Saturday, October 4, 2008

Bejing Raises Leopold's Ghost

I interrupt the election to bring you an article that caught my jaundiced eye. I am familiar with the Chinese presence in Cuba, not one I consider particularly helpful to the cause of Cuban freedom. I had not, however, heard of their involvement in Sub-Saharan Africa. Reading it immediately brought to mind a very good book, King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild, which details Belgium's involvement in the Congo. It is eminently readable for a work of nonfiction.

It is a variation of the phenomenon Hitchens (Peter, not Christopher) describes that I fear for Cuba. As he researches the story, his life is in peril because the Africans in abject misery fear that if light is brought on the situation, the Chinese will leave, and they will be even worse off. And who's to blame them? Here is the crux:

These poor, hopeless, angry people exist by grubbing for scraps of cobalt and copper ore in the filth and dust of abandoned copper mines in Congo, sinking perilous 80ft shafts by hand, washing their finds in cholera-infected streams full of human filth, then pushing enormous two-hundredweight loads uphill on ancient bicycles to the nearby town of Likasi where middlemen buy them to sell on, mainly to Chinese businessmen hungry for these vital metals.

To see them, as they plod miserably past, is to be reminded of pictures of unemployed miners in Thirties Britain, stumbling home in the drizzle with sacks of coal scraps gleaned from spoil heaps.
Except that here the unsparing heat makes the labour five times as hard, and the conditions of work and life are worse by far than any known in England since the 18th Century.

Many perish as their primitive mines collapse on them, or are horribly injured without hope of medical treatment. Many are little more than children. On a good day they may earn $3, which just supports a meagre existence in diseased, malarial slums.

We had been earlier to this awful pit, which looked like a penal colony in an ancient slave empire.
Defeated, bowed figures toiled endlessly in dozens of hand-dug pits. Their faces, when visible, were blank and without hope.

We had been turned away by a fat, corrupt policeman who pretended our papers weren't in order, but who was really taking instructions from a dead-eyed, one-eared gangmaster who sat next to him.

By the time we returned with more official permits, the gangmasters had readied the ambush.
The diggers feared - and their evil, sinister bosses had worked hard on that fear - that if people like me publicised their filthy way of life, then the mine might be closed and the $3 a day might be taken away.

I can give you no better explanation in miniature of the wicked thing that I believe is now happening in Africa.

Of course, as we are often reassured, conditions in Cuba are much better than in darkest Africa. But then, they always have been. Anyway, read the article. The analysis is incisive; the judgement; mordant.

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