In Kinshasa, a stone quarry provides work for dozens of people but the work is extremely hard – also for the women and children. The site is guarded by soldiers and impossible to approach. We have met some of the workers.
It is not only gold and precious minerals that have value. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, even ordinary stone is exploited by local craftsmen, even there where you might least expect it: in a gravel pit well within the capital. Not in the run-down outskirts but in the heart of Kinshasa, in the Ngaliema quarter, one of the oldest, and but a short distance from the President’s Palace. We are on the Congo River: here we find the luxurious residence of Joseph Kabila, the President, and just beyond it a white inferno of gravel where extreme poverty drives desperate people of all ages to take on this very hard work, with no training, in order to earn enough to make ends meet. The quarry is guarded by soldiers and it is not possible to approach it, except on rare occasions.
At the entrance we meet Jacobo Cédrick, a young man of 28: he previously left DRC to seek work in Congo Brazzaville but his dream became a nightmare when he was expelled from that country. Now he is here in this quarry breaking stones to produce gravel, from ten to twenty buckets a day to earn between five and ten euro. He has a son to look after but no wife. By working he earns enough to keep them both. Jacobo works seven days a week in order to earn his living. “I am happy to work here – he says, proudly – even if the government cares nothing for us. What we object to are the bad security conditions of our work”.
Maman Christine listens, glances at us and lowers her gaze. She has nine children and has worked here since 2001. She raised all her children and sent them to school with her earnings in the quarry. Her husband is unemployed and Christine struggles every day to survive. “Our work exposes us to serious danger. Even so, we have no choice. My husband has not worked for fifteen years and the children suffer, so I have to do what I can. Things were very bad at first, but in the end…”, she sighs without finishing the sentence. “Many girls are vulnerable due to poverty”, she concludes.
Papy, who has worked here for two years, is curious to see what is happening and approaches us. Married and with four children, he manages to produce a $100 worth of gravel a week. A hammer, a chisel and some old pieces of iron are his tools of the trade to make gravel. Due to the lack of even minimal organisation in the quarry, the workers often lose even that minimum they should receive because of the ‘commissionaires’, agents who place themselves as intermediaries between the sellers and buyers, mercilessly gaining through the work of Papy and others. This unwarranted appropriation takes place with the complicity of the city authorities. The workers’ complaints are ignored and this is happening in a country where corruption has reached saturation point. “The only benefit of this work is that I can feed my children”, Papy adds.
Isaac, nicknamed ‘Robot’, is an energetic lad. With five years’ experience, Robot has achieved personal success in the quarry. His strength, determination and will power help him to ignore the passing of time and to work tirelessly. Formerly, explosives were used to break the rocks but today that is forbidden and gravel can only be produced by manual labour that determines how much is produced and how much is earned. Explosives were not forbidden to protect the workers but due to a decision imposed by a senator who lives nearby, probably to avoid being disturbed by the noise of the explosions.
Living here in this place is far from easy. A worker needs strength and courage and must be willing to accept whatever dangers there are. “We know very well and accept the permanent dangers of this work. Our lives are also in danger and we have no protection, risking our lives at times. But if we just fold our arms and do nothing, there will be no manna from heaven; this is our lot”.
Everyone in the quarry admires ‘Eternel’, a nickname he was given due to his incredible strength that enables him to carry about fifty rocks weighing from seventy to one hundred kilograms. He is also called the ‘vampire man’. His job is to load the rocks onto lorries, another basic and very dangerous stage in the work of the quarry. When buyers come, rocks and gravel are loaded onto the vehicles. This is what the workers are waiting for, seeing the fruit of their labours. When the vehicles come to the quarry, they know that the material is being sold and they will receive the recompense of their labours. Ngaliema Quarry, on the bank of the Congo River is, in its own way, a place of convivial work where people support one another, just like an anthill where each element has their own task: some break the stones and others carry them and load them onto lorries.