Congo, Coltan, and Cell Phones: A People’s History

Teaching Activity. By Alison Kysia. 28 pages.
In this lesson, students learn about the colonial history of Congo, debate responsibility for crimes against humanity, and investigate the connection, past and present, between the exploitation of natural resources and violence.

  • Time Periods: 19th Century, 20th Century | Themes: Imperialism, US Foreign Policy, World History/Global Studies | Resource Types: Teaching Activities (Free)

Patrice Lumumba (center), at the 1960 round table conference in Brussels to discuss Congo’s independence. Image: Wikicommons.

More than 5 million people have been killed in Democratic Republic of the Congo since the late 1990s, home to some of the most serious human rights violations since World War II. A look back at Congo’s history sets the stage. From 1885 to 1908, Congo was colonized by the king of Belgium, Leopold II, who took it as his own personal property. Initially, Leopold did not know that Congo was rich in wild rubber, one of the hottest commodities on the global market at the time. At the opening of the 20th century, Congo was the most profitable colony in Africa. It is estimated that Leopold made about 220 million francs, equivalent to $1.1 billion today.

Leopold refused to pay a fair price for labor or resources, and instead enslaved the population through a terror campaign, forcing the Congolese to harvest rubber. The magnitude of the violence is incomprehensible. During Leopold’s rule, 8 million to 10 million people were killed through a variety of colonial policies, making it one of the worst cases of European colonial brutality.

Congo’s colonial history foreshadows the current instability and violence plaguing the country. Since 1997, more than 5 million people have been killed there, making it one of the bloodiest battle zones since World War II. That year marked the end of a 32-year dictatorship (1965–1997) led by Joseph Mobutu, also known as Mobutu Sese Seko, a generously compensated and welcomed friend of six U.S. presidents. He came to power by assisting the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in assassinating the first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961. They wanted Lumumba dead because of his desire to nationalize natural resources in Congo where the money could be used to create a functioning state.

Just as the bloodshed of the colonial period was financed by highly lucrative natural resources like rubber, the violence today is likewise fueled by natural resources. One of those is coltan, a mineral required for cell phone production. Congo is rich in coltan. By studying this history, we can see a direct connection between the brutality of colonialism and the contemporary injustice in Congo: highly coveted natural resources, exploited by distant, powerful nations.

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In this lesson, students will:
  • Describe the salient features of Congo’s history through a meet-and-greet activity.
  • Debate responsibility for crimes against humanity through a trial activity.
  • Explain how coltan, a mineral necessary for the production of cell phones, contributes to violence in Congo today, similar to the role of rubber during the colonial period.
Meet-and-Greet Activity includes roles for:
  • Nzinga Mbemba Afonso / Afonso I, king of the Kingdom of Kongo from 1506–1543
  • Edmund Dene Morel British citizen, journalist, and pacifist
  • King Leopold II of Belgium, Congo colonizer
  • Mary French Sheldon, British travel writer and publisher
  • James Cardinal Gibbons, Catholic Archbishop of Baltimore
  • Roger Casement, Irishman who served as a British representative
  • Leon Rom, head of the Force Publique
  • Charles Lemaire, Force Publique officer
  • Chief Mulume Niama, Congolese freedom fighter
  • Joseph Mobutu / Mobutu Sese Seko, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1965–1997
  • Ilanga, resident of Waniendo Village, Congo
  • Patrice Lumumba, first elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Mark Twain, author and member of the Congo Reform Association
  • George Washington Williams, African American minister, veteran, and historian
  • John Dunlop, co-founder of Dunlop Company
  • Chester A. Arthur, U.S. President
  • Otto von Bismarck, German Chancellor
  • General Henry Shelton Sanford, U.S. diplomat turned lobbyist for Leopold
  • Henry Morton Stanley (John Rowlands), explorer and colonizer
  • Reverend William Henry Sheppard, African American missionary for the Presbyterian Church
Trial activity includes roles for:
  • King Leopold II of Belgium
  • Colonial Administrators
  • Force Publique
  • Capitalism
  • Consumers of Rubber
  • Ilanga, resident of Waniendo Village, Congo

 

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