August 24, 2008

China in Africa: Young Workers, Deadly Mines

Adon Kalenga works seven days a week collecting minerals from the ground with his bare hands.

He is 13 years old and lives in Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has no home and can't afford the $6 a month it costs to attend public school in this central African country of 62 million. Sometimes he sleeps in the streets; other nights he spends in an orphanage.

Mostly, he works, earning about $3 per day. He's one of 67,000 people in Katanga who earn a living collecting stones infused with two minerals that are in demand worldwide: copper and cobalt. Reddish-brown copper is used to make the electrical wires needed to light the world's cities. Cobalt, a silver-gray metal, is used to make jet engines, ink and mobile phone batteries.

Katanga, a region of green rolling hills that's bigger than California, is home to 5.5 million people. The province in the south of Congo contains 4 percent of the world's copper and a third of its cobalt reserves, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The minerals Adon and children like him wrest from the red, hard earth find their way to smoky smelters on the edge of impoverished towns near the mines. Most of these rusting, hand-fed furnaces are owned by companies based in a faraway country, one that was founded on an ideology that exalts the rights of workers: the People's Republic of China.

``My life is hard,'' says Adon, wearing black rubber boots, a hooded sweatshirt and ripped jeans that sag on his skinny frame.

`I Don't Know Why'

Adon's left shin is scarred from a fall during a mine landslide three years ago that killed workers, including four young friends. He spends the day around unstable, hand-dug mineshafts, using his bare hands to fill sacks with ore.

He then hauls the rocks down a steep trail. At the end of the path, he works knee-deep in a stream, the kind that has spread a cholera epidemic throughout much of Katanga. The boy's hands are raw from washing rocks in a metal screen.

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