Blue Gold is an important young adult novel. Its author, Canadian-born novelist Elizabeth Stewart, puts faces—the faces of three courageous teenage girls—on an invisible and impalpable resource, Congo’s conflict coltan, that has become coterminous with the digital age. This mineral ore, which absence could grind the digital economy to a halt and send us back to the analog age, is indeed blue gold. For Congo, where 65 percent of the world’s reserves of coltan ore are found, blue gold, like many other minerals that this country possesses in abundance, has become a curse. The world’s insatiable appetite for coltan has fueled the deadliest conflict since World War II, with over seven million people dead, hundreds of thousands of refugees, and a staggering number of rape victims in Eastern Congo.
Sylvie is one of them. One dreadful day, soldiers swarmed her village, killed her father and raped her and her mother, leaving her face scarred by a deep machete cut and her memory seared in pain. With their village destroyed, and the ever presence of soldiers bent on killing and raping, Sylvie and her family sought refuge in the Nyarugusu camp, in neighboring Tanzania. In China, where coltan is processed and finds its way into cell phones, tablets, and other digital devices, we meet Laiping. Encouraged by her despondent parents to leave her village and get a job in the big city, Laiping finds her hopes of a brighter future for her and her family dashed by the Gulag-like regimen of the factory campus in the city of Shenzhen. Fiona, on the other hand enjoys a comfortable life in Vancouver, Canada. Yet, her life turns upside down after she sexts a nude pic of herself to her boyfriend. Someone posts the pic to “Friendjam,” resulting in Fiona becoming the butt of everybody’s jokes and taunts and, worse, a “social outcast for the rest of summer.”
Stewart does a good job developing each character and connecting what, at first, seemed three disjointed and discrete stories. Her gripping description of the Orwellian world of Chinese factories, with Big Brother watching every movement and young, sometimes underage, workers being robbed of their hard-earned wages could certainly make for a tantalizing stand-alone tale about the Chinese industrial underworld. While Stewart’s narrative portrays quite convincingly the final stages that put blue gold in the palm of our hands, her description of Sylvie’s tribulations in the Nyarugusu refugee camp fails to give the reader a sense of how and why blue gold wreaks such havoc in Africa. Had she focused on Congo itself, and on the illegal mining sites where children are forced at the peril of their lives to crawl into small dugout tunnels to find blue gold, her narrative would have been more compelling and effective. Instead of a refugee, surviving in a camp in Tanzania, her heroine could have been one of the young female porters who have the ungrateful task of transporting coltan ore over great distance, from the mines to the makeshift runaways where decommissioned Antonov planes await to transport the precious ore to Rwanda and Uganda.
Impatient readers might be jarred by the back and forth between Laiping’s predicament in Shenzhen, soldering capacitors onto printed circuit boards like a robot, Sylvie’s ordeal in the Nyarugusu refugee camp, and Fiona’s efforts to fix her spur-of-the moment sext. Yet, the patient reader is rewarded with a philosophical ending as Stewart masterfully weaves all the threads together to form a common tale of resilience, courage, and hope. I recommend this novel, not just to young readers, but to anyone who wants to understand how anonymous people in the Global South pay the price for our ability to enjoy technologies that we take for granted.
Reviewed by Didier Gondola, Department of History, Indiana University, Indianapolis
Published in Africa Access Review (June 19, 2014)
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