DiscoverComing of Age

Cobalt Chronicles

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"Cobalt Chronicles" is a story of hope and survival at the end of the Belgian colonialization of the Congo.

Synopsis

This is a coming of age story of a delightful child that was dragged into forced child labor at a cobalt mine in the Katanga Province of the Congo. Esy, the protagonist is beset with obstacles that would destroy most of us. Her remarkable determination compels her to follow her mother's advice to get an education. She is confronted with betrayal, an early pregnancy, life of prostitution, and an unspeakable horror that brought her to the brink of death. It is a redemptive and healing story--she gives a monumental "generation-changing" gift to the world.

Readers are presented with a compelling, dark, but hopeful story in Kathryn Den Houter’s “Cobalt Chronicles.” The story takes place as Belgium is giving up its African colony of the Congo. The Belgians exploited the Congolese people in one way; the new African leaders exploit them in others. The perpetual clash between those who have and those who have not. Mining cobalt is one of the country’s major industries; thus the title of Den Houter’s book. Under both the Belgians and the Africans it is a brutish job that provides little wealth for the workers and damages their health.


Into the mining world is thrown Esynama -- “Esy” – a girl of twelve or thirteen who symbolizes the horror of her country. She is abused on the job, assaulted by her employer, raped by a protector, becomes a prostitute on the orders of her boss, and has a son by her rapist. But Den Houter’s story is not one about sinking into the morass, but rising from it.


Esy, buoyed by her belief in  an Africanized Christianity, strides past the horrors and the setbacks. She studies and learns and  gains life and job skills to create a better life for herself and her son, Mwezi. She overcomes and forgives, and in her own way becomes heroic.


Den Houter selected a simple, plain-spoken style for this book, sometimes to the detriment of the telling. A reader wants to feel Esy’s pain, not just understand it; a reader wants be consumed by her joy, not just be told she was joyful.


“Cobalt Chronicles” is a big story wrapped around the tale of a small girl, and offers a window into how the human spirit survives and overcomes.

Reviewed by

I am a career award-winning journalist and the author of the four-book Frank Nagler Mystery series. Kirkus Reviews called Nagler "one of modern fiction's expertly drawn detectives." I have also written short stores, poetry, and literary fiction.

Synopsis

This is a coming of age story of a delightful child that was dragged into forced child labor at a cobalt mine in the Katanga Province of the Congo. Esy, the protagonist is beset with obstacles that would destroy most of us. Her remarkable determination compels her to follow her mother's advice to get an education. She is confronted with betrayal, an early pregnancy, life of prostitution, and an unspeakable horror that brought her to the brink of death. It is a redemptive and healing story--she gives a monumental "generation-changing" gift to the world.

Mama Mary

PROLOGUE

The Belgian Congo had been targeted for exploitation for a long time. It is rich in natural resources, but its rank on the human development scale is one of the lowest. The Congolese people have not benefited from their wealth. Despite all of its potential abundance, the people of the Congo are subjected to widespread injustice from their own government and from capitalists abroad. Rape, sickness and poverty are everywhere and their children are not protected. Children endure long workdays and dangerous working conditions.

Historically, The first wave of destruction came from the slave trade, which was followed by the wholesale kill- ing of their elephants for their ivory. Next, during the “red rubber era,” the world’s rapacious appetite for rubber because of rubber tires all but destroyed the people of the Congo. Today, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a marginalized country that provides over half the world’s supply of cobalt. Much of the cobalt comes from forced child labor where children are not provided an education and a normal childhood is denied them.

Cobalt is a precious metal and is used for lithium batteries, which are integral to high tech industries. It’s also used in magnetic steels, high-speed cutting tools, and in alloys used in jet turbine generators. James Conca in his article, Blood Batteries in Forbes Magazine says, “Unfortunately, the demand for cobalt is increasing like a bacteria culture in a petri dish, and poor children are its food.” Despite all this natural wealth, the people of the Congo continue to suffer—there is no end it sight.

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The Belgian Congo before 1947, when Esy was born was a chaotic place. How could one expect to have stability when greed and unrestrained exploitation was the mode of operation? The country proved rich in natural resources, potentially one of the richest in the world and this caught the eyes of European industrialists who raped the natural wealth of this African nation, forcing its people into servitude. The clash of the European and African cultures created a country that was chopped up into small sections like a crazy quilt, which was done to max- imize profits.

In 1877, Henry Stanley signed a five-year contract with the Belgian King Leopold to explore the Congo. This meant he slashed his way across Central Africa, killing anyone who got in his way. From the exploration, King Leopold II was able to seize the territory and shamelessly ravage the land and exploit its indigenous people. His ravenous appetite for wealth and recognition grew like a cancer on the land. Leopold laid claim to what became the Congo Free State. Free was the moniker used because he touted the virtues of free trade, which became an inducement to future entrepreneurs. For Leopold, the principles of free trade meant no taxes, no tariffs, no quotas, and no restrictions. It was a reckless, profit-driven scheme.

Poachers hunted the elephants for their ivory tusks and ripped herds of these animals away from the African landscape. The result of this slaughter saturated the ivory markets and the profits for trading ivory dwindled to nothing. This made King Leopold unhappy, forcing him to conjure up another scheme.

In the late 1800s, John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tires used for bicycles. Within twenty years, the price of rubber shot up four times. Leopold seized the opportunity to invest and ultimately exploit the plentiful rubber crops in the Congo. What evolved from this escapade was a brutality that was unparalleled in the African countries and throughout the world.

Leopold’s rubber scam began when he raised a private army, which he referred to as the Force Publique. Villagers became the work force and Force Publique the enforcers. They demanded—without exception—a fixed quota of fifty large pails of liquid rubber. If the workers fell short, the enforcers exacted cruel and severe punishment. The army expected absolute compliance.

Floggings, shootings, and rapes by the Force Publique happened often and capriciously. The smell of death skulked through the dark forests secretly and unannounced. The helter-skelter and unprecedented brutality was so rampant that it earned the term hecatomb, which is worse than genocide because of its wholesale destruction. Killings were random and actuated with a total disregard for life, whereas a genocide kills a targeted population. Sudden streaks of murdering were as routine as eating and sleeping.

Since bullets were at a premium, the captains made sure the sentries were doing their job and not using the bullets by shooting game for sport. The officers required their subordinates to cut off a hand of those they killed to prove they put the bullet to good use. Men and women would feign death while their hand was being lopped off. For a generation, many people in the Congo could be seen roaming the countryside minus a hand. The reign of Leopold II and his bloodstained policies became known as the “red rubber era.”

The Congolese people became numb to the horrific atrocities. The putrid smell of rotting flesh hung in the air from victims’ intestines being strung on trees. Heads of little babies were impaled on stakes to set an example. Like a malignant tumor, the culture of death destroyed every inch of human decency.

Day after day, the villagers toiled in the forests of the Western Congo, tapping the trees, and watching the milky substance trickle out. The latex had a terrible smell when exposed to the air and warmed by the sun. As coag- ulation and degradation occurred, it gave off a rank odor. The laborers breathed and worked in this stench all day, every day.

Mosquitos infested the dark black interior of the forest, which created a hotbed for malaria and sleeping sickness. Contaminated streams and water holes spread other dis- eases. Fear from retaliation for missing quota, the foul odor of the rubber, and the hot humid air prompted many to run farther into the forest away from the sentries, but the enforcers hunted them down. Once found, punishment was severe. Initially, Leopold’s fortune increased due to the demand and escalating price of rubber, but his greed destroyed the Congolese people. Some estimate the rubber scam in the Congo caused the deaths of eight to ten million villagers.

As Marlow said in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “The conquest of earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” Conrad concluded that there was a thin line between civility and barbarism.

The Force Publique, Leopold’s colonial army, was under the firm leadership of white officers. Half of the King’s budget was spent maintaining his army, which grew to more than five thousand Belgians, mercenaries, and Africans. The other monies went for the development of the City of Leopoldville, which later became known as Boma. Here he built houses with European facades, a narrow-gauge railroad through the rough interior, and seaports that would carry precious cargo across the Atlantic Ocean to ports in the west.

The world heard about the horrors of King Leopold’s policies, but they did nothing. Many dismissed the assaults as the price of doing business and viewed these atrocities as necessary to insure profitable trading to more “civilized” countries. The Congo was considered a financial enterprise, not a colony.

Having squandered all of his family’s wealth and the money he borrowed from the Belgian government, King Leopold II came up empty-handed. His schemes were reckless and in the final analysis, unsustainable. The elected officials of the Belgian government took control of the Congo in 1908 and changed the name from the Congo Free State to the Belgian Congo. At that point, the Congo shifted from being a mere financial enterprise to a colony. Although colonization further mired African identity, mission schools were a positive outcome. Children were taught to read, speak languages, learn math, and understand the world around them. From 1908 to the late 1950s there was a “peaceful” stability. In other words, the Congolese people accepted their subservient role. It turned out, however, to be a calm between two stormy periods.




Mama Mary


My name is Esynama. They call me Esy. My life’s story is as treacherous and serpentine as the mighty Congo River. I want you to know me and see what I’ve seen.



“Psst, Esy!” Moyo whispered, as he jostled her awake. Disoriented, Esy opened her eyes to a presence so close she could feel warm breath on her face. Startled, Esy sat up, surprised to see her brother.

“Is that you, Moyo?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said softly. “Mama wants you to come home— she’s dying.”

Jarred by his message, she leaped out of bed just as she saw Moyo tiptoe around the dingy cots to exit the tent. Thankfully, Mama had given him clear directions to find her—“she’ll be in the first tent behind the row of grass huts,” she had said. Esy dressed posthaste, grabbed a plantain for her journey, and held her breath to evade the children’s coughs from disease and cobalt dust. She peered out of the tent to check her surroundings. Suddenly, just two huts away, the light in Big Boss’s shed switched on, piercing the dark. Startled, Esy took off in a sprint, looking behind her just long enough to see him charge out the door. Esy’s adrenaline surged, forcing her legs to move faster. She leaped over the fence and caught the edge of her dress on the wire. Frantically, she yanked the cloth off the barbed wire pressing her left leg into the sharp blades. Wincing with pain, she jerked her leg free and with one mad dash, she jumped down and loped through the bushes to get out of harm’s way. As she ran away she felt a trickle of blood running down her leg.

“I must run! I must hurry!” Esynama whispered. “Moyo risked his life to tell me Mama Mary was dying. I will run to hold and kiss her one more time.”

“Psst, Esy, I’m over here behind the big tree,” Moyo whispered.

“I hurt my leg—go ahead of me. Get home as fast as you can. I’ll catch up when I can,” Esy ordered. She stopped long enough to look down at her wound, tore off the hem of her dress and wrapped her injury. She kept on running.

Death was rampant in the mining camp of the Katanga Province in the Congo. Dysentery and Hard Metal Lung Disease (HMLD) were to blame. The cobalt dust aggravated lung tissue to such an extent that a virulent hacking cough filled the night air. Big Boss erected a fence around the camp to keep the workers in the camp since some tried to escape during the night. Big Boss needed every worker to keep his mine profitable. Hearing rustling in the huts and tents alarmed him and he used whatever means he had to secure his encampment.

Esy forced her legs to move faster, then faster. The inky black night showed only a half moon, but it was a cloudless sky and enough to light her way. The riv- ulets from the heavy rains rough cut the road but the thick callouses on her feet served her well as she made her way through the rills and gullies. As she rounded a bend, she heard a gunshot ring out behind her. She stopped running, frozen in fear, her heart racing. She craned her neck to see where the gunfire was coming. It seemed to be ahead and above her. Did he shoot my dear brother Moyo? Listening for a cry or a moan, Esy heard only the sound of heavy feet tromping on the path and rustling brush nearby.

Then she saw him—Big Boss standing high on a knoll. She could see his silhouetted face, shadow black against the moonlight. He held a pistol, which flashed in the moon’s glow.

Esynama’s heart was filled with terror as she hid in the darkness of a bank’s cutaway. The suspense of that moment felt like an eternity. She held her breath. To her relief, Big Boss turned around and with an exas- perated huff, stomped through the brush, his footsteps fading in the distance.

Hiding in silence, she thought about her Mama. It had been a long time since she had seen her. Esy didn’t want to leave her mama and go to the mine but it was her father, Daddy Dayana who had taken her away from home and forced her to work in the cobalt mines. She gave her hard earned money to her daddy and to Big Boss for her keep.

She stayed in hiding until she was sure he had gone back to camp. Carefully slipping out of her dark hiding place, she began running even faster as if the devil were chasing her. Thoughts swirled inside her head. Is Moyo okay? Is Mama still alive? Will Daddy Dayana be at Mama’s house? Will he take me back to the mine to work for Big Boss?

She didn’t want to go back. Life in the mine was hard and Big Boss was cruel. He paid Daddy Dayana many francs for the work she did, and he kept the money— didn’t give it to Mama or to his daughter. The only money Mama received was from the men who stopped by after supper. They gave her francs to feed her and Moyo. He was a good son when he stayed with Mama in their small hut. Mama was all alone in the country- side, eight kilometers from the Ruashi mine with only a small boy to take care of her. Esy never understood until later, why the twilight visitors were giving her francs.

Esynama panted and her bare feet stung from the hidden stones under the red earth. She was tired but she pressed on wanting to see her mother one last time. Esy remembered when Mama sang and hummed to her almost every night. “Sweet baby girl, your mama loves you. Surely you will find a happy life. Sunshine will follow you and make you smile.”

Mama would sing solos when Esy was in bed, too. Mournful songs, filled with weeping words. Mama cared for Esy the best she could without anyone to take care of her needs. Gratefully, Esy remembered the good days before she became sick. Mama raised manioc in the backyard prying the soil loose to find thick tubers. Carefully, she lined them up to dry in the sun and then, after a few days, ground them into a flour-like powder. Mama’s Belgian mother, Amelia, told her it was called tapioca in her country, a sweet treat for dessert. Daddy used to do his part making food for the family by climbing high into the palm trees and with his machete, chopping off bunches of greasy nuts. Then, he would press them until a lovely orange juice ran out. It looked like liquid copper. From the palm oil, he would make mwambe sauce for their rice and taro.

Those had been happy days when Mama and Daddy worked together. Sadly, Mama got sick and everything changed. Daddy changed too. He was disheartened and lured into gambling by scoundrels he called friends. This life sucked him in and the cost was huge—the loss of his moral compass. The money he and Esy earned at the Ruashi mine fed his gambling habit. He wanted to be rich but his wagers and bets drained his money. Determined to recover the losses, he gambled more. He was caught in the web of self-deceit and he eventually dragged both of his children into financing his gambling habit. His destructive impulses were never satisfied.

Where’s Daddy? Does he know that Mama is dying? I wonder if he cares?

Esynama reached a familiar road at last, a winding tow-path that led to a two-room hut, a wooden structure with boards at odd angles. The roof was made of rusty corrugated iron sections, and the floor was tamped red earth, pounded down by years of footsteps. As she approached her home, she saw the random arrangement of wood and the white curtains wafting in the breeze. Her lovely home was so close it made her heartbeat and legs move faster. She opened the door, and found Moyo holding Mama’s hand, keeping vigil.

“How is she?” Esynama asked, as she embraced Moyo. “She’s barely breathing.”

“Oh, Mama. I love you so!” Esy embraced her mother,

holding her tight.

Mama didn’t move right away, but slowly lifted her

arms to embrace her daughter. “Esy, my sweet girl,” she said weakly.

They embraced for a long time, cherishing the moment.

“Has she eaten anything?” Esy asked Moyo, looking directly at him.

“She refuses all the food I offer.”

“Let me try,” she said. “Mama, I have a delicious piece of banana for you. Please, open your mouth.”

Mama moved her head side to side, clenched her teeth and shut her mouth.

“Mama, please.”

“No!” she blurted out. “I want to die! I’m in so much pain.” Esy hugged her again and sobbed. “I love you, Mama.” “I have something ... for you ... under the bed,” Mama

said weakly.

Esy got on her knees, reached under the bed and found

a book. She looked at her mother quizzically.

“You may ... open it up.”

Esy opened the cover carefully and fifty francs fell out

and clattered to the floor. Moyo scrambled to the floor to retrieve them and handed the money to Esy. She turned the pages slowly, seeing they were filled with journal

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entries and poems. Some of them were cut and pasted on the pages while others were handwritten notes.

“Did you write all of these, Mama?”

“Some ... I wrote for you ... others ... my favorite poets.” “Oh, thank you, Mama! I will keep them close to my

heart always.” Esy said tearfully, deep down knowing this was her last gift from her mama.

“... Moyo?”

Moyo went to his mother’s side. “Yes, Mama.”

“I have something ... for my brave son,” she said.

“There ... in the jar ... on the shelf.”

Moyo dashed to the shelf, grabbed the jar and peeked

inside. He found fifty francs and a gold chain.

“Thank you, Mama,” he said as he ran to hug her. “These gifts ... from the bottom of my heart. Money is

practical ... the gold chain is beautiful ... never forget ... both the practical and the beautiful ... they will make your life happy.” Mama was exhausted from all the talk, but she had more to say. “Moyo, work hard... for those you love,” her voice trailed off to a whisper. “Come here ... son.”

Moyo took her hand and knelt on the floor next to her bed, his face nuzzled sideways just below her shoulder. Esy knelt down on the floor on the other side, put her arm around her mother’s waist clutching the journal with her other hand. Esy laid her head on Mama’s chest to listen to her heart. She wanted to feel her final breath.

Her breathing stopped well before daylight, but the children kept vigil, holding onto her until the full sun brought in the new day.

Where was Mama now? Will I see her again?

Esy used to listen to her when she told stories about the great man, Simon Kimbangu, who experienced visions from the prophet, Moses. Simon’s visions were unforgettable, since they showed him how to heal the Congolese people. Like her mother and the other Kimbanquists, Esy believed in heaven, and she breathed a sigh of relief knowing Mama Mary would be there.

While holding Mama, she heard muffled sounds in the distance. It was the drums, the drums of sorrow, like grief talking. They grew louder and more persistent and, then, she knew Moyo had delivered the message to Daddy Dayana too.

The drumming pierced the warm morning air. “Baboom! Baboom!” Everyone in the radius of eleven kilometers knew that something important had hap- pened. They knew with a certainty that death had vis- ited someone in the night. All the neighbors in the sur- rounding villages were reminded of the inevitability and presence of death and some of the neighbors drummed back—a message of condolence.

Dayana walked toward the hut and was at the head of the large crowd of people, which grew bigger as they came toward their home. They marched in unison with a purpose. No longer far away, the sound was like booming thunder in Esy’s ears. Neighbors, fellow Kimbanquists, the spiritual healers called ngangas, and friends from Elisabethville gathered and grew into a clamorous throng.

Dayana and a neighbor carried their mother’s bed out- side the hut and placed it under the Baobab tree for all to see. Dayana and the mourners wanted her to have the right burial so she could rest in peace and bless the family from the spirit world. For them, life and death were on a continuum, with death just another state of being. Mary

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had been transmuted into the spirit world. She had been enfolded into the community of her ancestors and death was considered an exalted state.

The mourners circled around Mary’s lifeless body singing, chanting, and crying out. The wailing and grief-cries sent shivers up Esy’s spine as they paid their final respects. Stomping feet pounded the red dirt, sending swirls of red, dry dust into the air. The herbs dispersed by the ngangas permeated the air and provided a distinct aura that emanated from the spirit world. The crowd vocalized patterns of loud music as their bodies moved up and down to the rhythm of the drums. Ba-boom, Ba-boom.

Dayana brought three large buckets of rice and mwambe palm oil sauce, manioc roots, and plantains, which he gave to Esy and her mother’s closest friend, Fimi. Four men carried a plain hand-carved wooden coffin with a rough-hewn cross on the top, an appropriate emblem of Mary’s faith.

Somewhere in between the dancing, wailing and drum- ming, Dayana collapsed beside Mary’s bed and yowled deep, guttural sobs. He shouted prayers and sang driving chants, which seemed to cleanse the air. It was a holy time. This is when Esy understood that Dayana had truly loved her mother. This single action clarified so many confusing thoughts she had about her mother and father.

Finally, the day was spent and the sun settled in the west. It was time to put her mother to rest. Dayana gave one last, soulful cry and then wrapped her mother’s body in a shroud, and raised her up high toward the night sky. He looked up and passionately recited The Lord’s Prayer in Swahili.



Baba Yeta

Baba Yetu uliye mbinguni,

Jina lako litukuzwe;

Ufalme wako ufike,

Utakalo lifanyike

Duniani kama mbinguni,

Utupe leo mkate wetu wa kila siku, Utusamehe makosa yetu,

Kama nasi tunavyowasamehe waliotukosea. Usitutie katika kishawishi,

Lakini utuopoe maovuni.

Amina.

He tenderly pulled Mary toward him and held her close for a last embrace.

During the afternoon, Moyo, and some of his neighborhood friends dug the grave, their duty to show respect for his mother. It was hard work, but shovel full after shovel full they made a large enough hole in the ground for Mary’s coffin. Dayana tightened the shroud around Mary’s cold body and gently laid her to rest in her coffin, which they placed in the hole underneath the Baobab tree.

Silence fell, the whispers of the people hushed and the drums became still. With hands and shovels, the mourners placed chunks of red earth in the hole to cover Mama’s coffin. The chanting resumed. Dayana, Esy and Moyo found one open blossom on the Baobab tree. People in the Congo call this tree “the tree of life.”

“It’s a sign from heaven,” Esy said knowing that most Baobab trees blossom only once a year. Lovingly, they placed the beautiful blossom on the red earth above their mother’s grave. She was a Kimbanquist and a blessing to her neighbors.

With her honorable burial complete, it was now time for fire and food. These same neighbors who helped bury Esy’s mother built a fire to celebrate the cycle of life with drumming, dancing and singing. The tone was not sad, but accepting of how life goes round and round.

Well-trained by her mother to be a good servant, Esy ran into the house to set out plates, serving dishes, and utensils for the guests. Warm hospitality was a priority for her. With this loving spirit and joy of appreciation, she cultivated the deep connections among her family and friends. Her mother’s friend Fimi was helpful and shared the same loving spirit, and both of their actions declared that neighbors are important.

Unlike many others living in the country outside the city, Mama Mary had utensils and dishes for dining in her humble two-room hut. She had received them as wedding gifts from Amelia and Bertrand, her Belgian parents who raised her after she was orphaned as a young girl.

Esy poured the rice, taro and sauce into serving bowls from the buckets of food, while Fimi laid the plantains on the table. It was an abundant banquet so different from their usual fare. They invited the guests to partake of the food. Family and friends streamed into the kitchen to fill their plates. Some took eating utensils and others ate with their hands—either way was accepted. The meal became lively and happy as they squatted and sat around the fire enjoying the rice with mwambe sauce.

With their stomachs full, Mary in her grave, and the burial music finished, the guests lifted their drums and left for home. They had commemorated the cycle of life and the love Mama Mary had for her neighbors and friends.

Now, Esy, Moyo and Dayana were alone and quiet. They went to separate places in the hut. It was time to rest. Esy found the diary that Mama gave her and clutched it close to her chest. She went to her cot along the back wall of the center room behind the worn sofa. Her cot was on the dirt floor and made of woven banana leaves. She could feel the night breezes on her face from the open window above her. She opened her Mama’s journal.

Knowing how to read was another gift her mother had given her. She taught Esy all she knew and had learned from Amelia, her Belgian “mother.” Amelia had been the head of the household where Mama worked before Esy was born. She had taught school in Belgium when she was younger, and she made sure Mary became educated. Mama said Amelia was a good woman, who went to Mass every day and wanted to make the world a better place. Although her reading wasn’t very advanced, Esy could read well enough to understand every word in her mama’s journal. There, on the first page, was a poem preceded by a scrawled note that said, To my dear Esy, this is my favorite poem. Listen to what the writer says. He is a wise man with deep understanding.


Those Who Are Dead Are Never Gone

By Birago Diop, a Senegalese poet

Those who are dead are never gone:

They are there in the thickening shadow.

The dead are not under the earth:

They are in the tree that rustles,


They are in the wood that groans,

They are in the water that sleeps,

They are in the hut, they are in the crowd,

The dead are not dead.

Those who are dead are never gone,

They are in the breast of the woman,

They are in the child who is wailing

And in the firebrand that flames.

The dead are not under the earth:

They are in the fire that is dying,

They are in the grasses that weep,

They are in the whimpering rocks,

They are in the forest, they are in the house,

The dead are not dead.

Esy walked over to the front window, pulled back the window cloth to the open air, and watched the fire’s embers with their dancing orange and red glow. The smoldering remains were mesmerizing. Her ears heard the African wood owl and the whispering sounds of the light breeze on the trees. It is Mama Mary in the trees. She is the red flickering glow of the subdued fire and the smell of the smoke curling silently into the black night.

Knowing Mama was not really dead, but her soul lived on, Esy closed the journal, laid it softly on her chest, and fell asleep.



Up with the sun, Dayana, Moyo and Esy met in the kitchen for breakfast. After the manioc root and honey filled their tummies, they smiled at each other knowing they had done right by Mama Mary. They understood this experience made them grow, not in size, but in wisdom. Walking through and swimming in the river of life made them strong, wise and useful. They belonged to each other and to their community of family and friends.

“Esy, you and I must to go back to the mine,” Daddy Dayana said. His voice hardened with his words and his eyes changed and he looked scary to her.

Esy looked down at the floor. She wondered why she couldn’t just stay and work in the little house in the country. She could harvest manioc roots, prepare the fruit from the Baobab tree, and express oil from the palm trees. She would be happy doing that work. Going to the mine would make her sad.

Esy recalled the first day at the mine. Daddy Dayana worked for the main boss at the mine did favors for him and organized the work crews. The day he forced Esy to work in the mine with him, she wailed and screamed and hung onto Mama. Daddy Dayana wrestled them apart, grabbed her arm and dragged her along with him. Once there, he released her arm and dropped her with a thud in front of Big Boss. He was the first person she met at the mining camp.

“My, my! What do we have here?” Big Boss said. His large belly jiggled as he laughed. “Quite a beauty, I must say.”

That was a new one for Esy because she never considered herself to be a beauty. The thought never crossed her mind. In her fright, she quickly pulled away from his loud strident voice.

“Come here, child,” he yelled. “We’ll put her in training with Serge for the next couple of weeks,” he said to her father.

Big Boss was a big African man with an oppressive stance—arms akimbo. His eyes were dark and piercing— displaying an evil cunning. He had a cavernous wrinkle over the bridge of his crooked nose and his thick lips at rest were set in a permanent frown. Below this face was the body of fat Buddha with lavish rolls of hardened fat cascading from the loose skin of his neck, down his midsection to his groin. By comparison, his legs were skinny—tough and sturdy from carrying the weight of his massive torso. His work “uniform” was always the same—a dirty white short-sleeved shirt with black pants and heavy leather boots.

With that introduction, her days in the camp started. She slept in a three-sided tent on a makeshift mat made of banana leaves. Fruits and fufu, which is dough made from boiled and ground plantain flour, provided by the head cook of the mine minimally sustained her. She learned how to mine cobalt. Esy had a natural aptitude for this hard work. Her eyes spotted the chunks of nickel and copper interwoven with the cobalt, which she picked apart separating the precious bluish gray metal. From sun up to sun down, she worked her fingers until they bled. The sluggish air she breathed worked her lungs hard. Trying to sleep in the heavy air at night made her cough and wheeze.

Big Boss and Daddy Dayana squandered the money from her hard work. At first, Big Boss took all the profits from her and shared only some of it with Daddy Dayana as payment for the work he did. Esy did not get any of the money. After a time, Esy gained their trust and brought her wares directly to the Chinese brokers in Elis- abethville, which was the nearest city. The Chinese Brokers would assess the quality of the cobalt she found and exchange the cobalt for francs. Esy gave all the money directly to Daddy Dayana, which meant Big Boss gave him the money for Esy’s keep, too. All Esy had to show for her hard work was bruised hands and sliced fingers.

“Daddy, I don’t want to go back to the mine.”

“But, you must—you are strong and clever,” he said. “We need clever hands and eyes to find the cobalt in the water, rocks and slag. Moyo will stay here to harvest and dry the manioc roots, and make palm oil. He is only six and too young to go to the mine.”

Reluctantly, Esy put her clothes in a bag and grabbed some plantains for the journey. She wrapped the journal into a soft towel and slipped it into her bag. She knew it would give her hours and hours of good lessons, and she was ready to learn what her mama had to teach her.

Together, Dayana and Esy walked the eight kilometers to the mine. It was a stern, strident walk, like two soldiers going off to war. They did not speak. Even though she dreaded working in the mine, Esy knew what her father said was right. She was proficient at discovering the quality veins of cobalt. She often sieved the mine rocks in muddy pools and streams to find the stones with the purest cobalt content. The other workers would follow her and snaffle her finds, but rather than squabble over the cobalt, she walked around the mine until she found another quality supply.

Ambitious children eked out a living working all day sorting through the rubble of smelted remnants. When finished with their day, they walked two hours to sell their wares to the Chinese brokers. The direct sun was merciless. Even though the brown water on the red earth was invitingly cool in the midday sun, there could be snakes hidden underneath. While Baako, Esy’s friend, worked in the brown water, he pulled at something he couldn’t see. One tug in the water and a snake hurled its head around, and sank its fangs into Baako’s chest. It was a poisonous Naja snake and Baako stopped breathing. Esy’s heart was sorrowful and she was scared from that moment on.

In the late afternoon, after working all day, Esy was standing in line at the Chinese Broker’s shack when she met an older girl named Asha.

“Do you work in the Ruashi mine?” Esy asked.

“Yes, I’ve been there for almost a year.” Asha replied. “I’ve never seen you at the camp. Do you live there?” “No, I live at the Baptist Mission near here,” Asha said.

“It’s a much better place. The beds are cleaner and the food is very good. I could show you where I live if you want to see it.”

“I would like to see it,” Esy said smiling. The prospect of finding better living conditions gave Esy some hope. The cobalt dust was making her cough and she yearned for clean air. Asha was taller than Esy with long, skinny legs, but she had an attractive smile. I think I would like to be her friend.

She followed Asha to the mission, and was impressed with the missionaries in charge. She asked them if she could stay there.

“We don’t have any room right now, but next week Wednesday, one of the rooms will be open,” Jackson said. “If you want, I’ll save it for you.”

“Thank you. I would like that.”

After carrying her sack of cobalt to the Chinese broker t the end of the day on Wednesday, she headed to the mission station in Elisabethville. In another bag she had her clothes and her journal. She appreciated the cleanliness, the food at the mission, and the mattresses. Under- neath the mattress was a cot made from woven banana leaves to elevate and cushion the mattress. Still feeling unsure about her surroundings, she hid the money she got from the Chinese vendor under her mattress at night and went to sleep protecting her francs.

Each and every day, Dayana expected her to give him money. That was the only time he acknowledged her at the mine. Outside of that transaction, he never claimed her as his daughter and he seemed harsh and uncaring. She felt lonely and set apart while working at the mine.

Esy’s daily grind was the same every day of the week, but in the evening she held her journal tight under her arm. She felt the spirit of Mama Mary—it kept her company through the long, lonely nights.


About the author

Writing is hard work but pure joy. My first novel, "Abigail's Exchange" is a coming of age story as is "Cobalt Chronicles." I grew up on the plains of Minnesota and learned the values of resolve, resilience and honesty. These values are reflected in my novels. They are redemptive stories. Enjoy! view profile

Published on February 08, 2020

Published by Mission Point Press

60000 words

Genre: Coming of Age

Reviewed by

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