A lone miner looks out over the "digging" site. Diggers, the local term used for informal, sometimes illegal miners, dig in discarded mine dumps for cobalt, copper and other minerals. Some of this they sell back to the mining company that holds the concession, or to Chinese traders. Leonie Marinovich/The Stand

The Copper Eaters

Copper Eaters - DRC

Leonie Marinovich

Democratic Republic of the Congo. 2008

The indigenous currency of south-central Africa has, since the 13th century, been the Katanga Cross, ingots of pure copper. For generations, the esoteric knowledge of how to extract and work the precious metal was held by a secret cult known as the “copper eaters.” The ingots were used as currency, but also as symbols of power and prestige. A large cross was used to compensate a woman’s family for her labor in dowry exchanges, for instance, and ingots were buried with the dead, laid on their chests.

The ingots were also used to pay tribute to the rulers of the Lunda Empire, which encompassed the Central African copper belt that stretches from Angola through the Democratic Republic of Congo and into Zambia. It is centered on what is now known as the Katanga Province in the DRC.

When the Belgians began mining the copper through massive state-owned mines, the artisanal miners all but disappeared. From being the eaters of the copper, they were sidelined to surviving on the leftovers. Copper continues to form the mainstay of economic survival in this region; the ore from Katanga is of a very high grade and in great demand by the Chinese. As large-scale commercial mining endeavors have replaced the traditional mining methods, several companies have entered into agreements with the local diggers to buy back the leftovers from previous opencast mines which the companies have left behind to mine more profitable deposits.

Read More about Katanga Province and its Crosses

Q&A with Leonie Marinovich

What drew you to the informal mining sector in DRC?
I knew Katanga was known for its copper mining, but I was based in Lubumbashi for this assignment and the big mining operations around there were just not visually that interesting. I decided to travel to Kolwezi for several reasons. I wanted to see the source of one of tributaries of the amazing Congo River; I had collected several Katanga crosses and really wanted to see where they originated from. I am also a sucker for off-the-beaten-track roads…

How did you travel there?
When I first flew to the DRC, I was seated next to a mining executive who mentioned that he was immediately getting on to another plane upon landing in Lubumbashi to fly to Kolwezi. I thought, why doesn’t he just drive? On the map it was only 300 km away. So when I got the chance, I wanted to travel by road. It literally took us a full day of driving to get to Kolwezi, along the way we passed several trucks that had gotten stuck up to their axles in deep mud. When we returned some days later, it took us only 6 hours. I asked the driver why we managed it so fast this time round, the guy said, “Yes I was driving faster than last time because we were told there were bandits on the road.” He didn’t want to scare me by mentioning it! Whatever the reason, I was grateful — it saved me at least 6 hours of extra listening to Celine Dion.

Can you tell me a little about the conditions you encountered there, how people made their way?
Near the mines, people were living in temporary shelters mostly made out of bright orange plastic tarps. Massive thunderstorms broke out every afternoon clearing the air, but it really was very humid. It seemed to me that any money to be made there was monopolised by big companies or government, even the cattle ranches I saw along the route. So the average family here were left to do hard manual labour to earn a meagre living, which still left them better off than people who didn’t have this chance. The copper tailings were salvaged by people from around the region, not just Congolese. I was told that there was an agreement between the mining houses and the informal miners to buy back the recovered tailings on a per grade basis, but with the arrival of Chinese merchants they were paying less, no questions asked. This meant money was made available quicker but it also meant that you had to work longer and harder to earn the same amount.

What was it like working in those mining camps, as a woman as well as an outsider?
I had two fixers, and like everything else in the DRC various negotiations and to take place to gain permission along with several pieces of paper stamped by officials. Once I gained access, people were eager to share. I think my fixers were nervous. To be honest, not once did I feel in danger during my entire trip in the DRC, contradicting all my expectations (this was my first trip there) – in fact I felt safer in southern DRC than I did in Johannesburg, where in fact a few years later I stopped working on an artisanal mining story because it was too dangerous.

When we went to another site, the one where they are panning in water, I was on my own. The rain had started coming down and none of my fixers were that keen on getting wet, so I was squelching through mud making slow progress trying not to fall over and had to stop shooting when I started drawing a crowd when everybody wanted to see what I was doing. At both these mining scenes I had to work quite quickly but I remember distinctly the moments I got what turned out to be my two favourite shots from the entire shoot.

Have you any special memories, outside of Primus beer? 
Ha ha – you know me too well. Really the whole trip was memorable. I hadn’t been to the DRC before and this was my first major shoot out of the country after the birth of my children. Also the longest. What struck me was how welcoming people were. I was even invited to enter the shrine of Simon Kimbangu, the founder of the Kimbanguist church and was given a little keepsake. I just remembered something else. I tried to photograph surreptitiously with a tiny little Minox that hung high around my neck like jewellery or an amulet, especially in the markets where the market women would endlessly harass you, but I could have saved myself the trouble. That camera was treated with the same suspicion as the big Canon.