Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a terrific conference on Africa at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Naperville. The conference focused on ways that churches and individuals who have a passion for addressing needs in Africa can get started – translating passion into response.
I found myself sitting next to a pastor from the Democratic Republic of Congo. [Notes to self: A) Why doesn’t anyone just call it the Congo anymore? B) Any country that has Democratic in its name isn’t.] He’s attempting to build a church that serves Chicago’s African émigré community. We were joined by Viola Vaughn, who is a force of nature. Dr. Vaughan is the founder of 10,000 Girls, a school in Senegal that is already serving 25% of that number and shows no signs of slowing down. She was named a CNN Hero last year. She is enthusiastic, energetic, wise, controversial, relentless, relentless and relentless. She’s also a riot. And did I say that she’s relentless. If you ever have the chance to see or hear her, I recommend it.
I asked the Congolese pastor if he would explain briefly the current strife in his native country. He said that local strongmen were colluding with “multinationals” to keep the country’s most resource-rich province unstable so that they could retain control of, and profit from, its mineral wealth. A few minutes later, Dr. Vaughn made another comment about the negative impact of “the multinationals.”
Now, I know people who work for big international companies, and none of them strike me as people who would endanger others for profit. So I decided to ask a simple question: “Who are these multinationals?” Interestingly, neither one of them had an answer. Dr. Vaughn said, “It doesn’t matter where you go, it’s the same ones.” But that doesn’t answer the question, “Who are they?”
My initial reaction was that this was just another example of the uninformed trashing of business by people who have never actually worked in one. For Dr. Vaughn and the Congolese pastor, “multinational” is most likely a catchphrase that gets tossed around loosely in the circles they move in, and is used as a substitute for “evil.” For them, it appears to have specific, tangible meaning. But when pressed, it’s not a meaning they can share.
But here’s a second thought. Sub-Saharan Africa is (or at least was) enormously rich in a variety of resources which are in fact being extracted and sold. It’s obvious that little if any of the benefit from those sales reaches the people of the continent. Yet someone is buying those materials, and someone on the buy-side of every transaction knows where the proceeds really end up.
So while Dr. Vaughn and the pastor may have been wrong in the specific, they likely were right in the generality. Awareness is an uncomfortable thing. I wonder how much of the copper inside my laptop came from the Congo? Blood on my fingertips?
(PS – If you are interested in understanding how the Congo got to be the way it is, I strongly recommend reading Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. Without giving the whole story away, what we used to call the Belgian Congo was not a Belgian Colony. It was the personal property of the King. It is eye-opening, and not for the faint of heart. One anecdote from the book: Many of us studied Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in school, where it was treated as an allegory of the descent into the inherent evil of human nature. When asked about that later in his life, Conrad said, “No, I pretty much wrote what I saw.”)