Congolese are now “addicted” to mining, likening it to a drug. In doing so, [12]they personalize their war-generated dependence on mining, discussing it as if it were a habit that has caused them to lose the ability to plan or to patiently wait for harvests. They make a similar argument about the indigenous Mai Mai militias that emerged to fight the invaders: many came to depend on minerals, lost their way, and became as ruthless as any other invading militia (when this happens, they are no longer considered “true” Mai Mai, who instead enjoy a coherent relationship to the ancestors and the past). Dependence on mining has continued even after conflict ceased, for several reasons: in certain cases, mining has ruined the agricultural topsoil; the destruction of basic infrastructure has made commercial agriculture difficult; and land titles are insecure, especially over longer periods.17 Today, the closer one is to a mine, the more difficult it is to get food, and certain mining areas depend entirely on food from other places (often urban areas or neighboring countries). Moreover, the availability of food depends on the outflow of minerals. For example, in Kailo, Maniema, where a small cassiterite and coltan mine was the only source of income for most people, I came to know one older man who claimed to have not seen an egg in thirty years, despite the fact that the area was ostensibly rural. He lamented that his twenty-something-year-old son had never seen this now almost mythical thing.

Indebtedness is yet another reason for regional dependence on mining, as people stay at the mines to try to pay off their debts or to escape their debts. The worst of these debts were generated during the Congolese war, just before the prices dropped, leaving people with what they often describe as “sand.” For example, one of the most violent and well-known militia leaders, Cheka, started off as a coltan miner in Walikale; he found himself indebted to soldiers (by most accounts, Rwandan), and formed a militia to earn their money back, allegedly using weapons he received from these soldiers. Debts between transactors are generated in multiple ways (as, for example, when a financier or buyer agrees to finance another buyer’s trip to the forest but doesn’t receive the money back; or when a buyer agrees to purchase a certain amount of coltan but then is told by the seller that the money received was too little, after the fact; or when a digger gives money to a trader to go to the city and buy tools that never materialize). But the volatility of price is the main, underlying reason that transactors give for these conflicts over money owed: the mines in the forest are usually far from the towns and, given the state of infrastructure, the trip can take some time and be beset with obstacles. By the time a negociant reaches the city, the price is likely to have changed, and the buyer may be unable to pay off his financers or satisfy his buyers (or, alternatively, he might stay at the mines interminably, waiting for the price to go up, and spending money throughout). The problem of indebtedness informs the practice, on the part of miners and traders, of establishing reliable social networks by coming up with agreements about price that endure regardless of what happens to “the market.” In recent years, indebtedness has been made worse by the international response to “conflict minerals” and the resulting stagnation in the “3 Ts” mineral trade.

For a decade now, a group of international NGOs have joined journalists and others in making the case for “conflict-free minerals” by arguing that our demand [13]for minerals—and our consumption of high-tech electronics—has funded lawlessness and war in the DR Congo.18 The work of NGOs like the Enough Project and Global Witness resulted ultimately in different forms of “conflict minerals” legislation, notably Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act. Known as “Obama’s Law” in Congo, it compels American companies to reveal whether the columbite-tantalite (coltan), cassiterite, gold, or wolframite in their products originated in the DRC or any adjoining country, to report on the “due diligence” undertaken to examine the supply chain, and to take measures if the minerals are not “conflict free.”19 The law informed President Joseph Kabila’s decision to shut down the artisanal mineral trade in the Eastern Congo for six months in 2010. When he did this, prices and production in the Kivus and Maniema each decreased by between 80 percent and 90 percent, leaving people with few opportunities and causing many to join the very militias that the law’s passing was intended to squelch (Matthysen and Montejano 2014). Eastern Congolese tended to see the law as a maneuver in the war over price (an attempt by the United States to help Rwandan smugglers to control the trade and so get a better price), and Kabila’s move as an attack on Eastern Congolese by the government in Kinshasa. Today, a network of transnational actors, which includes high-tech companies (e.g., Intel and Apple), NGOs, and the International Tin Research Institute (ITRI, an organization of smelters), hopes to reopen the Congo to legal international business. They have developed tracking schemes to ensure that the minerals that go into microprocessors and other devices are “conflict free” (Pistilli 2010; Leshnev and Bafilemba 2014). But as of now, their schemes—such as ITRI’s “bag and tag” initiative—are locally understood as an exogenous effort to control the price by limiting the number of legal middlemen and buying houses. “Regulation” is yet another prong in the ongoing war over price.

Even thought the “3 T” mineral trade has been in a slump since 2010 for the reasons discussed above, the potential for these minerals to act as conduits to alternative worlds is a major part of the collective memory of miners and traders, who traverse a leftover landscape still known by the names conferred upon places during the time of “may it never end” (bisikatike). To provide a better sense of how price fluctuations are experienced, let’s move on to the Maniema Province iterations of the United States of America and Kigali, and the simulacral war that kept them going for a time.

Vignette #2: Price fluctuations produce wormholes

The mine known as Les Etats Unis, or the United States of America, is a memorable place, where people made a true fortune from their sweat. From a distant, hardto-reach forest in the middle of nowhere, the United States grew into a nation of [14]immigrants almost overnight, and all in the midst of one of the most destructive wars the world has ever seen. As one former miner man remembered,

When you were approaching the United States of America, before you even saw it, you could hear it. It sounded like a great torrent of rushing water, but that’s not what it was. It was the sound of people at work, all the people digging. The movement! You’d find workers from Senegal, from Nigeria, even from Kenya.

In the beginning, there was no government to speak of in the United States, but over time the Mai Mai army brought law: “The more people worked, the stronger the Mai Mai army grew. They grew rich from the 50 percent that they earned from the diggers.” But even then, like its namesake, the United States of America was known as a relatively liberal place with many freedoms and this helped to make it a land of opportunity: “A person could go from nothing to something, and no one cared who you were or where you were from, what your ethnicity was, so long as you were strong, and could work.” Because so many people wanted to go there, and there was a constant threat to security, when a newcomer visited the United States of America she had to apply for a visa: “They gave you an identification card, and the Mai Mai told you, ‘Welcome. You are in the United States of America now, another country. You have left Congo behind.’ ” There were customs officials there, inspecting goods, assessing value, and placing tax.

But the citizens of the United States of America were living on borrowed money, and this indebtedness created problems in the long run. As another recalled,

When you left the United States and walked out of the forest, one of the first places you came to was called Kigali 2. The market in Kigali 2 was lined with the tents of prominent Rwandan generals. They had with them all of the things they had looted from Congo, and many things they had brought with them from Rwanda, like mobile phones. They gave these things to traders who were on their way to the United States of America.

The Rwandan military figures had their own network of buyers, a market, and they had come with motorcycles, televisions, radios, and money. But the most commonly traded items were mobile phones, which people in this region claim to have first seen during the war. The phones were brought by Rwandan soldiers, who were also after the coltan that was, unbeknownst to Congolese at the time, a constituent component of these phones. The very expensive Sim cards were also manufactured by a Rwandan company, and these days people joke about how they were “raped” (kubakwa) at every turn: first their things were taken away from them, then they were thrown about and displaced. And finally they had to pay the Rwandan companies exorbitant prices when they wanted to use phones they bought from Rwandans to reconnect with the people who had been torn from them because of the war with Rwanda. Mobile phones and other goods were given to Congolese coltan middlemen on credit, which turned out to be quite dangerous when prices suddenly fell:

People thought [the boom] would last forever, and this is why it was called the time of “bisikatike” (let it not be broken, or may it go on forever). But when the price for coltan dropped, people were unable to [15]pay back their creditors. I lent someone 5,000 dollars during the time of bisikatike and then the price collapsed. This man didn’t have my money, but he eventually went to work at a cassiterite mine to make it up for me. This debt, this is why no one who mined coltan ever returned to farming.

Nowadays, the United States has returned to being a forest and, in the village of Mgongo (Kigali 2), sometimes one can’t even buy a bar of soap, the loaded icon whose absence many Eastern Congolese use to signify absolute poverty.20 Its residents are left to wince at the name Kigali 2, the only moniker outsiders know their village by, since the term implies that they were traitors who assisted the Rwandans during the war—the smear is the only thing that remains of that time, while the real Kigali enjoys near-unlimited Wi-Fi thanks to Congo’s minerals. If the larger-thanlife fantastical miracle of Mgongo has become pathetic once again, new miracles have popped up to replace that one. Often these towns spring up from different substances, and perhaps the next new town will explode from a substance that Congolese people don’t even have a word for yet. Such possible artisanal futures fascinate traders and diggers, who easily remember when they had never heard of wolframite and other minerals. For example, when the price for coltan fell, it left a large itinerant population hanging around in the forest between Punia and Walikale, far from home. Many of them were heavy with loans they needed to pay back to soldiers and businessmen; others simply didn’t have the wherewithal to move. When an Mkumu trapper discovered cassiterite and bauxite in Bisie in 2002, just one year after coltan prices collapsed, those who had been in The United States joined others in the rush through the miles of torturous trails to that place in the middle of the rainforest. Bisie became a city of nearly 20,000 almost overnight, the largest artisanal mine in the Congo (recently made famous by the television show Vice). Its rapid emergence from nothing in the middle of the forest showed that anything could happen, and that success consists in being ready to move and to adapt to changing conditions by developing and breaking off social connections as need be, while learning about the new and changing manifestations of the constant truth that is Congolese value.21

There was more going on in the United States and Kigali 2 than rapid movement, I would suggest. Rather, there was a transformation of reality, and of space and time, evoked in the change of names. These were not the only places that came to life in the forest: near Punia alone there is still Modern Times (Les Temps Modern), Kuwait, Last Chance, Morocco, Leave the World Behind, Find Your Own, Grab Your Own, End of Life. All signify a rare rupture in space-time—a quickly emerging opening that is likely to close up just as quickly.22 Such moments also have the [16]potential to rupture the relationship between signs and referents, distorting reality. The resulting confusion extended to the everyday experience of the war itself. A coltan trader who worked in the United States at the time remembered how this trade worked, and how cooperation depended on the appearance of violent conflict in order to continue. This dissimulation intensified alongside price increases. As he explained it, in the beginning, Congolese commanders in the RCD who sympathized with Mai Mai would use their mobile phones to communicate with Mai Mai officers, discussing terms with the leaders and exchanging minerals for guns. Later, when prices shot up, even Rwandan officers and Mai Mai engaged directly in this trade of minerals for guns:

This is how it worked. The Mai Mai would go to the RCD officers with coltan, and when the RCD would come to get this coltan they would come with guns, and they would make a lot of noise with their weapons, pretending to be under attack. Then they would go away, leaving their guns behind. Everyone thought that a battle had taken place, but it had not—the Rwandans got coltan, which they used to make money for themselves, and the Mai Mai got guns.

In a related vein, others discuss how war-making consisted in an attempt to fix reality, as when soldiers tried to identify the “true” nature of civilians’ loyalties by tasting their soup: salt in a soup might indicate trade relationships with Mai Mai, for example, since planes had stopped landing and only militarized groups had access to these resources.

If price fluctuations can distort reality and create wormholes, predictable price can also stabilize it, and having access to the right social networks can be the most viable way of accomplishing this goal. But even if a relationship can be established and realized in a known price, there remains an even deeper problem—mainly that Congolese do not know or control what is in demand. And it very often seems that what is demanded is their own capacity to live and work—that is, their bodies, and even their bodies’ disparate parts.

Vignette #3: On information asymmetry

When I started doing research with miners, the main thing they wanted to talk to me about was price. When I asked them what the stuff they were mining was for they said they didn’t know and didn’t care—they just wanted to know the “true price,” which they believed I must know because of my relative social proximity to the people who set the price. [A couple years later, they began consistently saying that Rwandans used these minerals to make the bullets that they used to kill them with (some claimed that President Kabila had said this on the radio).] I soon discovered that, when people asked me questions about price, they were also asking [17]me to develop a direct relationship with them, and to cut through the disinformation and dissimulation that characterized the trade so that they could predict and make plans. Diggers and middlemen, or negociants, were locked in a conflict with one another over price, and together they also struggled with other state “tax” collectors and regulators who also had their own price.

They were convinced that true price was being hidden from them and used against them. They saw the absence of roads as a plan hatched by politicians to keep the price for minerals low. They held that foreign powers colluded with the president of Congo to determine the price for local minerals, and conflicts spiked and abated as a result. Wars were said to begin when foreign nations become jealous of Congo’s wealth and of Kabila’s exclusive relationship with others; these foreigners used other nation states and militias to force their way into the market. Some even claimed that the “failure” of their state was part of an international plan to destroy Congolese sovereignty—that the multiplicity of monads assessing “tax” on the ground was the outcome of a unified design hatched in foreign lands.

Though price seems, to Congolese, to be manipulated by outsiders, there are many things that they can do to affect price: Cartels of middlemen can collaborate with each other to set the price, naming themselves cooperatives and agreeing to only buy at a certain set price. Groups of diggers can try to do the same, and can use social pressure or even the threat of violence to make sure that minerals are sold at a certain price. They can also come together to resist the importation of machines by foreign investors (as they did in Bisie), just as local authorities can cooperate in forcing buyers to recognize the rights of all state and state like authorities to receive tax. In all cases, these groups will try to justify their positions by referencing a supposedly “true” price that they claim exists elsewhere. Other price fixing practices include “sitting on” minerals in the hopes that the price will change and calling friends or partners in the city to determine the “true price.” Mobile phones are especially important for diggers, who lack other means for negotiating the current price in relation to middlemen. Indeed, so crucial is the use of mobile phones that middlemen prefer doing business in towns that don’t have cell phone towers, even if these places are more dangerous (which they invariably are).

Being out of the loop with regards to the flow of knowledge in what some regard to be the Information Age can take many, unpredictable forms. In a village on Idjwi Island, on the lake that separates DR Congo from Rwanda, I was eating dinner together with a group of friends, all of them involved in the mineral trade as diggers or low level buyers, when there was a knock on the door. The owner of the house arose to answer it, and went outside for a bit, murmuring clandestinely with the visitor. After a few minutes, he returned to sit at the table, looked at me and offered, “Do you want to buy an albino skeleton? There’s a guy who has one to sell.” Apparently, the visitor had heard there was an American around and, believing there was a foreign demand for albino skeletons, decided to try his luck, just as others had been doing with various stones and minerals, from gold to garnet. After expressing genuine surprise and rejecting the offer, I asked “But what do people want albino skeletons for?” My friend’s adroit response was, “Well, you’re the one who can tell us that.” After all, like all other valuable substances, the demand came from outside and I alone would be expected to have information about use, value, and price.

[18]From there, the topic shifted to hangman’s ropes, which they saw as being related to the albino trade. The owner of the house went on to explain that people in this community know that there is a foreign demand for these two things (albinos and ropes that have been used to murder someone, or to hang oneself). But, like minerals, the substances are processed and put to use elsewhere. While they were able to speculate on their uses, it was crucial for those at the table that the demand came from outside, where people had the knowledge needed to turn albino parts and hangman’s ropes into something else. This external demand had created a local demand, which led to people feeding off of the population in a search for exportable albino skeletons and ropes. The concern about these murders seemed real enough, but there was a lot of mystery surrounding it. Many people in this town insisted that gangs of youth were involved in murdering people with ropes and selling the ropes to outsiders. Some said that, to be valuable, the ropes should be used to murder albinos but others said it didn’t matter, that any rope that had been in touch with death would do. In general, they said that suicides were quite rare.

According to one of my interlocutors, the foreign demand for albinos had led to an albino rush, culminating in the murder of nonalbinos, or counterfeit albinos, when genuine albinos ran out. After all, you can’t tell if a corpse is an albino once the skin is removed, and it is the intact organs and bones (including eyes, tongues, and heart) that are most useful. Ropes are used to murder albinos in order to keep the organs intact. The rope was therefore a by-product of the albino trade: “Ropes are like wolframite,” he offered, referring to the ore from which tungsten is derived. Wolframite is found alongside coltan and cassiterite, and came to be known as a valuable and marketable commodity relatively recently, after the coltan and cassiterite booms. In a similar vein, ropes came to be known as valuable as a result of the trade in albinos, as an ancillary product, demanded by those higher up in the “commodity chain,” who had discovered uses for these ropes unknown to “producers.”

One person at the table disagreed with this analysis and insisted that the uses of rope are separate from the uses of albinos: any rope used by a suicide victim (albino or not) is of value, but ropes that are used to murder someone are not actually valuable, he claimed. They are wrongly passed off as the ropes of suicide victims, and the foreigners who buy them are getting a raw deal. Therefore, there is a trade in counterfeit ropes as well as counterfeit albinos. Like the others, he insisted that, “The thing is that Congolese people do not know what these ropes are used for. The demand for them is international.” He explained that the trade is organized by Rwandan Tutsis with military connections, who use Congolese middlemen to collect the skeletons and the ropes, while remaining in the background. Crucial was the fact that these ropes pass through commodity chains identical to those that minerals pass through: the same buying houses, or comptoirs, are involved. They were convinced that some of the Congolese agents of these Rwandans had already been arrested and were in jail in Bukavu.

Finally, another friend raised his voice and declared, “No! This is not the real reason behind the demand for these ropes!” The startling and ironic truth, he explained, was that there was no longer any international demand for suicide ropes at all, though once there had been. Rather, young men on Idjwi Island believed there was demand and continued to murder people in the hopes that they would [19]find a market for these ropes, but the demand created by the rope bubble had existed only for a brief moment in time. In truth, he explained, some years back there was a German NGO that was trying to ascertain the reason people in South Kivu were committing suicide so they could do something about it. The scientists who worked for this NGO collected the ropes of the deceased from the families of people who had committed suicide. They then inserted these ropes into a computer that could tell them the conditions under which the person died, including what the person was thinking and feeling when she or he passed, and the general conditions that were producing suffering for everyone. The idea was that the ropes registered these feelings and troubles, which a computer could then read, and the scientists could go about proposing solutions to societal problems. When the NGO was around, these ropes were actually going for a very high price, and so there was indeed a very brief trade in ropes that had been in contact with death. Only now, because of their “stupidity,” people continue to act as if this market exists when it doesn’t, because the NGO left years ago, leaving people high and dry as they so often do.23 Peoples’ behavior, my friend went on, was generally symptomatic of the lack of market information people have with respect to what is in demand at any given moment.

A couple years later, I heard the same story about hangman’s ropes in another South Kivu village, but the narrative had changed somewhat: now it was said that ropes that had been used to murder people (not suicide ropes) were going for a lot of money. People told stories about poor men, usually house servants, who were informed by others that, if they called a particular mobile phone number after murdering so-and-so with a rope, the person at the end of the line would pick up the rope in exchange for $5,000. In these stories, the poor man would invariably kill the mark “on spec,” only to find that no one was on the other end of the line when it came time to make the call. Still, nobody knew why there was a demand for the ropes, but they knew that this demand came from outside: the most likely culprits were MONUSCO (the military wing of the United Nations, largely Pakistani) and Rwanda. Frequently, both were said to be operating together, as they were known to have done with respect to the smuggling of minerals like coltan.

It would certainly be possible to break down some of the elements in these stories (perhaps starting with albinos and ropes) and construct a social history for these loaded objects. One could complement this with an investigation of actual instances of murder and suicide to see what “really” happened, and how the “reality” aligned with or differed from the representations. It would definitely be good to know how many people were being murdered in South Kivu and why, and perhaps this would return us to a number of aforementioned issues, including interpersonal debt. I don’t have all of these answers as of now. But what I would like to focus on in [20]this narrative is the commitment to the concept of there being an unknown and capricious demand from Outside, which could settle on anything and cause desperate people to act against all moral sense at a moment’s notice. (After hearing the story, I wrote, “Everything is to be used!” in my notebook, to draw attention to how this extractive economy turns everything into a possible resource.) This was the foundational subtext underlying all the variations in the story, from when I first heard it until now. Also underlying all of these stories was the awareness that Eastern Congolese suffer from a temporal lag vis-à-vis more powerfully networked outsiders: they may be acting in one way, perhaps at the expense of everyone around then, when circumstances actually call for something else entirely.

The rumors and stories that circulate in this out-of-sync space strain to keep up with what’s going on “out there,” where the markets are imagined to be, but end up leading people to act in totally divergent ways that may very well have nothing to do with anything (encouraging people to collect hangman’s ropes when there is no actual demand for them, for example). The resulting horror is that a life that had a value and no price can be turned into something with a valuable but unknown price only to become a thing with no price and no value. When that happens, people are truly at the end of their ropes, so to speak. It is hard to imagine a more dramatic iteration of the consequences of what the economist Joseph Stiglitz has called “information asymmetry,” where one party in a transaction has vastly more information than another (Stiglitz 2013). I am confident that my friends would have agreed with the economists who claim that “adverse selection” and “moral hazard” are among the consequences of inequality in knowledge and knowledgeable social networks.

Some of these stories have been pretty harrowing, I know. And for good reason, considering what people have experienced, and how the loss of incrementally generative social resources has forced people to respond to unstable prices. But there are somewhat more positive stories, perhaps a bit harder to find and requiring a little more interpretation. I’d like to turn now to the King of Cassiterite, a man who domesticated the state and planned for the future despite the rumors that surrounded him—who, even though he was a miner of tin, understood that the most valuable Congolese resources were people and fungible social networks, not things in the ground.

Vignette #4: The king of cassiterite

La Gomme is a man of a little less than forty years of age from the city of Kisangani, who now leases an artisanal cassiterite mine in Chamaka (in Maniema Province), a full day’s walk from the town of Punia, through the forest and across a river. Both Punia and Chamaka were at one time company mining towns operated by a Belgian mining company, which was later taken over by the a joint venture of mining companies and government called SOMINKI (Societe Miniere et Industrielle du Kivu). It continued to be managed by Belgians until the mid-1980s, when the price of tin crashed and SOMINKI turned to gold. Now the area is technically owned by another company in which the state has a share—SAKIMA (Societe Aurifere du Kivu et du Maniema), which leases out space to people like La Gomme. In the town of Punia and the mine at Chamaka, the halcyon days of industrial mining [21]and the formal employment that came with it serve as a baseline for most every thing that is said, thought, and done today. It wasn’t just that people back then had jobs and income (how many really did?) but rather that the state and the company, seemingly conjoined as a single entity, seemed able to produce a consistent, incrementally realized social order through the regulation of work and the disciplining of ordinary people (to this day, Saturday is Siku ya Posho, or day of the portion, or salary/ration).24 At least in senior people’s memories of that time, the company and seniors collaborated to create and manage a moral economy in which traditional values (Belgian and Congolese) held sway, and in which no moment was unaccounted for.25 After all, the Belgians supposedly “hated idleness” and made sure everyone was working all the time, even if they had to resort to violence to do so. In Punia and the forest town of Chamaka, people would get excited when they saw me because they hoped that maybe a real company was coming back, one that would bring jobs and set about production. What could they do or tell me, they wanted to know, to make this happen faster?

Moreover, the state officials in Punia were notoriously aggressive in their pursuit of miners’ income, and the presence of a company might keep this in check. It seemed like every single state official was trying to make money off of miners by “selling” them papers to do business.26 Since, in Punia, mining was the only real game in town, state officials didn’t let go of diggers just because the price went down due to the decline of outside demand—they increased the pressure. Ultimately, in the mine at Kasese in 2012 and 2013, miners took to hiring a Mai Mai group, Raia Mtomboki (“the infuriated citizens”) to protect them from state officials and to help them to find an alternative route for their minerals, so they wouldn’t have to pass through the legal channels, including the distant and difficult to reach provincial capital of Kindu.27

It is against this backdrop of nostalgia for the company that people in Punia and nearby Chamaka understand artisanal mining as a chaotic, unpredictable, and immoral (if also necessary) activity. And it’s against this memory of industrial mining that La Gomme (the rubbers, or flip-flops) is understood in Punia. La Gomme, whom they say used to bathe in beer just because he could, made all his money from mining and selling cassiterite. Like the dirt La Gomme mined, there was never anything glamorous about him—he was a simple, uneducated person—but he was [22]for a time the most fabulously wealthy man in Punia, and that’s why he gave himself that self-effacing praise name, La Gomme. You might be ashamed to enter the city of Kisangani without good shoes, and your friends might look down on you for having to wear them, but at the end of the day everyone has to go to the bathroom, and so everyone has to wear la gomme. And so too anyone in Punia who wanted anything would sooner or later have to come to La Gomme, the despised, lookeddown-on thing that everybody needs and that is proof of the basic sameness of everyone. People also called La Gomme kikombe, or cup, because everybody had to drink from him, and little kids used to sing a song about how La Gomme was the father of the WC, the king of the toilet.

People said that La Gomme made his wealth through a sacrifice. They said it was his mother who helped him get rich, by sacrificing someone’s life (exactly who no one knew), so that La Gomme could find seemingly endless cassiterite. His mother never got anything enduring from that sacrifice and she must have been angry, because all the cassiterite La Gomme found he gave away to women or sold to buy things he now no longer has. La Gomme made so much money from his line up in Chamaka that he didn’t know what to do with it all—people said that it was his mentality, the fact that he “couldn’t see far,” couldn’t plan, or make good investments. Like all artisanal miners, he didn’t know anything beyond what he immediately experienced and couldn’t imagine a future beyond the here and now. He was just like Lungwa 4, another local antihero who made a fortune out of gold. Lungwa 4 bought a huge stereo and hired a guy to carry it behind him when he walked through the forest. Then he bought a car battery for the stereo and paid for another guy to follow the guy with the stereo. And all of these guys were surrounded by another fleet of guys with umbrellas as well as guards to protect Lungwa 4, his stereo, and the battery when they walked through the forest to his mine.

When people came to La Gomme to buy cassiterite, they would come with things like motorbikes and stereos and leave them outside the door to his place in Chamaka. La Gomme never inspected the things—he would just say, “leave the stuff there.” Or he would let people walk away with 500 kilos of cassiterite at whatever price popped into his head (say 15 dollars a kilo), usually way below the actual price. He was, it seemed, recklessly indifferent to the price of these things, but for a while it didn’t matter. So many people wanted access to his mine, or the cassiterite that came from it, that to even talk to him you needed to bring two goats. So if twenty people came to talk to La Gomme today, there would be forty goats in front of his place at the end of the day. Eventually, La Gomme had accumulated a whole lot of motorcycles and he needed to get rid of this stuff, so one day he had all of these bikes transported by truck to the town of Punia and, when that happened, the police confiscated everything. This, after all, was a visible form of wealth upon which they could levy tax. When La Gomme got the cell phone call saying that his things had been confiscated, he invited the police up to his carriere, or mine/ workplace, but first he rented a generator from Sakima so they could talk in the light. And so the police and La Gomme sat down and discussed, and La Gomme agreed to pay a certain amount of money to the police, after they had established the appropriate price.

La Gomme wanted something in return from the police: to effectively shut down the state for a period of one month. He demanded that all drivers in Punia [23]be able to come and go as they please without buying licenses or paying tickets—there should be no police on the road at all. This was agreed to, after which he earned copious praise, because all the motorcycle taxi drivers went around singing his name—“hey, La Gomme, La Gomme!!”—and there were parades when he came to town. But making the state disappear for a month was only the beginning for La Gomme. So many state officials were still coming to him, looking to collect tax, that he decided to become the state himself—La Gomme went to Kisangani, and paid off some bigwig in ANR (Agence Nationale de Renseignement), the not-so-secret Congolese police (like the FBI), so that he could become the director of ANR in Chamaka. Once that happened, La Gomme was the state—the other state authorities no longer had any authority over him, and so mostly left him alone.

But at some point, the stories went, things went downhill—most said it was the fact that La Gomme’s wealth was the product of a sacrifice, the fruits of which are always ephemeral. In any event, suddenly La Gomme had, or seemed to have, nothing. He lost all of his things and all of his women, and he became an example of what happens when you can’t see far. In general, the discourse about La Gomme was ambivalent: yes, he was great and worthy of praise and he did manage to sequester the state, but he was also stupid and short sighted. He had money but he never built anything that lasted and now it was gone. One young woman talked about how she met him on the way to school one day and he said that she was beautiful. She responded that she had no time for him, that she was going to school. And he asked her why she should go there in the first place: he would buy her, the school, and the teachers, destroying in one gesture the most generative of Congolese social practices—marriage and education (or at least that’s how others interpreted all of this).

I was wary of taking these rumors about La Gomme as literal truths. After all, living “in the moment” can be at once a strategy and a quality that is imputed to people by those higher up in the social order (Day, Papataxiarchis, and Steward 1998). To learn more about the man behind the story, I decided to walk through the forest to see La Gomme, informed by all the rumors that I had heard about the young man who knew nothing but the ups and downs of artisanal mining and who therefore was incapable of seeing far, and of conceptualizing the day after tomorrow. On the way, we either passed through or came fairly close to a number of other mines whose names spoke to the new, otherworldly, extreme, and risky character of artisanal mining and the mineral trade.

When we finally made it up to the town of Chamaka, we were, as usual, confronted with state authority, particularly DGM, the official representing immigration. I won’t delve into all of the various rituals of state-making that Charles, the DGM official, went through with his stamp and pen and uniform, or the lengthy discussions that took place afterward about what his job was, or what DGM was for, and what the state was—except to say they took place in a French that grew increasingly eloquent, as the state became ever more reified and imaginary, and that the conversation included miners and traders, SAESSCAM, SAKIMA, and my research assistant. At bottom, the discussion concerned what the appropriate fee, or price, of an immigration official should be in the forest, when there is no border anywhere nearby. For his part, Charles was convinced that I was the grandson of [24]one of the former managers of SOMINKI, and that a store of cassiterite had been hidden long ago and no one knew where, except for me. I had come to find it and Charles wasn’t going to let me out of his sight (he wanted his cut).

The next day, we walked to La Gomme’s mine and, as soon as we arrived, Charles rushed to La Gomme and asked him for “rice” and “cooking fat” for having brought me, a potential business partner, to him. Charles called it his frais de mission, the price of his work. Over the next few days, I got to know La Gomme a little better, and one of the first things I came to know was that his father was the chief of engineering when the company was there and had taught him everything he needed to know about that particular site (he had maps), as well as how to go about mining. La Gomme had been studying this since he was a kid. His father had long since passed away and La Gomme, coming into adulthood in a time when there was no company, abandoned any hopes of becoming part of it and instead struck out on his own, negotiating with state figures and easily finding cheap labor—people who had been tossed around by war and ended up with nothing.

La Gomme turned out to be nothing like his image of a loud, self-aggrandizing fool. He was soft-spoken (even shy), self-effacing, and detail oriented. And, rather than having his sights on every woman in the world, as per the rumor, he seemed particularly upset about an old flame who had jilted him and left him hurt. La Gomme was very proud of his loyal and well-oiled operation that, he was quick to point out, was more productive and faster than a “machine” (his words). And he was equally proud of the way he had worked to keep the state in check— he did confirm, somewhat shamefacedly, the stories about shutting down the police and becoming ANR. And he was proud of the money that he gave to ordinary people to build roads and bridges and pay for kids to go to school—acts of reciprocity and community-building that everyone confirmed he did in fact do.

Over time, he explained to me the organization of his mine, which varies depending on a variety of factors: La Gomme has to be prepared to expand and contract when necessary. When I met him they were in a state of expansion in a new mine, and were expecting to be producing in earnest in a couple of days—hence the delays. La Gomme explained how he, the PDG (La Premiere Director General or President Director General, a CEO) is the head of the carriere, which means that his job includes but is not limited to organizing “traditional” matters for the mine— he negotiates with the senior representatives of the land, as well as the company SAKIMA. Under him is the director general, who is concerned with the whole administration of the carriere. And then there is the director of finances, a treasurer. There is the director of mines, who deals with wachimbaji, or diggers, and there is a mwandishi, or secretary. Then there is a Chef de Camp, who inspects the entire camp and where people are working. There is the Commisaire ya Madini, police who protect people in the carriere and who are concerned with security and regimentation, making sure that work starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. There is the Chef de Chantier, who coordinates work among all the different holes. The Chef de Secteur works with the Chef de Chantier to observe the organization of work. And so on, and so on. The point was that it was highly organized and that this organization interacted with the state but was not subsumed by it, or created by it. The terms were borrowed from the old company days, and drew attention to those days, remembering and reproducing them. Nor were these terms La Gomme’s invention: [25]they circulate throughout the artisanal mines of the Eastern Congo, recuperating an imagined social order from the past (see also Nest 2011).

These days it is not trendy to point out the difference between people’s beliefs and reality—we anthropologists are often expected to drop the concept of belief entirely and treat everything as an equivalent “force” in the world (indeed, part of my argument, in this piece, is that Congolese stories about their extractive economy are often very accurate interpretations of how “interscalar” systems operate). Leaving aside the value of this, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the radical difference between the stories people told about La Gomme and what I saw in La Gomme. So, when I returned home from Chamaka I put people in Punia to task about La Gomme: There was no way La Gomme sacrificed people to find that vein of cassiterite. His dad was an engineer. And he wasn’t some caricature of the artisanal miner, concerned only about the present moment—he was in fact quite the planner and architect, not only of mines but of social forms, which he cultivated as if they were, in his own words, machines. And really, wasn’t it possible to see a positive plan in La Gomme’s practice: whenever he could, he collapsed or took over the predatory state and supplanted it with another form of organization. And his practice also envisioned a social future in which the state was no longer necessary—didn’t he give out gifts to people who built roads and bridges of their own volition, without any help from the state? And wasn’t he the best, or most unobtrusive, ANR that Punia had ever seen?

Invariably, my interlocutors agreed with me—La Gomme’s dad was a chief engineer. The mines are organized. And, yes, La Gomme turned out to be a pretty nice guy. But the stories about La Gomme continued and, I was surprised to discover, some of my very friends who confirmed everything I said about La Gomme to be true, also persisted in telling these stories about how, for example, La Gomme’s mother had sacrificed a loved one so La Gomme could have that cassiterite. Why, I wondered, is there this discrepancy between what I saw as the reality of La Gomme (a man who outmaneuvered and out-tricked the state, while trying to develop sustainable social networks outside of it) and the narratives that people spun about La Gomme, as destroying incremental time so that he could enrich himself at the expense of others, without even realizing that the fruits of such momentary sacrifice are always unsustainable?

The answer, I think, is this: In these stories, the possibility of a society without oppressive state authorities, in which people voluntarily contribute to the improvement of their world, is acknowledged (after all, La Gomme is praised) and then foreclosed (he is also ridiculed) in favor of a society that values education, jobs, and functioning state institutions. Because ultimately these stories about artisanal miners sacrificing the future valorize formal employment, steady wages, and secure futures, and in them the artisanal miner is the scapegoat, the sacrificial lamb, for all that is wrong in the society. The true potential of the artisanal miners, and of artisanal production broadly conceived, is acknowledged and then disavowed in favor of a future based on formal employment and a rehabilitated state. But through it all, La Gomme continues his work, day by day. And he continues to enact a certain kind of state-like network by providing for others and modeling a potential incremental future—even if others sometimes see him as being synonymous with the “punctuated time” of here and now neoliberal capitalism (Guyer 2007). Most [26]important of all, he does everything he can to build working networks of young men who had little else to live for—most of them had lost everything in the war and had gone through truly horrible events—so that he can live without having to compel others to pay a particular price. While state officials go about demanding their “price” for nothing at all, La Gomme neglects to follow up on what things are “worth,” using the wealth of his social infrastructure (reviled by others as it might be) to make more wealth. No wonder he is sometimes reviled for not knowing about the price of things when there is clearly a war over price.

Revisiting the war over price

There is a joke told by a Congolese stand-up comic who performs in Europe, whose routine is known by many Congolese. The story is retold in many different venues and the shortened, redacted version goes something like this: George H. W. Bush, Queen Elizabeth, and former Congolese President Mobutu are all dead and in hell. They want to communicate with people on earth, either because they have or want information, but they can’t because hell is in a totally different dimension. But Satan has a special, interdimensional mobile phone, which he can use to connect to his lovers on earth. The three of them harass Satan until he allows them to use the phone for a price. Satan charges Elizabeth thousands of dollars for a couple minutes, and he charges Bush even more. But when Mobutu uses the phone, he talks for hours and only pays two dollars. When the others complain about the injustice, Satan says Mobutu has to pay less because they’re on the same network. The joke is supposed to be that Congo and hell are experientially close to one another, and so a Congolese person should be expected to pay less than a Briton, and far less than an American. But the lesson that is often derived from this joke, when people tell it at weddings or in bars, is that it’s very important to have friends—that the right social networks can collapse space-time and make all manner of things possible. A good price is the representation and outcome of these good relations over expansive space and a bad price is the result of unbridgeable distance between people involved in transactions. Sometimes this distance is so great that it is synonymous with a state of war (which is not to say that when there is war, prices are low, because the opposite is usually true).

To clarify the point of the narratives I have selected above, the main Congolese understanding of the war over price goes something like this, with variations. Minerals do not have a “real price” that is relevant to anyone (say, in the sense of what Adam Smith [(1776) 1976] referred to as the “natural price,” or the price of producing a thing). Rather, the price is always reached through an agreement between transactors. People are out there agreeing to buy and sell minerals at a certain rate, and the price one is able to get for one’s minerals depends on how good one’s connections are with others, and who those people are. If you are far down on the ladder and don’t have connections with people higher up, there are those who will try to force a particular price on you, either by compelling you, ganging up against you, or preventing you from having access to information (i.e., when middlemen form a cartel or try to do business in a place with no cell phone tower). For creseurs, the most immediate obstacle are the coalitions of petit negociants, or lower-level [27]middlemen, often backed by powerful people in the background, who set the price and try to limit their access to other buyers and to knowledge about price.

The situation is complicated by the fact that multiple state and extrastate actors (e.g., competing lineages with different bundles of customary rights over land) are trying to get their proper price as well, and this can eat into everyone’s profits, making it so the primary buyer doesn’t get the minerals for the agreed upon price.28 Maneuvering is ongoing, and happens in relation to real-time events, especially price fluctuations. For example, if a military figure is in control of a mine, collecting tax, he may order his men to take over the most productive holes, or all of the holes, when the price goes high, perhaps allowing other braches of government, like immigration or the Ministry of Mines, to use workers to dig in certain holes for a period of time so they’re not left completely out of the picture (this happened when I was in Minova in 2009 and 2011). Meanwhile—at least according to the understandings of people involved in the mineral trade—people at the higher end of the “commodity chain,” such as Congolese politicians, will do what they can try to keep the price they pay as low as possible. They’ll use their position to make life difficult for Congolese in mining regions, such that people in the rural areas don’t have a lot of options (by making sure roads aren’t built, the planes don’t run on time, etc.). This situation leads to higher prices for food around the mines, and side-investments in things like the bullets hunters use to kill forest animals to feed the miners (I have seen that bullets and meat can become the center of investment bubbles in the forest, sometimes resulting in the death of all the animals). Whatever happens, those at the lower end of this commodity chain are so cut off from the flow of information that it is conceivable that a person could even end up murdering someone for no reason based on a rumor (as in the story of the hangman’s ropes).

But all of this is just one dimension of the war over price. All of this maneuvering over price, this war of position, takes place within certain defined limits. The outer limit of these struggles over price is what Congolese call “true price.” True price is not the “natural price,” but the price established by an agreement among the most powerful people involved in the transaction chain, typically the presidents of nation states and the heads of corporations. According to the explanations of Eastern Congolese involved in the artisanal mineral trade, the “true” value of Congolese minerals is defined by the agreement reached between these subjects.29 That [28]is the price that people outside of Congo, the smelters, will expect to pay for these minerals, and the price that an American, for example, should be familiar with. When there is peace, the president has the capacity to define that price with a view to what all the various Congolese transactors are likely to get as a percentage of that true price, although he cannot control how it all works out, and it would not be in his interest to try. The deals that the Congolese president makes with foreigners are dangerous though, because if he’s not careful, he can incite the competitors of the people he’s transacting with. It’s understood by Congolese that all the world’s powers need Congolese resources. So, from the Eastern Congolese perspective, the Congolese president is like the only butcher in a market filled with buyers of meat (even if, in fact, there are multiple sources for these minerals). If he agrees to sell to one buyer at an egregiously different price, or if he closes certain people out of the market altogether because of bad sense or politics, he will incite the other buyers, all of whom must have “meat.” If one of those left out buyers is more powerful than the others, war is in the offing.

So it is that the American president can be jealous of Congo’s relationship with China and incite Rwanda to make war, thus acquiring a better price through Rwanda. For Congolese involved in the mineral trade, war is a double-edged sword. The number of recipients of tax is simplified: it is only the soldiers who are setting the price, and they want production to move quickly, so they keep the price relatively high. Congolese now realize something close to a true price in this time of a kind of “democracy.” But as Bush’s story made clear, this is illusory, because the invaders are working to make everything else costly so they can control events. The diggers might be getting a good deal, but everyone else is dying or being expropriated from, and ultimately they’ll have to work for whatever price is set by the invaders. Militarized actors try to keep war from getting in the way of production by waging war on women and villages and making agriculture impossible, so people are compelled to mine. They even wage fake wars when prices get high, or collude around mines where there is relative peace. If war does get in the way of production, it is a problem for the primary buyers of these minerals, so they will try to counteract this by lowering the price of the minerals. This will eventually cause militias and armies to go away. Usually, competition among the world powers will drive the prices up again, making war more likely, but right now a monopoly is being established, under the sign of regulation, which keeps prices low for diggers. Dollarization, proxy militias, the destruction of infrastructure, the military wing of the United Nations, the demise of agriculture, and even the mass rape of women—all emerge as if to ensure that powerful people, and even more powerful foreigners, obtain a better price for Congolese wealth, which is reduced to the price in which it is represented.

Price changes are related to the experience of time, in that high prices bring fast mobility, and low prices stasis. Time is also a weapon in the war over price. Those who are unable to master it are not only thrown around, but also find themselves involved [29]in all kinds of troubles and conflicts because of the volatility of price and time. Yet when prices are very high, all manner of boundaries seem to implode and we have the opening of wormholes, which can close just as quickly. The money the miners gain they lose just as quickly, complaining that one hundred dollars in the town is like ten dollars in the mine. In general, the outcome of the above war on price has been to make it so people have a hard time producing incremental, social time. They are subject to a volatile temporality in which prices define the rate of movement and in which agriculture seems inadequate or even impossible.

Even in the current context, though, with so many people dependent on mining, they can still generate incremental temporality by building their social networks, even if Congolese often seem willing to sacrifice generative social networks for substances like gold or coltan. La Gomme is a poignant example of someone who has tried to build sustainable social relationships and networks from the bottom up, often in a way that defies the war over price, as well as state authority. This so-called King of the WC recycles things and people that others have deemed worthless and helps to forge them into something generative and impressive. At times he may seem to lose the war over price but he is still able to win more times than not, by cultivating his seemingly worthless but actually invaluable social connections. Indeed, La Gomme’s apparent refusal to rely on price as the measure of the value of things or relationships points to an emerging argument about social value, a “theory from the South” presented from the vantage of those who walk the earth in unfashionable footwear.30

The paradox at the heart of Congolese understandings of price and price wars captures the reality of capitalism’s social foundations. Congolese involved in the mineral trade see price as entirely constructed and negotiable in that it is nothing more than the agreement that people arrive at together. On the other hand, price is completely fixed because Congolese are removed from the social personages that manufacture price for their own advantage. The “true price” is a price that they will never see, but not because there is anything abstract about it. Price is removed from them and from their capacity to influence it not because it is independent of culture and social relationships, as the well-trained American investment bankers that are the subject of Karen Ho’s masterful ethnography of Wall Street imagine to be the case (Ho 2009). Rather, price remains beyond their control for entirely social reasons: because a network of powerful agents continues to manage events in their pursuit of Congolese wealth, in an ongoing and incremental way, the likes of which Congolese only glimpse in moments some of them hope will never end.


This article has benefitted greatly from feedback from a variety of sources. I would especially like to thank Jeff Mantz, Joshua Walker, Bekah Wilson, Gustav Peebles, James Ferguson, John Comaroff, Andrew Apter, Allen Roberts, Vincanne Adams, Ian Whitmarsh, and the anonymous Hau reviewers. Gustav Peebles was especially helpful in pushing me to make certain connections regarding information [30]asymmetry, natural price, and price wars (I first learned about the first two concepts from him). Earlier versions of this article, or parts of it, were presented at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings (2013), Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of California–San Francisco, UCLA, the UC Davis Humanities Institute’s Temporalities Research Cluster workshop, and the American Ethnological Society Annual Conference (2015). This on-going research is funded by the National Science Foundation, and was carried out principally in North Kivu (mines and mining towns in Walikale, Masisi, and Idjwi Island), South Kivu (Uvira, Luhwindja, and Shabunda) and Maniema (Kindu, Kalima, Kailo, and Punia) over a period so far totaling over one year.


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“May it never end”: Guerre des prix, réseaux et temporalité dans le marché minier des “trois T” de l’est de la République Démocratique du Congo (RDC)

Résumé : Dans cet article, j’examine l’experience du capitalisme de l’ère digitale des communautés minières de l’est de la RDC. Je montre comment une économie extractive du tantale, de l’étain (tin), et du tungstène (que les ONG appellent les 3T) forge l’expérience et la compréhension de l’espace, du temps, et de la valeur. A l’aide de récits oraux et d’autres matériaux ethnographiques, je présente les connections entre temps et prix, ainsi que la guerre des prix de cette économie caractérisée par une grande incertitude temporelle une situation de rupture.

James H. SMITH is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at UC Davis. He received his PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago, and was a Rockefeller Fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace-building at the University of Notre Dame. He works in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he is currently conducting research on the artisanal mining of coltan and tin as well as efforts at regulation, with support from the National Science Foundation. Smith’s books include Bewitching development: Witchcraft and the reinvention of development in Neoliberal Kenya (University of Chicago Press, 2009), Email from Ngeti (University of California Press, 2014), and Displacing the state: Religion and conflict in neoliberal Africa (ed., with Rosalind Hackett, University of Notre Dame Press). He has published many articles and book chapters, including “Tantalus in the Digital Age: Coltan ore, temporal dispossession and ‘movement’ in the Eastern DR Congo” (American Ethnologist 2011).

James H. Smith
Department of Anthropology
University of California Davis
One Shields Avenue. Davis, CA 95616


1. In contrasting material infrastructure with social infrastructure I have in mind Abou Maliq Simone’s (2004) formulation of “people as infrastructure” in contemporary Africa; see also de Boeck (2012).

2. Unlike gold, which can be easily smuggled and which soldiers continue to control the mining of, even when they have moved away from the more visible “3 T” mines.

3. Artisanal mining is a term that emerges from the “development” world, which to many evokes a sense of miners as entrepreneurial craftspeople in the manner of artisanal cheese or chocolate makers. In fact, the literature on artisanal mining tends to be divided between those who see it as inherently chaotic, violent, and prone to militarization (see for example Global Witness 2009; IPIS 2002; Dorner, et al. 2012; and Perks 2011), and those who see in it a kind of bottom-up neoliberal future in which entrepreneurs and workmen remake their societies artisanally (for more on this see Hilson 2007; Hayes 2008; Hentschel, Nruschka and Priester 2002; Garrett and Mitchell 2009. See also Mantz 2008 for a particularly insightful take on such “improvisational economies” in the DRC).

4. Mines are governed and taxed by a combination of figures and “genres,” including customary authorities, diverse nonmilitary state actors, mining companies in which the government has a stake, and military actors. The state emerges differently at different mines and, as one informant put it to me, “each mine is its own universe.” The larger the mine, the more complex and multiple are the governing systems to be found there. These days, the Congolese army (FARDC) is often involved in the “taxing” of miners and, especially, the transport of minerals, despite efforts by Congolese state actors and international NGOs and corporations to regulate the trade. Many, perhaps most, mines do not have a military presence (their presence is illegal at mines), though military actors are often involved in transport (illegally). Some mines are controlled by non-FARDC militias, such as Mai Mai or FDLR.

5. Men are typically involved in digging and organizing labor, while women may be involved in cleaning and sorting minerals, or preparing food and other necessities. During certain price hikes, women and children have also been directly involved in digging and selling minerals.

6. See, for example, Smith 2008; Piot 2010; Jones 2010. Much of the work on Pentecostalism in Africa has similarly been concerned with how practitioners work to either break away from the constraints of the past or recuperate it for various projects: see, for example, Smith 2008; Smith and Mwadime 2014; Meyer 1998; Piot 2010. I have referred to postcolonial African struggles to control people’s movement through time or to upend modernist teleologies of progress as tempopolitics, which I see as a distinctive feature of postcolonial African life (Smith 2008).

7. The contrast between “thick” and “thin” extraction is James Ferguson’s. The focus on mineral enclaves as sites of emerging sovereignties amid the transformation of nation state sovereignty has been proposed by William Reno (1999) and elaborated on by Ferguson (2006).

8. The war came to an official end in 2003 and, beginning in 2005, enemy combatants from occupying militias like the RCD (Rally for Congolese Democracy) and MLC (the Uganda-backed Movement for the Liberation of Congo), as well as indigenous Mai Mai militias, were absorbed into the army. This led to multiple problems within the army, most notably the fact that commanding officers were often former RCD combatants who now commanded their former enemies, Congolese army and Mai Mai insurgents, while also monopolizing the opportunities that mines, and their taxation, afforded.

9. Kikuyu are a major Kenyan Bantu ethnicity, many of whom have, ironically, long had a conflicted relationship with the Nilotic Kenyan Luo.

10. This story of gentrification also accords well with what has actually happened in cities like Goma. See Buscher and Vlassenroot (2010) on the humanitarian industry’s role in gentrifying Goma and driving up real estate prices.

11. The transformation of Congolese militias is truly difficult to comprehend and keep up with. Take, for example, Jason Stearns’s (2012) well-researched piece on how elements of the CNDP “evolved” into M 23, and the various offshoots that resulted. Or Christophe Vogel’s (2014) complex discussion of one of the newer Mai Mai groups, Raia Mtomboki.

12. For excellent and exhaustive accounts of DR Congo history, as well as more recent events, see Van Reybrouck 2014; Nzongola-Ntanjala 2002; Prunier 2011; Lemarchand 2008; and Turner 2013.

13. For a more nuanced, subtle, and historically informed understanding of this period than I can present here, see Hunt (2008).

14. See former CIA station chief Lawrence Devlin (2008) for a remarkably honest account of US foreign policy in DR Congo in the early postindependence period, including a discussion of the CIA plot to assassinate Lumumba and install Mobutu. See also Weissman (2014).

15. As Koen Vlassenroot and Timothy Raeymaekers have put it, local entrepreneurs sought out networks with Rwandan and Ugandan invaders (the “rebels”) because “connection with the rebels was a necessary condition to continue or expand their activities and to increase the predictability of commercial activity in terms of logistics and revenue” (quoted in Turner 2013: 159). They also point out that the exploitation of local resources forced the invaders to negotiate with Congolese entrepreneurs, so the need for predictable social networks ran in both directions.

16. The wars date back to 1993 in the Kivus, even though the first Congolese War of “liberation,” in which President Mobutu was ousted, started in 1996 and ended in 1997. The Second Congolese war (1998–2003) involved around nine African nations and led to the DRC being partitioned up by militarized groups, which governed their zones until 2003. At that time, a transition government was created, and four vice presidents were selected from among the main occupying factions. Some militias, particularly different Mai Mai groups and the FDLR, continue to be active in some regions to this day, though the war officially ended in 2003. By some estimates, around six million people have died from war-related violence since the onset of the war, more than any single conflict since World War II.

17. According to Nicholas Garrett and Harrison Mitchell (2009), over ten million Congolese people depended on mining at the time of their study.

18. For examples see Harden (2001); IPIS (2002); United Nations Security Council (2002); Human Rights Watch (2009); Global Witness (2009); for an overview and critique of the crafting of the NGO conflict minerals argument see Nest (2011).

19. For critical commentaries on the impact that these NGOs have had, on Dodd-Frank’s consequences, and on the concept of “conflict free” minerals see Seay (2012); Raghavan (2014); Worstall (2011); King (2014); Bafilemba, Mueller, and Leshnev (2014).

20. For a broader, historical understanding of the semiotics of soap in the wider region see Burke (1996).

21. The value that artisanal miners place on mobility, and the relation between and new forms of masculine subjectivity, has been noted by many, including Cuvelier (2011); Smith (2011); de Boeck (1998); and Jønsson and Bryceson (2009); Ferguson (2006) has argued that mobility is a feature of neoliberal state transformation.

22. This appropriation of fantastic far away names to describe the promising potential of Congolese space is a well-known practice of urban place making, especially in Kinshasa (de Boeck and Plessart 2004). But in the case of mines, the urban emerges suddenly in the forest only to disappear just as quickly, and so the naming practices draw attention to the almost-but-not-quite—the just out of reach, tantalizing promise of radical transformation that becomes momentarily visible during sudden changes in price.

23. This reflects the general sense of NGOs being opportunistic hit-and-run organizations that leave behind more problems than they’ve solved. When I was in Punia in 2013, an NGO had been sanitizing the water and making sure the local hospital was stocked with medicines. When it left suddenly, without most people knowing, many people (myself included) became terribly sick from drinking the tap water they had recently grown accustomed to. Soon there were no medicines in the hospital and young children and infants died at an alarming rate.

24. Not only in Punia but also throughout the Eastern Congo.

25. Punia is remembered as an old man who met the Belgians when everyone else ran away, and whose great-grandson now collects the rent for Sakima.

26. The introduction of SAESSCAM (Small Scale Miners Technical Assistance and Training Service), an internal subdivision of the Ministry of Mines, was intended to assist artisanal miners and ensure their safety and well-being. But this had not happened, mostly because they lacked the resources. Rather, it had made matters worse by adding a whole other category of people that wanted “tax” (SAESSCAM is not unique to Punia).

27. In 2010, new regulations in mining mandated that minerals had to pass through the provincial capitals so that tax could be collected there, even though the traditional export towns of Goma and Bukavu were connected to Punia by cargo plane.

28. I have come across several mines in which two or more descent groups compete over the right to collect tax, typically with one making claims about rules of descent, and the other making a territorial claim. In each case, these groups sought out different state authorities to make good on their claim, pitting those authorities (e.g., a military official and a mayor) against one another.

29. This also reflects how deals and prices are made in the DR Congo. Take the case of Dan Gertler, a 38-year-old Israeli diamond trader who began doing business in the DR Congo when he was in his early twenties. He is now worth over two billion dollars and “has stakes in companies that control 9.6% of world cobalt production (Wild, Kavanagh, and Ferzier 2012).” He began by buying rough diamonds, and gradually developed political connections that continued through two Congolese presidencies. Today he uses his government connections to buy state-owned mines at low prices and then resell them, earning himself billions while Congolese people lose out on all the potential mine revenue. Thanks to the anthropologist of artisanal diamond mining in Mbuji Mayi, Joshua Walker (personal communication), for bringing this story to my attention.

30. The phrase is from John and Jean Comaroffs’ book of the same name.