After the rain let down, I went up to breakfast and made myself a quick plate at the buffet and that’s when I started watching the music videos.
Moe soon showed up, and Fedex followed about 10 minutes later. They had good news – the driver and guide could get us to a mine. We were set to go. What they didn’t tell me was that it was in an area basically outside of government control…
Our driver, Pockmark, soon drove in with Pinky. Pinky was dressed in his usual pimp outfit, and after quick re-introductions, we sped off into town, towards that four-way intersection, and then headed west. As it had been raining, much of the road was muddy and the ride was even more brutal, as we were hitting potholes we couldn’t see coming. Days later, I had trouble opening bottles of water – that’s how jacked up my wrist got from holding on to the car handle through all those bumps. Of note, we made a pit stop to what I am assuming was Pinky’s home, one of the nicest homes in Beni, but a hovel by Western standards, so he could pick up some sort of “documentation”, or proof that he had worked in a mine before – he was under the impression that would get us into a mine. It was telling though, because as we parked in the dirt lot by his home, a small crowd gathered around our car, and I distinctly remember feeling uneasy again. After this, we once again stopped – this time to pick up gas (there are no pumps here, just stands that consist of a barrel, emptied out 2 liter plastic bottles, and a funnel). I was already starting to get impatient – why hadn’t Pinky gotten all his stuff before, and why hadn’t the driver already filled his tank. These were all important lessons for the next time, if there was to be one.
We continued west along the dirt road from Beni, passing several checkpoints – each one requiring a minor “fee” or “bribe”. These checkpoints were based around nameless mud-hut villages, and the people manning them were probably extracting their usual fee.
After perhaps an hour of muddy, windy, dirt roads through jungle, we passed a village, and a sight I’ll never forget. It was the usual mud-hut village, and we began to pass a trickle of men in dirty, stained clothes carrying crudely made digging tools walking westward. A few others were carrying buckets or sacks, and another was pulling a donkey along. And suddenly: villagers on their hands and knees picking gold off the street. The rain had washed in new sediment, and with it gold from the mountain. It gives a new meaning to the phrase, “the streets literally ran with gold”, and it was a signal that we were getting very, very close. I had to snap a quick photo as we rolled by, and you can make out people not only picking gold off the streets, but others with makeshift tools getting ready to do the same. As we crawled along this road, we passed even more people with all sorts of makeshift implements: hoes, picks, and each carrying sacks or buckets. They were walking towards that golden mountain…
Within minutes, we reached a town. I distinguish between a town and village here by the level of infrastructure: villages an assortment of mainly mud-huts, whereas towns have a bit more to them, such as a collection of brick structures. If you’ve ever seen the movie The Rundown, that cheesy, but hilarious movie starring the Rock, then you’ll get an idea for what this town felt like. Off to our right (north side) in the distance, was this mountain, half of it stripped by gold mining, so it was covered by eroding reddish dirt. The town center, directly ahead (see photo below), had a really ominous and foreboding look to it. And the landscape was lush, triple canopy rain forest – indeed, the Congo River and her tributaries are part of the second largest rain forest in the world. But the town just gave you the creeps. Moe, in his infinite wisdom, had failed to let me know that we were outside of government controlled land. It was basically rebels, thugs, and villagers at this point.
And the town, like all towns in this part of Congo, looked like post-apocalyptic movie sets. We were parked across the road from one of the more common stalls in these towns, a Boucherie, or butchery, a basic stall that usually had half a dead goat hanging up, and slowly festering meat and animal parts. This somehow just added to the feeling of dread to this place.
Moe and I, the only non-Congolese, sat in the vehicle, while the others ran outside and began talking to people. Within minutes, they returned, with a person – another guide, and he squeezed into the back of this legendary Toyota with us. And we went through the town, and then parked in this lot by some mud huts on the west end of the town.
We hiked up this mountain, through windy jungle trails, pausing once in a while so that Moe could point out evidence of gold mining: the remnants of a sluice here, hastily covered holes there, and then several small abandoned pits.
After perhaps 30-45 minutes, we came across a mud-hut village in a jungle clearing.
We were immediately motioned into a wall-less hut by a couple of the villagers, where the village headman, clearly a Muslim in garb, met us. I sat at the center of a makeshift wooden table (basically a picnic table with two benches), flanked by Moe and Fedex. The driver and Pinky stood by, and several of the older male villagers crowded around us. The situation looked oddly like just about any other key leader engagement you’d have, except I was completely out of the loop. People started talking. More talking. Numbers were getting exchanged. And I heard the dreaded word, “American”, followed by another bit of banter, and then “American” again. What was Moe doing??? I was half paying attention, and half riveted by this scene going off to my right, where a child and a lady were busy hacking the head off of a chicken, literally 5 yards away from the meeting.