The Ghost in Your Phone : Throughline It's hot. A mother works outside, a baby strapped to her back. The two of them breathe in toxic dust, day after day. And they're just two of thousands, cramped so close together it's hard to move, all facing down the mountain of cobalt stone.

Cobalt mining is one of the world's most dangerous jobs. And it's also one of the most essential: cobalt is what powers the batteries in your smartphone, your laptop, the electric car you felt good about buying. More than three-quarters of the world's cobalt supply lies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose abundant resources have drawn greed and grifters for centuries. Today on the show: the fight for control of those resources, and for the dignity of the people who produce them.

The Ghost in Your Phone

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A quick heads-up before we get started - there are references to violence in this episode that some listeners might find disturbing.


SIDDHARTH KARA: You and I, people listening to this conversation, we cannot function for 24 hours without cobalt...


KARA: ...'Cause it's in our smartphone, our tablet, our laptop and our electric vehicles.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Come on into a giant, comfy Bluetooth headphone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Imitating phone ringing). (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...Donald Trump fit to be president.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This thing turns your pillow into a giant, comfy Bluetooth...

KARA: When you wake up, like I do, I'll start swiping, just like you, and checking how much charge I have and so on.


KARA: At that very moment, when you click over to social media, there'll be a mother with a baby strapped to her back, and she will be hacking at the earth under a scalding sun without any reprieve, trying to fill up a sack desperately, bent over, scrounging away, releasing toxic puffs of cobalt dust into her lungs and her baby's lungs, 'cause cobalt is toxic. And then she can eat. Her baby can eat. Her children can eat. Her husband can eat - whoever it is. The family can eat that day. And their day is measured in kilos of cobalt.


KARA: And that, invariably, flows up through the formal supply chain into our phones and stuff as we plug them in each day. Above the dirt, where all this cobalt is located, is a population of some of the poorest people on the planet.

ARABLOUEI: This is...

KARA: Siddharth Kara.

ARABLOUEI: He's a professor at the University of Nottingham in England.

KARA: I am a researcher on modern-day slavery and child labor and author of the book "Cobalt Red: How The Blood Of The Congo Powers Our Lives."

ARABLOUEI: For over 20 years, Siddharth has dedicated his life to understanding the conditions for workers at the bottom of the supply chain, the people who extract the resources that go into products that fuel the world economy. Several years ago, he became interested in a metal called cobalt, a key ingredient in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. It's what keeps that little battery icon green as we scroll through social media or turn on GPS or swipe right or left on a dating app. That interest landed him in the Democratic Republic of Congo because...

KARA: Three-fourths of the global supply of cobalt is mined in the Congo.

ARABLOUEI: And most of that cobalt comes from a specific region of Congo called Katanga. At the urging of his colleagues, Siddharth went there in 2018.

KARA: I've been, at that point, 18 years documenting slaves and child labor, so I've seen, already, quite a bit of horror. But what I saw in that first trip in the Congo just left me shell-shocked. I was completely unprepared for the severity and enormity of violence and suffering and degradation. And it redirected the entire course of my research journey from that point forward.


Cobalt mines are often protected by heavily armed security and are not welcoming to outside prying eyes. But Siddharth was actually able to get into one, and this is what he saw.


KARA: Everything's chewed up. You know, there are no trees anywhere. There's no birds in the sky. There's this haze. There's grit that you can kind of feel in your throat and your eyes as you walk around.


KARA: And we come to this ridge, and it is almost like a lightning bolt thunderclap.


KARA: What I saw in front of me was this cavernous chasm in the earth of just pure cobalt mountain and stone. And inside that cavern was close to 15,000 human beings crammed so close to each other they barely had room to move.


UNIDENTIFIED MINERS: (Non-English language spoken).

KARA: There was this thunderous clanking of metal on stone, mallets and rebar - hacking, hacking, hacking - all of this cacophony of voices and this toxic cloud of grit rising up from the pit.


UNIDENTIFIED MINERS: (Non-English language spoken).

ABDELFATAH: This is actual audio from this very mining site that Siddharth captured while he was there.

KARA: It was basically a scene as if it was 2,000 years ago when the pyramids were being built, like, just this sea of brute humanity laboring with just raw force against this mountain of solid cobalt stone.

ABDELFATAH: These thousands of workers, many of them teenage boys, work without safety equipment in toxic, dangerous conditions, hauling away thousands of tons of cobalt. And each worker maybe makes a few dollars a day for this labor, while companies that make products with cobalt bring in billions selling to all kinds of tech companies.

KARA: It was unlike any experience I ever had or have had since.


ABDELFATAH: Cobalt mining hasn't only fueled our gadgets and machines. It's also a vital material in the creation of electric cars, a technology that many people hope will help in the fight against global climate change.

KARA: The truth of the matter is we are endeavoring to preserve our environment by destroying the environment in the heart of Africa. That doesn't make sense. In fact, it's an enormous hypocrisy. How can their earth count less than ours? How can their children count less than ours? That's colonial thinking. I mean, now we're dialing the moral clock back to the 17- and 1800s, where it was generally accepted that the people of Africa were worth less and their environment and their resources are ours to pillage.


ARABLOUEI: The moral clock - cobalt brings up a troubling contradiction that is embedded in the fabric of our culture, our way of life. The disturbing reality is that we in the developed world are collectively tolerating the suffering and brutality exacted on thousands of people in the Congo so that we can make technological progress. And, as Siddharth said, this is something that goes back over 100 years. It's a cycle that keeps reemerging like a ghost haunting the world. In this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, we're going to explore the history of Congo's tragic role in the formation and development of the world economy and meet the people who've fought to end the cycle.


JULIE CARTER: This is Julie Carter (ph) from Buffalo, N.Y., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: Part 1 - The King and the Scramble.


ARABLOUEI: The late 1890s at the Belgian port of Antwerp - a young man in his mid-20s employed by a British shipping company shows up for work. Every day, his job was to...

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Stand on the dock, check that the cargo manifest accurately represented the cargo coming off his ships...

ARABLOUEI: Ships bringing cargo from the Congo.

HOCHSCHILD: ...Tally up what was loaded onto the ships when they went back to Africa and so forth. And he quickly began to notice something.

ARABLOUEI: Things weren't adding up when he looked at what was actually on the ships.

HOCHSCHILD: He noticed that when his company's ships arrived from Africa, they were filled to the hatch covers with enormously valuable cargoes of ivory and wild rubber.

ARABLOUEI: These materials were supposed to be a part of trade, so, naturally, he expected that items like manufactured European goods would be put on the ships heading back south towards Africa. But, instead, he saw those ships...

HOCHSCHILD: Carried mostly soldiers, firearms and ammunition. No trading goods were being sent to Africa. No merchandise was being exchanged for all these riches that were coming from Africa.


ABDELFATAH: With every passing day, he became more and more obsessed. Rubber and ivory in - weapons and soldiers out.


ABDELFATAH: He carefully documented what he was seeing, and, eventually, he pieced together what was happening.

HOCHSCHILD: There, standing on the dock at Antwerp, he realized that he was looking at evidence of a slave labor system 4,000 miles away.


ABDELFATAH: The young man's name was E.D. Morel. And what he figured out is that there wasn't trade happening. The guns and soldiers he saw were going to enforce the extraction of rubber and ivory in the Congo.

HOCHSCHILD: He went to the head of the shipping company and said something terrible is going on here. Clearly, there's forced labor involved. Nobody's being paid for this stuff that's coming from Africa. We shouldn't be involved with it. The head of the shipping company told him to get lost.

ABDELFATAH: It didn't work. Morel noticed he was suddenly getting the cold shoulder at work. And then the company...

HOCHSCHILD: Tried to pay him some money to shut up - when that didn't work, tried to promote him to another job in another country. That didn't work.

ABDELFATAH: His obsession only grew. And after failing to get his company to stop shipping arms and soldiers to the Congo...

HOCHSCHILD: Morel quit his job. And in the space of several years, he turned himself into the great British investigative journalist of his time.

ABDELFATAH: E.D. Morel would go on to gather evidence from the Congo to tell a sweeping, disturbing story that would implicate Belgium, Europe and the world economy in an atrocity. That story would cause the first great human rights scandal of the 20th century. And it's a story that will sound hauntingly familiar for all of us living today.


ARABLOUEI: The 1800s were a time of great transition - industrialization, railroads, automobiles, factories popping up everywhere. The modern international economy was in its infancy, but there was a fundamental imbalance, a contradiction. Many of the countries in what we now call the West - England, France, the United States, etc. - didn't always have the natural resources, the raw materials to fuel their economies. Those resources were in faraway places, in South Asia, in Latin America and in Africa.

HOCHSCHILD: It was also the beginning of what became known as the scramble for Africa...

ARABLOUEI: The scramble for Africa.

HOCHSCHILD: ...Where European countries were seizing pieces of that vast continent as colonies.

ARABLOUEI: This is Adam Hochschild.

HOCHSCHILD: I teach a class at the graduate school of journalism here in Berkeley, Calif., at UC Berkeley.

ARABLOUEI: He's the author of the award-winning book "King Leopold's Ghost."

HOCHSCHILD: Which is about the exploitation of what today is the Democratic Republic of Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium.

ARABLOUEI: King Leopold II of Belgium was one of the youngest rulers of one of the youngest countries in Europe in the 1800s. And he came to power right at the start of Europe's colonization of Africa.

HOCHSCHILD: And Leopold decided to get in at the beginning of that scramble, find a piece of Africa that could be his, where he could rule supreme.


ARABLOUEI: He was brash and ambitious and believed an African colony could bring him more legitimacy and wealth. So he sent explorers to find him a territory.

HOCHSCHILD: He called it Congo Free State.

ARABLOUEI: Congo Free State.

HOCHSCHILD: And he owned it. He referred to himself as its proprietor.

ARABLOUEI: It was a massive colony filled with dense forests, plains, plateaus and rivers, a beautiful land with a diverse population...

HOCHSCHILD: More than 70 times the size of Belgium, right in the middle of the continent, roughly the same territory that today is the Democratic Republic of Congo, recognized by all the nations of the world, starting with the United States, as his personal colony.


ABDELFATAH: At almost the same time, the first automobile with an internal combustion engine was invented. A few years later, a Scottish inventor created the first inflatable rubber tire. The world had entered the age of the automobile. Everyone wanted a car. And demand for rubber tires increased exponentially. It just so happened that Congo Free State had a lot of the world's supply of rubber ready to go. It became a virtual gold mine.


ABDELFATAH: And who would personally possess all this rubber? None other than King Leopold II.

HOCHSCHILD: He was a big guy with a long beard that turned white as he grew older - quite imposing and robust figure.

ABDELFATAH: He liked to be seen in full military uniform.

HOCHSCHILD: He was apparently a very smooth-talking, charming guy. He spoke English, French and German. If you spoke one of those languages, he could talk to you in your own language.

ABDELFATAH: He was known for his huge appetite and frequent hookups with much younger women.

HOCHSCHILD: He was very ambitious, and he was an absolute master of public relations.

ABDELFATAH: King Leopold wanted to be seen as a progressive figure, someone who was a champion of Western, Christian values. So he tried to sell the international community on the idea that he was actually there in the Congo on a benevolent mission...

HOCHSCHILD: Told everybody that he was in this totally for altruistic motives, to spread Christianity, civilization, the benefits of commerce.

ABDELFATAH: As a part of this effort, King Leopold welcomed not only Catholic but also Protestant missionaries from countries like Sweden, Britain and the United States to Congo Free State - an unusual move for a Catholic king of a mostly Catholic country.

HOCHSCHILD: Now, that's what got Leopold into trouble because there were, among the Americans, Britons and Swedes, a number of people who had the moral fortitude to be absolutely horrified at what they saw.


CHOIKE I'ANSON, BYLINE: (As William Henry Sheppard) The missionaries say they're collecting evidence about the massacre. Mr. Vass says the whole country is pillaged and not a village left standing. In a radius of about 75 miles, there are probably over 50,000 people sleeping in the bush unsheltered.


I'ANSON: (As William Henry Sheppard) And we are in the midst of a rainy season. The state is a terror to everyone.

ARABLOUEI: These are from the writings of a Black American missionary named William Henry Sheppard, one of the many missionaries welcomed by King Leopold to Congo Free State.

RAMONA AUSTIN: Dr. William Henry Sheppard was born free in Virginia in 1865. His mother was a free woman of mixed race. His father was a barber.

ARABLOUEI: This is Ramona Austin.

AUSTIN: I was the first full-time African curator at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Dallas Museum of Art.

ARABLOUEI: She's an art historian who wrote about William Henry Sheppard in an article called "An Extraordinary Generation."

AUSTIN: He entered Hampton University in about 1881.

ARABLOUEI: A few years later, he went to a Presbyterian seminary.

AUSTIN: And from there, it took him about two years to be assigned as a missionary...

ARABLOUEI: In Congo Free State. And this was during the era of Jim Crow in the South, a time when there were...

HOCHSCHILD: Tremendously limited horizons for a Black person in the United States. And he wanted to go overseas as a missionary 'cause he felt if he became a missionary, you know, he could go somewhere. He could see the world. He could do things.

ARABLOUEI: And he was built for the traveler's life.

AUSTIN: I mean, he was a great adventurer. He was a great huntsman.

HOCHSCHILD: Sheppard was quite a remarkable man. He loved being in Africa. He thrived there.

AUSTIN: He was handsome. He was described as being someone who had a grace about him.

ARABLOUEI: He arrived in Congo in 1890.

HOCHSCHILD: He settled in a part of the country where the Kuba people live...

ARABLOUEI: Kuba - also known as the Bakuba people.

HOCHSCHILD: ...An African ethnic group that had not seen much of Europeans up to that point. Their traditional society was still intact. Sheppard was really the first outsider to reach the Kuba capital.


I'ANSON: (As William Henry Sheppard) We could see in the distance thousands and thousands of banana and palm trees. And our escort of Bakuba cried out, muxenge, muxenge.


AUSTIN: He describes in rapturous terms the greatness of their towns, their broad streets, industry, what they created.

I'ANSON: (As William Henry Sheppard) Their broad streets ran at right angles, and there were blocks, just as in any town.

AUSTIN: He sees a people who have a history.

I'ANSON: (As William Henry Sheppard) They were the finest-looking race I had seen in Africa - dignified, graceful, courageous, honest, with an open, smiling countenance. Their knowledge of weaving, embroidering, wood carving and smelting was the highest in equatorial Africa.


ABDELFATAH: And Sheppard didn't just capture what he saw with a pen. He also used an early version of a photo camera.

AUSTIN: A box camera - it really was a box, like, a rectangular box with a fixed-focus lens. And he must have been one of the first to use this.

HOCHSCHILD: He's standing, you know, shoulder to shoulder with his African friends.

AUSTIN: We are struck by the nature of these photographs and how they presented the culture and the fact that there was admiration for who the people were.


ABDELFATAH: But in the midst of this admiration for the people, he also observed the dark side of what was happening in the Congo, a situation nothing like what King Leopold was selling to the world.

HOCHSCHILD: He pretty quickly realized that he was in the midst of a forced labor system.


ABDELFATAH: Coming up, William Henry Sheppard, E.D. Morel and the movement against King Leopold II.


RIANNA: Hi, this is Rianna (ph) from Austin, Texas. I was just calling to say that I am very grateful for NPR's history podcast THROUGHLINE. I am a history teacher, and the fact that there is, you know, a podcast that talks about the liminal space between past and present makes my heart so happy. So thank you so much, NPR.

ABDELFATAH: We just want to take a moment to shout out our THROUGHLINE+ subscribers. Thank you so much for your support. If you don't already know, subscribing to THROUGHLINE+ means you get to listen to our show without any sponsor breaks, and you also get access to special bonus episodes where we take you behind the scenes, introduce you to our amazing producers and tell you about how we make the show. To get these awesome benefits and support our work here at NPR, head over to

I'ANSON: (As William Henry Sheppard) These great, stalwart men and women, who have from time immemorial been free, perhaps about 400,000 in number, have entered a new chapter in the history of their tribe. Only a few years ago, travelers through this country found them living in large homes, loving and living happily with their wives and children, one of the most prosperous and intelligent of all the African tribes. But within these last three years, how changed they are. Their farms are growing up in weeds and jungle. Their king is practically a slave. Their houses now are mostly half-built single rooms and are much neglected. Even their children cry for bread. Why this change? You have it in a few words.


I'ANSON: (As William Henry Sheppard) There are armed sentries of chartered trading companies who force the men and women to spend most of their days and nights in the forests making rubber. And the price they receive is so meager that they cannot live upon it.

ABDELFATAH: William Henry Sheppard saw with his own eyes what King Leopold was really doing in Congo Free State.

KARA: He deployed this mercenary army to terrorize and enslave the Congolese people to gather rubber sap.

ABDELFATAH: This is Siddharth Kara again.

KARA: And it was probably one of the greatest - meaning most horrific - episodes of colonial pillage and slavery in history.

HOCHSCHILD: What Leopold's private army did is they would go into village after village. They would take the women of the village, hold them hostage in order to force the men of each village to go into the rainforest and gather a monthly quota of wild rubber. And, of course, the women who were chained up as hostages, which could happen for days or even weeks out of each month, were abused, mistreated, often raped by Leopold's soldiers.

ABDELFATAH: William Henry Sheppard witnessed this kind of suffering firsthand with the Bakuba people.

AUSTIN: He documented it by shooting but with his camera three men who were mutilated and one of the women.

HOCHSCHILD: Leopold's army was composed of Black African conscripts, you know, people who were unwillingly conscripted into this army. And the white officers were always very suspicious of their soldiers 'cause they knew they were there unwillingly. When they issued ammunition to them, a soldier had to prove that each bullet that he had fired had been used to kill somebody. And the way you did that was you cut a hand off the corpse and brought it back to show your commanding officer. However, sometimes, the soldiers shot at somebody and missed, or they used a bullet to go hunting. In order to have that hand to show their officer, they would cut the hand off a living person.

ABDELFATAH: Sheppard and other activists captured dozens of photos of Congolese men, women and children with amputated hands.

KARA: Slaughter, mutilation, enslavement, cannibalism - the darkest expression of human greed and violence.

HOCHSCHILD: It made Leopold a huge amount of money. But it had an absolutely devastating effect on the Congo itself.

KARA: Leopold and his terror squads depopulated the Congo by about 50%.


HOCHSCHILD: It dropped from some 20 million people to some 10 million people.


ARABLOUEI: William Henry Sheppard was deeply disturbed by what was happening in Congo Free State. And he tried to get the word out to the rest of the world.

HOCHSCHILD: He described all this in things that he wrote, articles he wrote for missionary journals back home. And photographs of living people missing hands began to reach the outside world. And that was one of the things that created a reaction against what Leopold was doing in the Congo.

ARABLOUEI: Soon, an organization had formed to campaign against what was happening in Congo Free State. It was called the Congo Reform Association, and its founder was the same young shipping clerk who documented ships in Antwerp full of ammunition going to Congo, E.D. Morel. He made sure the accounts and photos of missionaries like William Henry Sheppard reached mass audiences.

HOCHSCHILD: Over the course of a decade or so, there were public meetings throughout Europe, the United States, as far away as Australia and New Zealand where they showed these photographs, projecting them as slides, and urged people to put pressure on their governments to in turn put pressure on King Leopold to end these atrocities. This was the first big international human rights scandal of the 20th century.


ARABLOUEI: And what about King Leopold? Well, he pushed back against the movement almost immediately.

HOCHSCHILD: He was furious. He sent somebody to try to bribe Morel to be quiet. He tried to plant false information with Morel. Leopold also published a torrent of counterpropaganda, published a magazine in three languages called The Truth About the Congo and distributed it as widely as he could.

ARABLOUEI: And what about William Henry Sheppard?

HOCHSCHILD: The regime came to hate him and were appalled at the exposes he was doing.

ARABLOUEI: He was sued in court in England by a rubber company. He was put on trial in Congo. Yet he didn't stop. He would stay in the country for 20 years, documenting both King Leopold's atrocities and the beauty of Congolese culture and history.

AUSTIN: Sheppard was the real historian in terms of the length of his stay and his command of the literature. And, you know, that carries on to today.

ARABLOUEI: And despite all his efforts, King Leopold could not stop the movement against his rule in Congo.

HOCHSCHILD: And there was increasing pressure on him to give up his personal control of the Congo.

ARABLOUEI: In 1908, King Leopold, then in his 70s, handed control of Congo Free State to the Belgian government, an epic victory over colonialism. But the reality is very little justice was actually served for the people of Congo.

HOCHSCHILD: So Leopold finally said, OK, I will give up my Congo to Belgium. But you, the Belgian government, are going to have to pay me for it. And, believe it or not, they did.

ARABLOUEI: In fact, the model of colonialism that Leopold set up in Congo would be duplicated by German and French colonies in other parts of Africa, and the Belgian government would go on exploiting the resources of Congo for decades. But all of that would change in 1960.


PATRICE LUMUMBA: (Speaking French).

ABDELFATAH: This is the voice of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo.


LUMUMBA: (Speaking French).

ABDELFATAH: And here he is giving a speech on June 30, 1960, at an event celebrating Congo's first independence day. It was broadcast throughout the country on radio.


LUMUMBA: (Speaking French).

ABDELFATAH: He's standing there wearing a well-fitting suit, a bow tie and his iconic black browline glasses. He looks like a teacher whose class you never want to skip. The speech is blunt, clean, punchy. It criticizes European colonialism and spells out what a better future will look like for the Congo.


LUMUMBA: (Speaking French).

ARABLOUEI: "We shall show the world what the Black man can do when working in liberty. And we shall make the Congo the pride of Africa. We shall see to it that the lands of our native country truly benefit its children."


LUMUMBA: (Speaking French).

ABDELFATAH: That last line, buried in the middle of his speech, is an idea at the center of what Patrice Lumumba was fighting for - the idea that Congo's resources, its land, should benefit its people before any other country.


ABDELFATAH: Patrice Lumumba was a star in the Congolese independence movement. He was the country's beloved political leader. But it took a windy and unlikely path to get there.

GEORGES NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: As a young person, he was looked upon as a rebel. He went to Catholic schools and to Methodist or Protestant schools and was kicked out of both schools.

ABDELFATAH: This is Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, an African and global studies professor at the University of North Carolina. He's currently a UN ambassador for the Democratic Republic of Congo and has written several books about Africa's independence movement.


NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: He would be correcting teachers - their French. He said, no, that's not correct (laughter). It's this way. And he would correct them in history. They would say something. He said, no, no, no, that's not true. He was too much ahead of his time. Lumumba would put his hands on any book that he found. He was basically a self-educated person.

ABDELFATAH: Lumumba left school, moved cities, bounced around and worked various jobs and continued being an ardent reader. But in his early 20s, while he was on a trip to a neighboring French colony, things snapped into focus.


NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: One afternoon he went to the French Congo.

ARABLOUEI: He goes on a trip, and he's walking around. And he gets thirsty, and he sees this cafe.

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: To his surprise, it is a white woman who was apparently the owner of that cafe who said, venez, monsieur. She said, come over. Why are you standing outside? Come inside.

ARABLOUEI: Something that would have never happened back in Belgian Congo.

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: So they gave him a seat to sit down, brought him the glass of water - the bottle of water. He was just so scared.

ARABLOUEI: All the people where he was seated at the cafe were white.

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: He drank his water so quickly, get out the money, paid them and left the place.

ARABLOUEI: But what happened that day taught him something. He began to think...

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: Hey; another world is possible. And so he started changing.

ARABLOUEI: And the timing was perfect because Africa was also changing.


NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: After World War II, all over Africa, there was this kind of feeling that we have had enough of colonialism, and people wanted independence.

ARABLOUEI: Lumumba became a postal worker and led a union. He got involved in the Belgian Liberal Party, and in 1958, Lumumba founded and led one of the most important political forces, the Congolese National Movement.

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: He now was a Pan-Africanist and saying that what we need is Congolese independence.

ARABLOUEI: But also - and this is a detail that I personally love, and it's very important to the story - while he's leading a revolutionary movement, Lumumba's day job was working at a brewery.

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: So he's the one who now had the job of selling the brand to drinkers.

ARABLOUEI: He's a beer salesman. He becomes a beer salesman. That's amazing.

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: Yeah. He was a beer salesman.

ARABLOUEI: And that's not just a fun fact. His clients and all the connections he made in that job helped him build political power.

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: And he started building cells of the party all over the city. You know, in every municipality of the city, there was a committee of the party.

ARABLOUEI: And it's at this time that Lumumba got invited to represent Belgian Congo in Ghana.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The date - December 1958. The place - Accra, Ghana. The occasion - the rallying of people from a whole continent to discuss what may become a new USA, a United States of Africa.

ABDELFATAH: When Lumumba returned from Ghana, tensions between independence activists and the Belgian government were reaching a boiling point. On January 4, 1959, police clashed with rioters, and in the ensuing violence, dozens of people died.

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: January the 4 is today in the Congo known as the Independence Martyrs Day. That's the day when the real struggle for independence began because what became now - not the struggle of the elites but the struggle of the people. And Lumumba was the best leader for the people at that point because he was now admired all over the country.

ABDELFATAH: Which made him a prime target for the Belgian government. And so when more riots broke out later that year...

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: They sent him to the most notorious jail in the Congo, which was the underground prison at one of the major mining centers in Katanga.

ABDELFATAH: In response to the upheaval, the Belgian government agreed in principle to the idea of Congolese independence. And so they scheduled a month-long roundtable meeting with Belgian and Congolese leaders to work out the details. The Congolese delegation pressured the Belgians to include Lumumba, who was still in jail at the time.

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: And so the Belgians had to relent and release him from prison and brought him to Brussels.


ABDELFATAH: Within days, the date for Congolese independence was announced - June 30, 1960.

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: The Congolese - you know, they danced all night over it. They were very happy, but they didn't understand what was behind it.


ABDELFATAH: Coming up, Patrice Lumumba tries to take control of Congo's resources and faces a world power.


BRIAN TUCKER: Hi there. This is Brian Tucker (ph) from Victoria, BC, Canada, just recovering from COVID with the help of THROUGHLINE. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE.

ABDELFATAH: Part three - the master of resources.

ARABLOUEI: From the moment Patrice Lumumba became prime minister, he faced incredible challenges. It was the height of the Cold War. And by the end of 1960, many of Africa's 17 newly independent countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, were caught in the middle. Lumumba's rhetoric and economic plans had landed him the label of communist from many Western intelligence services. And he was the leader of a country that had some of the world's most valuable natural resources - resources that Lumumba wanted to make sure his new, independent government had control over.

ABDELFATAH: But in the span of days, one of the most resource-rich provinces seceded from Congo with the help of Belgium.

KARA: Well, 11 days after independence, the Belgians chopped off the mining province from the rest of the Congo with an army of the mining provinces in Katanga.

ABDELFATAH: Here's Siddharth Kara again.

KARA: Lumumba - he's got a country that's now been free for 11 days from Belgian colonialism, and they go and take over the entire engine of his economy with an army.

ABDELFATAH: Lumumba turned to the United Nations for help, but Belgian troops remained.

KARA: The Congo was completely crippled.

ABDELFATAH: He next turned to the Soviet Union.

KARA: Well, the prospect that the Congo's enormous mineral treasures would flow towards the Soviet Union and not continue flowing to Europe and the West sent shivers down the spines of the neocolonial powers in Western Europe and the United States.


ARABLOUEI: This was all happening during the Cold War, and Congo had huge deposits of a specific resource that played a very important role - uranium.

NZONGOLA-NTALAJA: And uranium was the master of resources.

ARABLOUEI: The master of resources - that's because uranium is a vital ingredient in nuclear weapons. And the U.S. was not going to let uranium from Congo be sold to the Soviet Union.

KARA: And in short order, they hatched a plot to assassinate Patrice Lumumba.


KARA: First, they were going to try and kill him with poisoned toothpaste. And when that didn't work, the U.S. basically said to the Belgians, take him to your stronghold in Katanga, and get rid of the guy. Lumumba was captured and flown to the Katanga capital. He was tortured. He was killed. They chopped him into pieces. They dissolved his body parts in acid, so nothing could ever be found except for one tooth that was held as a souvenir by one of the Belgian assassins.


ABDELFATAH: Lumumba was in power for only two and a half months. The U.S. and Belgium then supported another Congolese leader, Joseph Mobutu. He would become a dictator that ruled the country with an iron fist. He changed the country's name to Zaire, and he would be friendly to Western business interests, especially when it came to natural resources. He would never sell uranium to the Soviet Union.


KARA: Lumumba's assassination taught Africa a lesson. You either play ball, or we'll chop you up and find someone who will. They had no chance at good governance. They had no chance at a nationalist vision. They had no chance at keeping their resources for their people. Foreign powers taught the Congolese people exactly the consequences of trying and aspiring for those aims. And the country's just been dogged by poor governance and corruption ever since.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Celebration on the streets of Kinshasa today. Rebel soldiers marched into the capital of Zaire today. After three decades, Mobutu Sese Seko had fled. The rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, declared himself head of state and gave Zaire a new name. NPR's Jennifer...

ARABLOUEI: Mobutu controlled Congo for 30 years after Lumumba's assassination. That would end in 1997 after rebels forced him to flee. They changed the name of the country back to the Democratic Republic of Congo. And, right around the same time, another revolution was taking place, a technological revolution that would once again make Congo the center of the world economy.


ABDELFATAH: More and more rechargeable electronics like MP3 players, laptops and calculators started hitting the market. And all of these items required natural resources to work - a natural resource Congo had a lot of - cobalt.

KARA: Cobalt is a metal. You'll find it on the periodic table next to nickel. And cobalt is essential for the following reason - it's used in lithium-ion rechargeable batteries in order to maximize their energy density while retaining thermal stability. That means it allows the battery to hold the maximum amount of charge without catching on fire.

ARABLOUEI: Longer-lasting charge on a portable device - the holy grail of electronics. Lithium batteries, many fueled by cobalt, allowed for the rapid market takeover of laptops and iPods. But another device was coming that would completely change the world.

KARA: Towards the 2007, '08, '09, when the smartphones started coming out, then tablets, there was this uptick in demand for rechargeable batteries. And then - so then the demand for cobalt started to pick up.

ABDELFATAH: Pick up is an understatement. As more people around the world were buying smartphones, the demand grew exponentially.

KARA: When I talked to people in the Congo, they would say, you know, it really started to explode in, like, 2012. That's when there was just this sudden geometric explosion in demand. And that's also around when electric vehicles started to take off.

ARABLOUEI: The batteries in electric cars use a lot of cobalt, and electric cars are seen by many as the key to cutting vehicle emissions and the impacts of climate change.

KARA: Now we're in this second automobile revolution, the transition from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles. And guess where the cobalt happens to be, just like how all the rubber was there for the first automobile revolution? In the Congo. And as a consequence, the lives of the people living in that part of the Congo just descended into just a catastrophe.


ABDELFATAH: It is a catastrophe that carries the weight of the past. The shadows of the late 19th century system that forced Congolese people into deadly labor are still alive in the DRC.

KARA: If you completely take over the territory where they live with big mining operations and displace them, thousands of people who used to live in villages - those are all bulldozed and gone, as big mining companies come in and buy up territory - you displace this already poor population of people who can barely survive as it is.

ABDELFATAH: And then you offer them a few dollars a day to do hazardous work.

KARA: So you can survive today doing this hazardous work, getting the cobalt out of the ground, or you can not eat today. And so now you've got this enormous labor force of people desperate to survive who will work for that dollar a day. And if they get injured or develop cancer from toxic exposure or they die in a pit wall collapse or whatever, well, there's another 10,000 people behind them. And that's why there's so much downward pressure on the cost of cobalt - is because of this essentially captive - in essence, modern-day slave labor force.

ARABLOUEI: It may be easy to fall into despair after hearing this story, but even Siddharth Kara, who went into the heart of darkness to uncover the truth behind cobalt in the Congo, has found hope.

KARA: In going on this journey, I went on a historical journey, as well. And I saw how the revelation of a horror gave birth to great champions and the great champions who learned of Leopold's horror and through sheer force of will, unrelenting campaigns, brought an end to his regime. I am inspired that something like that is going to happen today.


KARA: Every advancement we make as a human civilization is achieved in these leaps that are only born upon the revelation of a great horror. And that's why I have hope. Despite all the horrors, despite the repetition, chapter and verse of this same economic pillage, I have hope that some great champions are going to write this truth down. They're going to start a campaign and achieve some measure of meaningful justice for the people in the heart of Africa. And then we'll start on from there to make progress moving forward.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...








ARABLOUEI: Thank you to Chioke I'Anson for playing William Henry Sheppard.

ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl. This episode was mixed by Robert Rodriguez. Music was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Tara Neill, Micah Ratner, Johannes Doerge and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: And, as always, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at

ARABLOUEI: Thank you for listening.

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