News from Congo (and Tucson)

Before we get started, here’s a quick update on who’s currently where, which will hopefully make my vague references to places like “here” and “there” a little more clear in the post that follows. Hmm, maybe I should preface every post with this little segment… let’s call it “Where in the world are you??”

Where in the world is Seb? He’s in Congo, where he returned a week ago — after a 10-day business trip to Arizona over Thanksgiving, and a week of management classes in Colorado. He was initially told to stay put in the U.S. rather than return to Congo, given the events that shall be discussed below, but he managed to talk the bosses into how “essential” he was. Great job, honey! (The good news is, he’ll be leaving again soon.)

Where in the world is Jen? I’m in Tucson, where I’ve been staying in a corporate apartment for almost six weeks now. Except for a quick trip to Canada, I’ve been in the U.S. since mid-August — mostly at the company’s request, to avoid predicted election violence. (Congo’s election; not, you know, ours. Another chapter in the book of irony, right after the one about hurricanes.*) No word yet on when or if I can return to Congo.

Ok, end of introductory segment. Now on to the real news.

If for some strange reason you don’t read Mining World News in your spare time at home, then you might not be aware that our long wait to see who rightfully owns us has finally been resolved. We are officially Chinese! We are 80% Chinese, in fact, as Phoenix-based Freeport McMoRan and Toronto-based Lundin both sold their chunk of shares (56 and 24%) to two different Chinese-based companies. Our link to North America may not be entirely erased, however, as the new majority owner — whose name is, in fact, China Molybdenum (CMOC), not “random Chinese company” like I’ve been insinuating for months — has their head office conveniently located in Phoenix.

The other 20% hasn’t changed; it did and still does belong to Congo’s state-owned mining company Gécamines, who are none too happy that they weren’t consulted in these business dealings. Apparently their contract doesn’t entitle them to any control in these matters, though it does seem a bit odd to me that they would have no say over who their business partners are. Yet that doesn’t seem to be their main complaint. I don’t know. I can only imagine that on top of feeling a little left out, seeing billion-dollar figures being tossed around might make them a little hungry for a piece of the action, too.

Which may explain why they’re grasping at straws, starting with filing a suit trying to stop the deal at the International Court of Arbitration in Paris. When the deal went through anyway, they then received approval from a Congolese court (notorious for handing over whatever judgment is desired for a fee) to replace our Managing Director with one of their own.

The story is just too funny not to share. Seb pulled up to the main gate at base camp one morning and found himself stuck behind a strange sight — a huge Cadillac Escalade with low-profile mag wheels. The boom gate was down, no security in sight. A guy got out of the truck and came to Seb’s window, introduced himself as the new Director, and told him, sorry, looks like no one’s getting in today. Seb sat there stunned for a minute, and then his phone rang. It was his office manager, calling to say that security had spotted him waiting at the gate, and wanted to give him directions to go around to a secret entrance. Ha! The next day when Seb returned to base camp the Cadillac was still there, waiting in the parking lot, the self-proclaimed boss reclining in his seat, boots extended through the open window. (Ok, I added the boots part.)

As far as we know, Cadillac Man went home quietly after that, after another court/official ruled in our favor. But who knows what else Gécamines has up their sleeve.

Other things have been happening back in Congo, things much worse than that. A friend and neighbor was mugged last month while riding his bicycle near base camp. Three guys knocked him off his bike, broke his arm, then ran off with his bike and all his stuff, including his shoes and socks. Socks, even! Our friend hobbled back to base camp, was evacuated to Johannesburg for surgery, and is now, thankfully, recovering well. Two weeks later, a landslide killed thirteen artisanal miners, a horrible accident that is unfortunately not an isolated incident, given the unsafe and unsanctioned ways in which they are working. Artisanal mining is probably our biggest challenge (well, besides doing business in an unfriendly business environment). It’s completely illegal, and we do our best within human-rights limitations to keep unauthorized workers off our property. It’s a complex problem that I haven’t yet tackled in writing. Not being an employee myself, nor journalist, I’m not sure I could do justice to the multiple sides of the issue. But mostly, each time I try to write or talk about it (this being one of our more common dinner-party conversation pieces), I find that this is frustratingly a problem without a clear solution.

Then, earlier this month, all of our mine and plant workers went on strike for six days, the first time we’ve missed a day of planned production since plating our first copper in 2009. It began in response to a sudden new rule banning cell phones from the workplace — a legitimate safety and financial concern, but poorly communicated, giving the false impression that employees couldn’t use their personal phones the entire six-day shift they were on site, many of them far away from their families. However, when the rule was repealed, the strike continued. (Hey, a place doesn’t just get sold for $2.65 billion without sharing some of that wealth! Even though Freeport sold us to help pay off their debt of billions more.) At first, I was appalled by this. But it turns out the unions may have had an outstanding list of unaddressed grievances, one even going back to a payroll error many years ago. Again, I don’t know with certainty who’s right or wrong, but I’m glad it’s finally resolved, and without major incident. (Except for losing millions of dollars a day in production.)

None of this, mind you, has anything to do with the big boogeyman of the year, The Thing we’ve been most worried about and planning for all year, and The Reason I’m not allowed to be there right now: The Presidential Election.

So what’s going on there, you ask? Well nothing, right now. The government has said they cannot afford elections, but hope to miraculously have money for them later, so they’re postponed until 2018. This news was met with violent protests back in September, but then quickly quieted down. November 19 — the date the elections were supposed to be held — came and went without fanfare. The next big date is December 19, the constitutional end of President Kabila’s term. The U.S. State Department is strongly urging all Americans to leave the country before that date, as they anticipate the embassy won’t be open if things go south in Kinshasa, and neither will the airport.

Thankfully, Seb has been anticipating this date all year long, and has saved up enough vacation time to get himself out of the country in time. This week, in fact. And being that I still owe him for the Congo River, he even got to pick the destination. Back to Europe we go! We’re going to meet in Paris on Saturday (no relation to the International Court of Arbitration), and rail around France, Belgium, and Luxembourg for about three weeks. Our trip will end in Nice in early January, when Seb will head back to Congo assuming it’s still there, and I will stay put on the French Riviera for another month of another French class. (Yes, my fourth; I’m a slow learner.) Hey, I had to find somewhere to stay!

For those stuck with a work schedule past this date, we’re confident the company has things under control. There’s a private plane and airport, a route that doesn’t go through Kinshasa, and a significantly reduced workforce in order to get everyone out early. Evacuation plans are in place; let’s hope they aren’t needed. (And to our non-company friends who are staying put by choice, please reconsider!!!)


Editor’s notes:

I’m just kidding, there is no editor. I wish I had one, though. These are things my imaginary editor might say, and thus, what some of you might be thinking:

* Not a proper use of the word irony!

You might be right, editor. Every time I look up the true difference between irony and coincidence, I can’t get past the second example in a list of five. Ugh. But then I read this and realize it’s all ok.

** You use pronouns like “us” and “we” and “our” too much to describe the company that you yourself don’t even work for. And now that the company is changing this is even more confusing.

Yes, this is very true. Along with words like “here” and “there” and “home.” I hope the context makes it clear! As for the company I don’t actually work for — being housed in the compound in Congo (or corporate apartment in Tucson) and surrounded by work all the time makes me feel like an employee. Or call it solidarity with my husband. Whatever!


  1. Thanks for the update Jen – crazy times indeed. Plus ca change, plus la meme chose. Hope you have a wonderful time traveling around Europe!


  2. Thanks for such a thorough run down on infor. Way over my head but I really enjoyed reading it. Love Dad and Carolyn


  3. Great to hear where in the world you both are! I’m not surprised how the deal ended. All the signs seem to have pointed to that. It will be so interesting to see from the inside how a Chinese owned company operates in the Congo. We all had so many stereotyped ideas about it but I’m sure being on the inside Will give you a different perspective. You two continue to do a remarkable job of managing Logistics and getting in interesting trips and study opportunities. So glad Seb has vacation that he can use now. Have a grand time and keep us posted!


  4. Thanks for the update on the changing landscape in the Congo! Although interesting news to an outsider, the volatile political situation needs to be resolved peacefully to preclude additional casualties! And hopefully the Congolese politicians will reach a consensus in order to get things back to predictability and eventual homeostasis!

    Happy New Year Jen and Seb and safe travels everywhere!


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