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The Democratic Republic of Congo Diary: Looking for Chinese people who are mining gold in the dark forests of Africa

Author:

In 2015, Hongxiang Huang, the founder of China House, went to the eastern border city of Democratic Republic of Congo as a consultant for international organizations to investigate the Chinese people in a turbulent African country. Five years later, this experience of Huang formed words for the first time and presented it to readers.

In these texts, you will see thrilling stories on the research journey: he was almost caught in jail, blackmailed, and undercover; you will also learn many skills through Huang’s personal experience: how to get projects from international organizations, how to do a cross-border survey. More importantly, you will follow in the footsteps of Huang: going deep into African countries that you can’t even imagine and exploring the mystery of the interests and the legendary destiny of countless people.

Prologue: Working for an international organization, I was sent to a cannibalistic African city

On March 29, 2015, Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, I came out of the airport, took a taxi, and told the driver: I am going to Goma, the border city between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. The city, occupied by rebels 3 years ago, has been going through many brutal armed conflicts.

Rebels were everywhere on the streets of Goma three years ago/ photo source: Internet

The driver froze for a moment, and immediately responded with standard English pronunciation of “sure” — when we bought drinks at the canteen on the road, he leaned on the freezer and told me that he had already driven many people from Kigali to Goma, most of them are “Gringo” who help the UN and other international organizations to do projects. ” I have seen a sheer number of Europeans and Americans, Asian guys, you are the first one.”

Although Goma is in Congo, it is much farther if we go through Kinshasa than Kigali, so people usually go through Rwanda

2015 is my third year of rooting in Africa, the second year I started China House in Kenya, and the first year I lost my corporate sponsorship and had to pay 10,000 yuan every month for maintaining China House.

I started a business with no savings and did not find a profit model. In order to survive in those two years, I went crazy in “working”:

I have translated English power-points for others and served as an on-site interpreter for court, but what I committed the most for past several years is to “help” international organizations — with my previous research experience, I became their consultant researcher.

I still remember how I met my “patron”, the researcher Xiaoxue from IIED, when I was in straitened circumstances. When she came to Kenya for a business trip, she told me that they have a three-year project to study Chinese companies’ investment in Africa’s mining, agriculture, and forestry. Researchers need to do field research and collect first-hand data.

After hearing the high wages of international organizations, and I was dumbfounded like a blockhead —”Ten days of research could pay China House’s rent for more than two months!”

So, I quickly agreed. I grabbed the offer without any hesitance as if the chance would be gone for next two seconds. 

The project that this international organization was doing at the time focused on the impact of Chinese companies on the sustainable development in Africa. They selected several countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, and Zimbabwe as research samples, and selected gold mining, timber, and cotton industries as their specific focuses.

The research project of an international organization often requires lengthy time commitment. For example, this project requires three years of time commitment, and the investment in manpower and funds is relatively large. Therefore, before a large number of people devote themselves to the project, they often conduct a scoping research before, which simply means “stepping on points.” In other words, they want to get a preliminary understanding of the situation in this place and see if this topic is feasible.

In 2015, I was the main “scout” of this project.

My first task was to go to the Goma region in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo to understand the current situation of the Chinese people panning for gold there.

I told one of my friends who had lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo for many years that I was going to Goma for research. His first reaction was that I was crazy: “I haven’t been to Goma for so many years, and I don’t know anyone who has been there. It is a war zone, and most people don’t usually go there.”

At that time, I had lived in Africa for more than two years, and I often said: “Africa is not as dangerous as we thought.” But when I prepared to go to Goma, I realized that Africa does have places as chaotic and dangerous as we thought.

In Goma area, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s rebel M23 is active.

M23 soldiers/ Photo Source: Reuters

In March 2005, the United Nations peacekeeping force in Bunia (not far from Goma) issued a report that some tribal rebel fighters used grills to roast human corpses and even boiled living people with boiling water. According to a woman named Zainapo Alfani, in June 2003, the rebels cooked and ate two of her daughters in front of her.

UN News Screenshot

In 2012, M23 completely occupied Goma for a period of time. Before and after that, the United Nations continued to receive reports of members of the M23 movement killing and injuring civilians, raping, looting, and forcibly recruiting child soldiers in the surrounding areas of Goma.

Later, M23 withdrew from Goma but armed force still remained active there.

This is the purpose of my research. I not only need to guarantee my personal safety in this war-torn region, but also conduct a research report that meets the high requirements of international organizations within a limited time.

Chapter One: First night in Goma, I was suffered in extortion and soon get blackmailed by the police

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the countries with the largest area and richest natural resources in Africa. However, it is also one of the poorest and most chaotic countries in Africa.

The term “resource curse” demonstrates what The Democratic Republic of Congo has been going through in recent years — the rich mineral and forestry resources not only failed to bring happiness to the people of this country, but also caused countless battles between different tribes. Foreign force interfered the political affair during the internal turmoil, which brings the corruption, war, and danger in The Democratic Republic of Congo.

The entry into the Democratic Republic of Congo went smoothly. In the past, when I entered other African countries, I needed to pay a tip of dozens of dollars and bribed the police to get through. But in the Democratic Republic of Congo I was not blackmailed, and the entire immigration process was extremely efficient. In less than an hour, I successfully set foot on the territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

“Look, the Democratic Republic of Congo is not as dangerous as they say.” I comforted myself.

I took my passport and walked out of the customs. As soon as I looked up, I saw a gentle man approaching me: “Are you Hong (my English name)? I’m Franswa, I am a researcher who works for CREF, a research institute in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Xiaoxue asked me to pick you up.”

When I first met Franceswar, he was dressed up with a suit and tie. This photo shows how he looks like during field work studies

In order to help me survive in a French-speaking country (and complete the task with high efficiency), the international organization helped me find two scholars in the research institute in Goma to accompany me completing this survey.

The introduction email said:

“Franswa is the chief forestry expert of CREF. Among the people I met in the Democratic Republic of Congo, his English is outstanding; Issac is the chief mining expert of CREF. If you speak English slowly, he can understand.”

Issac, me, and Franceswar during research trip

I thought I would meet a particularly rigid “scholar”, but Franswa and Issac were so nice and easy to approach.

“Goma is considered a tourism city, let’s take you to a sightseeing tour first!”

They drove me around the small town of Goma and I saw the smoking volcano in the Virunga National Park.

“It is the oldest national park in Africa. The tropical rain forest contains the last mountain gorilla in Africa-the prototype of the movie “King Kong”.”

Franswa also imitated the gorilla to me.

Mount Virunga can be seen in the distance from Goma

They also took me to the shore of Lake Kivu which is next to the city, and I finally came to realize that how beautiful the city is.

On the shores of Goma’s beautiful Lake Kivu, many poor locals are fishing, handling fish and runing small businesses

“Goma was originally a tourism city that European and American tourists love to come here. Unfortunately, because of wars and other turmoils, only a few tourist would come here to visit.” Franswa said with regret.

In the impoverished eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the tourism industry that had been hoped for thriving did not develop as people expected. In addition, the high shortage of materials caused high prices — US dollars is the only currency here, and a meal costs 20 ~ 30 US dollars.

Goma has a kind of wooden “bicycle” on its streets, a place where high prices and backwardness combine perfectly

“The hotel by Lake Kivu is the nice one among other hotels. Many European and American pundits choose to stay there.” Franswa recommended a hotel to me.

“Too expensive, let’s switch to the cheaper one!” I insisted on changing to a cheaper hotel.

The budget that the International organization gave to me for lodging is fixed, if I chose to stay at the cheap hotel I could save some expenses. Therefore, I chose to spend the budget frugally.

The hotel I ended up staying. It was still above average in the area, and the environment was nice in general

At that moment, I did not remember the words my parents used to warn me when I was young: “The cheapest things are the most expensive.”

For local dishes, tilapia from Lake Kivu is a common dish here

After settling down at the hotel, Franswa and the others said goodbye and arranged to pick me up on the next day.

I was starving after the day trip at Congo. As soon as I entered my room, I put my things in my room and went to the hotel restaurant to have a local meal. When I went back to my room to take a rest from the restaurant, I was shocked.

I found that the schoolbag in my room was opened — all my belongings were scattered all over the floor, and the envelope which contains a sheer volume of cash (about 1,500 dollars) is missing. Due to the fact that I didn’t expect to use credit card in a woody country, therefore I only brought cash to this trip. 

I wanted to make some money in this trip, but the money was stolen even before I embarked my trip. At that moment, my heartbeat was bumping hard, feeling that the sky was falling down on me. I went staggering out of the room, holding the door to the room, looking at the sky. At that specific moment, I felt extremely helpless and vulnerable in a distant foreign country.

This is a hotel room. How can things be stolen in a hotel room!

I quickly found the hotel reception and asked them to call the police. What I thought at the time was that if the hotel stole it, they may return it secretly before the police came; if the hotel did not steal it, at least the police could write me a certificate of theft, and I could seek compensation from a insurance company.

Calling the police turned out to be the worst judgment I made that day.

A few hours later, two Congolese police come into my hotel room. They are extremely burly. The come into my room with a pokerface, and said nonchalantly:

“Show me your passport and visa.”

“Why are you here and what do you want to do here?”

“You said you are here to do research. Where is the government permit?”

The two policemen didn’t care about my lost belongings and money. Instead, they kept questioning me with their unclean English, with doubts and disdain tone.

In the end, they said viciously to me: we have worked so hard to come here, you need to give us money, otherwise we will arrest you and put you in the prison.

I jumped up: “Why!”

The police officer didn’t answer me, instead, they started to grabbed my collar and pulled me out of my room.

At that moment, all the horror stories about the Democratic Republic of Congo I read came to my mind, reminding me of what could happened in the prison of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“There is no way back if they take me to the police station.” I warned myself.

I changed my attitude and told them I could go back and check how much money I have left in my bag.

Seeing that I was willing to cooperate, the police sat in the chairs and waited while playing with their mobile phones.

I quickly went to the toilet and called Franswa, “The police are going to take me to the prison, please come and help me!”

I was spooked that I could not remember anything after I called Franswa. Looking back, I think I made the call to Franswa with crying and shaky voice. 

About twenty minutes later, Franswa showed up.I felt like I saw a savior.

Franswa quickly started to negotiate with the two police officers. He talked to them polite and respectful tone with smiles all over his face.

They were communicating with French which I don’t understand what they are talking about. But one thing I could tell is that Franswa was trying to make them happy.

About 15 minutes later, Franswa came up to me and quietly pulled me aside: “Do you still have 100 dollars? Give it to me.”

I found 100 dollars from the remained money left in my schoolbag and handed it to him.

Franswa took the money from me and walked towards the policeman, again, with a smile. They talked for a few minutes, and I saw Franswa stuffed the money into the hands of the policeman. He patted the policeman on the waist, and sent them out of the room respectfully.

Police’s footsteps receded into the night. Franswa smiled and said to me: “It’s okay, Don’t worry about it.”

“You must be very polite when you talk to these policemen. They are sensitive about their reputation. You must make them feel respected and happy all the time.”

“In the Democratic Republic of Congo, people in general don’t usually call the police. I thought you have been to Africa for several times, and I assumed you would understand the hidden rules here.”

“Keep this in your mind! Today is late and we should get some rest, we need to embark our trip tomorrow!”

After Franswa left, I could not fall in asleep that night. Drinking the beer I brought back from the restaurant, I could still feel my shivering legs. I was worried about the 20-days adventures ahead in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The red arrows indicates our research journey for three weeks, which covers thousands of kilometers

Chapter Two: Delving into the Congolese rainforest and looking for Chinese who were mining for gold

After a short period of rest and recuperation, the three of us first started our journey in  Goma and then took a small plane to Benin, a town in the north of Virunga National Park (we have to take flight because there were rebels in the forest of the national park).

Franswa rented a car and we started to drive towards Eastern Province, a forest region in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

local flight tickets
The small plane we took
Inside of the small plane (looks like a bus)

The first time I saw a full of sand track

Eastern Province is a large peripheral area of The Democratic Republic of Congo. It cannot be denied that the eastern province is densely forested, poor and backward, which makes the transportation inaccessible.

With no clues and idea where to find the Chinese who were mining for gold in The Democratic Republic of Congo , we had no choice but to drive around in the northeast of The Democratic Republic of Congo to find Chinese people. We drove through city by city, town by town until we hit the border. However, we could not find any Chinese. As a result, we turned back and started over again. 

Whenever we arrived at a place, we asked the locals: “Do you know any Chinese here?”

Locals have hard time to recognize Asians throughout the history, so it is extremely hard for us to find Chinese people.

Once, we passed a village and saw a crowds of villagers who were chatting in the shade of spreading oaks. (It is easy to distinguish locals because they often chatting in the shade of a tree for a long period of time) The village chief told to us confidently: if you go towards this direction for about 100 kilometers, you will find some Chinese people doing mineral project!”

After several hours, we traversed the bumpy mountain and found a mining camp.

We were so excited and thought we would find the Chinese mining camp without out huge commitment. However, when we saw the person who came to open the door had big eyebrows, a high nose, and an Indiana English accent, we realized that this was an Indian mining camp.

Turned out, besides Chinese, there are also many Indians in The Democratic Republic of Congo.

When the Indians found out that it was a villager who guided us to this mining camp, they laughed and complained: Most of the Africans have hard time to distinguish Indians, Chinese and Japanese.

what the villages look like in Congo

Surrounded by the mis-information, we started from Benin and headed to the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, trying our best to find Chinese.

As we embarked towards north, the asphalt road gradually turned into a gravel road, or sometimes even a muddy road. Compare to what we have seen in the Benin, there were more shocking views on the road, which reminds me that we have entered a different world.

Our car

For example, a cow with huge horns.

For example, a large number of butterflies gathered on the road.

Another example, when we were stuck in a traffic jams on a cliff road, people started to chisel the rock and forcibly make another lane.

The further we went, the natural environment we faced.

Even an off-road vehicle with a heightened chassis could beat a bumpy road in many cases.

In the left photo, Franceswar was looking at a local car that was buried in mud

In many places, in order to go into the forests where the gold rush camps can be found, when cars are really impassable, we had to abandon the cars and take local motorcycles instead.

Driving motorbike on the grassland

It’s not just the traffic difficulties, but the conditions in these inaccessible places were also concerning. The lack of water and electricity also imposed burdens in the locals and us. There were flying insects everywhere in the room (near the rainforest) that we dwelled on, and even the best hotels in the town didn’t even have toilets. We had go to the wild to solve the nature’s call.

Compare to the locals, we are the tycoon here. When we arrived in a village, we often requested: “Where is the most expensive hotel? We are going there!”

The most expensive hotel in one of the village in Congo, looks like a prison
I was in a hotel room — the best hotel in the area — and there were a lot of flying insects on the floor

The reason why we chose the most expensive hotel is that the most expensive hotel in this kind of place sometimes only costs ten dollars per night for a room — it cannot be denied that even poor scholars can afford it.

Because there are no tourists, the food here is not particularly delicious for outsiders. In many villages, I almost spit out the “food” that the locals enjoy it.

Local food in northeastern DRC

However, comparing to the obstacles such as eating and sleeping, there were barriers  that hindered us from advancing in our journey. 

In order to find Chinese who are mining gold, we often drove a very long period of time. In such a cases, we would run into three police officers who were trying to blackmail  passengers every day. When these policemen saw us, without exception, they would  create some drama for us for the purpose of squandering money.

No matter how many documents we have prepared, they always found new reasons to prevent us from going:

“You are missing a license issued by another department.”

“Your certificate is missing a stamp.”

“Your seal is too fuzzy.”

Whenever this happened, Franswa would let me sit in the car, and he and Issac would negotiate with the police with money.

Franswa often tried really hard to not let them saw me: “Oh my God, when they see you with a foreigner’s face, they will definitely grab the chance to blackmail us. In that case,W we can’t bargain with them anymore!”

However, countless bargaining finally made Franswa lose his temper.

One day, we were stopped by the police next to a small village.

This was the village

The reason the police stopped us this time was utter nonsense. He said our permit was missing a stamp from the capital’s mining authority.

Franswa has been doing a sheer volume of research in this field and he knew that he was just trying to make something up. Franswa was very angry: “We are not giving him money this time, we just gonna stay here and argue with them! Can’t spoil these rascals!”

The guy who was wearing leather jacket and hat was the head of the police officer

After a long wait, we saw  a group of Indians came and was also stopped for inexplicable reasons by the polices. They were very angry and quarreled with the police as well. Later, when they couldn’t persuade police for letting them go without paying, they allowed the police to get money in their cars.

Police officer was communicating with Indians

After a while, I saw a policeman who was yelling at those Indians and immediately walked out of the car furiously.

“Why are you taking pictures of me? Do you think I am a monkey? Do you understand  what respect is?!”

It turned out that one of the Indians was secretly filming a video of the police taking money from them.

These policemen were furious and smashed the cameraman’s mobile phone severely on the ground. At the end, the polices took the group of Indians to the police station.

“Well, I warned you that policemen in this area get furious when people pay no respect to them.” When Franswa saw the situation was not going to the right direction, he quickly stuffed some money to the police for bribery, and we drove away from this place as soon as we could. 

“If you ended up in the police station, we have to bribe a large number of people. Moreover, the police station here is lawless. Any ridiculous thing could happen in the police station here. We have to leave here as soon as there are a few people.” He warned me.

Gradually, I got used to the rules here including police coming to investigate and blackmail us in the hotels. I also became more familiar with the checkpoints along the way.

I gradually come to understand that when we say a place is “chaotic” only because we don’t understand the local rules.

In such a “chaotic” Congo, if you are familiar with the local rules and know how to communicate with the police in a gentle and polite manner, you can survive without spending a lot of money.

Accustomed to the local rules, I began to enjoy my journey in Congo.

The forest of ​​the Democratic Republic of Congo is recognized as the most primitive place in Africa today. All the stories are cloaked in myths and legends here.

On the journey, I met the Pygmies — the legendary “dwarves”, a group of people only 1.4 meters in height. They used to dwell deep in the forest but retreated to the side of the road because of the war.

To this day, they still live in “houses” which made by leaves and they still depended on hunting for food resources.

Throughout the journey, I also heard about some rare creatures such as okapi. Okapi also known as the forest giraffe, is an artiodactyl mammal native to the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. 

I have been to a lot of African countries but Congo is the only one that made the whole trip splendid.

Chapter Three: In the Chinese state-owned enterprise construction camp, I finally found Chinese

Two days after our journey in Eastern Province, we were dining at a small town, and the restaurant owner told us:

“I know where you can find Chinese! There is a group of Chinese who are constructing the roads near here secretly mine for gold! Their camp is right next to the town.”

We have fell flat many times, so we didn’t actually have any expectations at that time. However, we still went to check the camp that the restaurant owner told us.

When I saw the camp, I was so excited! Because the Chinese characters were written on the wall — this is a Chinese company!

However, it looks like a Chinese construction company. It confused me: do they also mine for gold?

“You are Chinese, you should go in and check what is going on inside! Maybe they just pretend they are building the roads but they are actually smuggling the gold secretly.” Franswa warned me.

I walked over and banged on the camp gate.

The one who opened the door was an African, and he gave me a puzzled look.

Although I cannot speak French, I still spoke confidently: “Chinese, Where?”

The guard couldn’t distinguish my relationship with the other Chinese inside of the camp, so he led me in and walked to the barracks.

“Are you Chinese? Where did you come from?” A middle-aged man in his forties or fifties walked towards me.

That was the first Chinese person I met in Eastern Province.

“Hello! I’m here to do academic research. I heard that there are Chinese people here, and I want to come here and take a look.”

This guy’s name is Wu, and he is the only Chinese employee in this camp. He came here with the Chinese engineering team to repair the road, and he has been here for five years.

Two years ago, the road was repaired, and the engineering team moved to another place. He was left here to take care of the camp.

“Isn’t it lonely to be alone in this place?” I looked at the surrounding mountains and forests outside the camp and was surprised that he had been here alone for two years.

“I am super lonely! But there is no way the company will let me go back because there is no one to replace me to stay here temporarily.”

Because of loneliness, Uncle Wu raises a few lambs in the yard and plays with them  every day.

He said that he also raised a chimpanzee baby sent by a black man – and he raised it like a child but was later reported as “smuggling endangered wild animals” and confiscated by the government.

Unlike the gold miners, the Chinese construction companies are state-owned, with much better camp facilities and amenities. The photo above shows the Chinese construction company camp

“The black people here have a lot of misunderstandings about the Chinese.” He smiled bitterly.

Uncle Wu smiled after heard that local people believe that Chinese construction company pretend they are constructing the roads, but they are secretly mining gold for lucrative profits. 

“It’s impossible for a state-owned enterprise to do that! However, we did rent engineering equipment to the Chinese who are mining for gold.”

Finally, I found a clue! I suddenly got excited.

“Are you looking for a Chinese who are mining for gold? I don’t have any contact information, but you may meet them after a few days here. They will come to me for medical treatment.” Uncle Wu served me a meal while calmly talking to me.

Chapter Four: “If you come a few days later, he will be as cold as wagon tire”

Franswa and I continued to search around the town for Chinese people who are mining gold, but we decided to return to the town at the night to check if any Chinese came to Uncle Wu’s place for medical treatment. When I came back from my trip, I always went to Uncle Wu for dinner.

A few days later, when I went to dinner in Uncle Wu’s palce, Uncle Wu said to me: “Chinese people, Here.”

He took me to their infirmary, and I met two Chinese people.

A young man was lying on a hospital bed, his eyes closed tightly, and his body twitched occasionally.

A middle-aged man sat right next to him with disheveled hair and bloodshot eyes. He was wearing a nice suit and leather shoes that stained with dirt.

Uncle Wu told me that the man was “swinging up”, which meant he had malaria.

Malaria is a local common disease, which is spread by mosquitoes. One’s life can be saved if the rescue comes on time.

“But if the treatment gets delayed, the malaria parasite enters the brain, and the human be will as cold as wagon tire.”

Uncle Wu told me that many gold prospectors would knock his door for help.

“They are all Chinese. I want to help them as much as possible. In order to provide medical treatment for the patient we have consumed most of the antimalarial drugs that were originally provided for our employees. The company will not supply the antimalarial drugs.” Uncle Wu produced a forced smile on his face.

I started to talk with the big brother who was sitting on the bench.

Brother Li is from Hunan and has only been here for a few months.

Six months ago, he worked as a contractor for a domestic private construction company. In the company, he met a boss. The boss told Brother Li that he has a gold mine here in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and many people came to mine and became rich. Boss asked brother Li if he would be interested in working at the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Our gold mining technology is excellent, and I have the technical skills and knowledge for mining gold. I am responsible for recruiting and bringing some Chinese workers to Congo from China.” Brother Li told me.

This iwas the first time that Brother Li and the workers have gone abroad. Although they master the mining technology, they know almost nothing about this land.

They followed the boss’s local “partner” in the Democratic Republic of Congo and settled down near the  river in Orientale Province. What they did all day was to explore and mine gold every day.

The campsite used generators, but it would not be turned at the night for the purpose of saving fuel. Although they brought mosquito nets, the workers refused to use them because it was too hot.

“No one has ever told me that the mosquitoes here are so terrible.”

A few days ago, while working in the river course, one of the workers suddenly fell down on the ground and started to convulse. The local workers used body language to inform Brother Li that this was a serious illness and would die without treatment.

Therefore, he drove out for a day and night, and took his workers to Uncle Wu’s camp for help.

“If you come one day later, you could be dead.” Uncle Wu said. Some of the gold prospectors he knew passed away like this.

A lot of Chinese people work in the heat with no shirts on and has zero concern for mosquitoes

Chapter Five: African Gold Rush

The worker fell asleep peacefully after getting the treatment. During the meal, Brother Li told me the story of the Chinese gold panning here in Congo.

In fact, gold mining is divided into “rock gold” and “sand gold”. The former requires extremely huge capital investment to mine the gold in rock veins. In contrast, the latter is much simpler in terms of technology — the gold can be produced efficiently only with some small mechanical equipment and chemical substances.

When we talk about Chinese panning gold in Africa, it usually refers to mine sand gold in the river.

The locals are mining for gold in the river

“All the rock gold resources are occupied by Western companies, and few Chinese have that kind of mining strength.” Li said.

However,  sand gold does not require such equipments compare to the rock gold. Many rivers in the eastern part of Congo actually contain sand gold. The locals often use very simple equipment to “wash” the river water to get the gold from themselves.

When Chinese came here, they would cooperate with local “mining bosses” and use the machinery and chemicals they brought to improve the efficiency of mining.

In fact, it is not legal for foreigners to engage in such small-scale sand gold mining in Congo. However, in this place, as long as you are willing to spend money, there is nothing you cannot do.

“A problem that can be solved with money is not a problem.” In Brother Li’s perspective, the corruption here is a good thing to foreigners who want to mine gold here. The profit of gold panning is also much higher than the cost of paying corrupt police and officials.

The Chinese gold prospectors here are mainly come from Guangxi and Hunan. According to Brother Li, the reason is that the sand gold mining technology in these two places is relatively better, so they were taken by the small companies to Africa for gold mining.

In the beginning, they were panning for gold in Ghana, West Africa. However, in order to  efficiently mine the gold in river, the Chinese neglect the importance of the eco-friendly development. They discharged toxic wastewater directly into the river, which destroyed many local forest vegetation. Such reckless business soon bred the clutter and  caused public outrage. As the consequence, the Chinese were pushed out of the Ghana and West Africa by the locals. 

“They only care about money. They are looking for quick success and quick profit. They have crossed the line.” Brother Li sighed.

As mentioned above, foreigners were not allowed to mine gold in Ghana due to the reckless gold mining. However, these Chinese did not stop their gold business in Africa. They moved to Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and other places to continue searching gold.

Compared to other Chinese, Brother Li and his workers were the late ones in mining gold in Africa. 

Chapter Six: By the river, I found a camp for Chinese gold prospectors

Brother Li gave me some clues and place names to find Chinese who were mining gold in Congo. Because of his help, our search became efficient.

Leaving the construction camp, we decided to embark to the northern part. Surprisingly,  the next day we found a gold rush camp by a river.

Rivers in the Democratic Republic of Congo
The camp that was surrounded by the iron sheet

“Go head, I confirmed with the locals that there are Chinese people in there.” Franswa pointed to a camp surrounded by iron sheets.

I walked to the camp and knocked on the door.

A few dogs came out of the crack while I was opening the door. I was frightened.

“It doesn’t matter, this dog doesn’t bite Chinese.”

The one who opened the door was a shirtless Chinese who looked at me with doubts: “Where are you? How can I help you?” — Later I learned that he thought I was a guy who came from another Chinese gold mining company.

Similarly, I introduced myself, saying that I am a researcher who is trying to conduct an academic research to study the gold mining industry here. On the way, I am not familiar with local languages and cultures. I heard that there are Chinese, so I came to see it.

The young Chinese man who opened the door was called Xiao Zhang, and he invited me to come in and visit the camp.

I finally walked into the Chinese gold rush camp that I have been looking for throughout the journey.

How Chinese camp looks like in the Democratic Republic of Congo

As soon as I walked into the camp, I found a large number of shirtless Chinese people who were chatting and smoking.

It may be that I have adapted to the living environment along the way, the environment in the camp actually feels clean and comfortable to me.

After chatting with them for a period of time, I found that Xiao Zhang were about the same age as me. Xiao Zhang also took the wine that they brewed for a while to share with me. Later, they even invited me to have dinner with them.

In the chat, Xiao Zhang told me he was born in Guangxi in 1990.

The place where Xiao Zhang sleeps at the night

When he was eighteen years old, he dropped out of school and came to Ghana, a country in western Africa, to mine for gold with his fellow villagers.

As Brother Li told me before, the Ghanaian government decided to expel the Chinese who polluted the environment throughout the process of illegal gold rushing.

One day, the military police surrounded Xiao Zhang and their camp.

Xiao Zhang and the others ran away. With a submachine gun and gold on his back, he ran up the mountain and hid in the forest.

“The machine guns were firing behind me, hahaha, but they missed it.” Xiao Zhang laughed out loud.

According to Xiao Zhang, when they were rushing for gold in Ghana, they were not only harassed by the locals, in fact, there were a lot of gangs against each other among Chinese people.

After experiencing such things, Xiao Zhang felt that there were not many Chinese people panning for gold in the Congo, and work here was relatively quiet and safe.

As I gradually came to understand the background of Chinese gold prospectors and the concept such as “illegal”, “environmental pollution,” “fire merging,” “eating wild animals,” I personally thought Chinese gold prospectors were a group of “gangsters” at the beginning.

In the eyes of many Westerners and Africans, this group of Chinese gold diggers in Africa are lawless, do everything they could to get what they want — they only care about themselves. 

However, this impression is very different from what I observed in Congo.

Xiao Zhang was a very kind person, he always came up to me with a refreshing smile. After we became familiar, he showed me the little owl he took care of.

“I picked them up on the ground during the rainstorm. I have raised several of them and some of them flew away.” He laughed.

Xiao Zhang asked me if I could adopt this little owl for him, because he was going to move to another camp, and the company does not allow him to take the owl with him. However, if he left the the owl alone in this camp, the little owl would definitely starve to death.

A small owl kept by Xiao Zhang

Xiao Zhang told me that there were dense river networks in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, they had no idea where they could find a specific place where contains rich resources. For this kind of sand gold mining, they didn’t have the so-called special professional and rigorous “feasibility study”, they could only try one by one, and go to the next one if they fell short of finding the place.

An abandoned gold mining site due to poor resources is now somehow dotted with butterflies

“It’s like gambling. Mining at ten places, as long as you hit one jackpot, you will get enough money for rest of your life.” Xiao Zhang explained.

I accepted little owl and said goodbye to Xiao Zhang.

Xiao Zhang kept telling me: “This owl loves chicken legs.”

The little owl and I rested in Xiao Zhang’s camp

After adapted to the conditions in Congo, my research had gradually improved significantly.

In the next week or two, I found many Chinese gold rushes camps and gradually collected the information I needed.

The camp of a Chinese gold panning company with better conditions

Ending: I left the little owl there and said goodbye to their stories

After a round in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, we passed the Chinese construction company camp on the way back.

The patient’s illness had recovered. Brother Li and his friends were ready to go back to the forest to debug their equipment, hoping to dig for gold as soon as possible.

Before leaving the camp of this Chinese construction company where provided wireless signals, Brother Li and his wife and children talked through WeChat video.

His daughter was only two or three years old. Brother Li smoked a cigarette and looked at them laughed quite brilliantly.

After hanging up the video, I noticed that he quickly wiped tear from his eye.

Wearing suits and leather shoes and smoking were the two hobbies that Brother Li has been doing since he came to Congo. He always says, “a man must be able to smoke.” He also said that it is a man’s responsibility to make money for supporting family and giving family a good life.

There was a huge storm in Congo at the night when Brother Li was calling his family

It just happens to be the rainy season. The heavy rain buffeted the construction camp as if the sky was falling down. From time to time, huge lightning strikes into the nearby forest, causing blackouts in the construction camp.

We stood at the door of the house in the camp, with our back facing a dark room which surrounded by all kinds of unnamed flying insects. The heavy rain and unnamed insects clashed in the night.

The day after the storm, Brother Li returned back to the forest. I have never seen him again, and I don’t know if he has succeeded.

I was interviewing Chinese gold miners

I raised the little owl for about a week, and I brought it to a larger town and fed it with chicken legs. I hope it can grow into a bird soon. However, because I had to fly back to Goma, I couldn’t take it with me.

Later, I negotiated with the local proprietress of a hotel and asked her to take care of the little owl until it could fly away.

Of course, I did not forget to leave enough money for the little owl to eat chicken legs for several months. I told the proprietress that she should not embezzle the money.

After nearly three weeks, I finally returned to Goma with a lot of research notes.

My notes contain detailed maps of the locations where has Chinese gold miners

This time, I didn’t stay in a cheap hotel — If someone came to my room to take my belongings again, especially my computer, this trip will be worthless. I decided to stay at a hotel where a lot of European and American researchers often choose to stay.

I personally think this hotel deserve for its “most expensive” name. The western-style small building, the restaurant next to Lake Kivu, and the beautiful waterbirds in the hotel all brought me happiness.

Well, I came back from forest. However, all of them I met, including cute wild creatures, are still there.

Luxury Lake Kivu Hotel in Goma

My outfit after I came back from the trip

As I wrote this article, five years have passed since my trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Looking back, I didn’t make much money during this trip because of the theft. I do not think it should not be considered as a successful “part-time job”.

Although I was prevented from malaria and was not taken to the prison, my friends said I became haggard when they saw me after the trip.

Because the research team have witnessed what I have been going through in this trip, they decided to change the research topic and location to Tanzania. From this point of view, the research data I have collected for the Democratic Republic of Congo has not played too much role.

Someone asked me, eh, is this trip meaningless and worthless?

I don’t think this trip is a meaningless trip. If I had not gone to this trip, I would probably not come to understand how Africa looks like nowadays; I would not come to understand that there are small human races and okapi in the world, or the thrilling story of the Chinese people’s gold panning in Africa, or that I would not meet Franswa, Essek, Xiao Zhang, Brother Lin and little owl.

Franceswar and I were waiting to cross the river

I think I would come back to this place again

I think there are many other places in this world that want to go and check it out. I don’t need too many reasons for going, right? After all, the world is still there.

Last picture of little owl and I

Translated by Yifei Zhu, Yunqiao Xu

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