Kily leads me to a white room with white linoleum floors and white curtains. It’s expansive and seems as if the white coloring was chosen to cover something up. Kily is friends with one of the military observers. I met him briefly at a hotel on a Sunday over a lukewarm beer in the afternoon. He’s studying geology, as many people in Congo do, but it’s not the geology of Colorado mountains and geodes in the Arizona desert.
-This man is the biggest mineral salesman in Butembo, says Kily as we take a seat on two white plastic chairs. But it’s completely legalized, he has permission from the government.
-What kinds of minerals does he sell?
-Mostly gold, but coltan as well.
Kily is from Kinshasa so his speech is fast and he seems to always be in a hurry with his words so they tumble over themselves. Kily brought me to the house so I could ask some questions about mines. I’ve heard so much about coltan and conflict minerals, and I’ve watched the men sift through the river in Musienene looking for, and finding, diamonds. But I’ve never seen the mines that supposedly fuel everything in Congo.
-So where is the mine? I ask.
-Well, there is one in Mangurajipa it’s not very far from here but the roads are very bad. On a motorcycle you can make it in about eight hours.
-Is there security?
-Yes, there is security I have been myself. But there are Mai-Mai and FDLR in most of the areas with the mines. One time when I went I met with the head of the FDLR here and we stayed in his camp.
-And it was safe enough?
We’re alone in the room but there are men chatting in a room behind us and Kily drops his voice down to a whisper.
-Yes, you see the men who sell the minerals need to have security so they pay off the FDLR and the Mai-Mai.
-So this guy pays off the FDLR?
-No, he pays the Mai-Mai but you can not ask them about this.
-Of course not.
-But anyways, they make a very good business here. This man is tres tres rich. He has several private planes, I mean he is a millionaire. But he is a very simple man, he is a very good man. He takes care of many orphans.
-Really? That’s rare.
-Yes, he is very simple and very normal. Not like most very rich men.
-So how much do they sell the gold for?
-Very much. You know kilogram? One kilogram of gold, about this big..
He makes his thumb and index finger into a small circle.
-The weight is most important but it will be about this big. One kilogram is sold for 42,000 American dollars. This business sells about 50 kilograms each week. There was a man recently from Senegal who came and paid for 300 kilograms and he took it to Senegal. You can figure that out, it is so much money.
-42 thousand dollars a kilogram? Jeez, that’s insane.
-Yes, but it’s a good investment. They take the gold to Senegal and the United States and they sell it for much more.
A well-dressed man in a pink button up shirt and pressed khaki slacks walks in.
-Bonjour, how are you doing today? I’m Germaine.
The man reaches out and shakes both of our hands.
-Come upstairs where we can talk.
He leaves the room. Kily and I follow him around the house and up to the second level to an office.
-Is this the man we are waiting for? I ask quietly on the way up the stairs.
-Yes and no. I was telling you about the main boss, this is his younger brother but he does the same business.
Germaine leads us into a large office with a massive wooden desk and three large black swivel chairs.
-Here take a seat, I will be right back.
The desk has nothing on it except for a phone, a plastic plate that says “Be Peaceful in your Heart,” and a large framed image of about 50 children. I pick up the picture of the kids.
-Those are the orphans that he takes care of.
I hear Germaine’s footsteps coming back. Kily quickly motions for me to put the photo back on the desk.
-So, what exactly can we do for you?
Germaine walks around to the other side of the desk. The desk is almost up to my chin but it doesn’t seem to be too high for Germaine. I wonder if it’s an intimidation technique. I lean forward and put my elbows on the desk.
-First, I want to be very clear that I am not here to buy anything. I have no interest in buy minerals nor do I have any money to do so. I’m absolutely not here to buy anything.
-Okay, well then what do you want?
-I was speaking with Kily and he was telling me about the mines. For curiosity only, I was wondering if there is a mine I can go to that will be safe enough.
-In order to go to a mine there will be several things necessary. First, you need to go to the Mayor’s office to get a letter of approval which will also help with security. Then you need to go to the office of mining here in Butembo.
He motions in the general direction of the city behind him.
-You need to make it clear exactly why you are wanting to go. And I would recommend you hire one or two police officers to go with you for protection.
-So there isn’t security there?
-No, I mean there is a chance you can be fine, you arrive, you leave, but there are these bandits there who will think you have lots of money. And you are a woman so they can rape you. There were three whites like you who went to one of the mines in the park. They were trapped by the Mai-Mai and the Mai-Mai liberated one to go and get money and they kept the other two. The Internationals paid ten thousand dollars in order to get free.
My parents have made it very clear to me they won’t pay my ransom if I’m kidnapped, so I start to let go of the idea.
-And you are a woman, he continues. They know that they can get a lot more money for a woman and they know that they can do a lot more to a woman. You really will risk being raped, so my advice will be to hire at least one police officer with a gun to go with you.
-Okay, well I don’t want to put myself in unnecessary danger, I don’t really need to go to a mine. It’s not a big thing I was just curious if it’s possible.
-Yes, yes it’s possible, but it is a big risk.
-Thanks for the information. I’ll ask at the Mayor’s office but I think I’m going to let the idea go.
-So do you know gold?
-Yes, but not very well. I only know what they sell in stores in the United States. Jewelry and such.
-You have never seen gold before it is turned into jewelry?
-No, and I don’t need to see it.
-Well you are already here why not buy some. You can take it back to your country.
-No, I really don’t know anything about selling gold it’s not my work at all.
-But you can make it your work. It is easy, you just pay me some money I give you some gold and in your country you sell it for more.
-That is why I told you the first thing that I am not here to buy. I don’t have money for that and it’s not my work. But if I meet an international who is looking to traffic minerals I will send them to this house to speak with you.
Germaine leans back and nods. I’ve used this line on numerous people trying to turn me into a mule. You have to promise them something, but I have no intention of becoming a mineral trafficker.
-Thank you for your time and for the information, I really appreciate it.
I say goodbye in Kinande, purely for schmoozing purposes, and Germaine laughs. I imagine it’s like speaking to a mob boss. You can’t offend them but you also can’t be too friendly or interested or they’ll think you want to get involved.
Outside Kily and I get on my motorcycle and head back to the city center.
-I have one question for you, and I mean it completely with respect, I say.
-Yes, of course what is it.
-You said that all of this is legalized by the Congolese government. But Kabila put a statewide ban on all mining and mineral trafficking until after the elections, from what I hear. So how is it "legal?"
-You just need special permission.