Fiction, Middle, High School
"Coltan, or "blue gold," is a rare mineral used in making cell phones and computers. Across continents, the lives of three teen girls are affected by the "blue gold" trade.Sylvie's family had to flee the Democratic Republic of the Congo after her father was killed by a rogue militia gang in the conflict for control of coltan. The refugee camp where she now lives is deplorable, and Sylvie yearns for a way out -- to save not only herself, but her remaining family.Laiping labors in a Chinese factory, soldering components for cell phones. She had left her small village to make her fortune, but the factory conditions are crushing, and the constant pressure to send money home adds to her misery. Yet when Laiping tries to improve her situation, she sees what happens to those who dare question the electronics company's policies.Fiona is a North American girl who, in one thoughtless moment, takes a picture on her cell phone she comes to regret. In the aftermath, she learns not only about trust and being true to oneself, but the importance of fighting for what is right. All three teens are unexpectedly linked by these events." Publisher
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)
Copyright 2014 Africa Access
I found Blue Gold to be well written and I liked the fact that it shows the negative impact of the current approach to cell phone manufacturing and use on three continents.
However, I worry that it does not show who is responsible for the abuses, so it could actually reinforce stereotypes about two of the three continents: Africa and Asia. For example, the character Sylvie (from the Congo) faces threats from a warlord who rules the refugee camp where Sylvie lives with her family in terror and dire poverty. The reader gets very little understanding of how Sylvie’s life situation has been shaped by the legacy of colonialism and multinationals today.
It is also unfortunate that the mothers of Laiping (from Asia) and Sylvie (from Africa) are seen as trying to hold their daughters back — while Fiona’s (from North America) mother (and even her father) are supportive. It reinforces a message I see in a lot of books where the only person of color who is resisting is a child and doing so in spite of or against the will of their parents — as if the older generation is the problem and there is not a long history of resistance in any community and of real concern for and care for one’s children.
While I agreed with much of Didier Gondola’s review, the conclusion could give the impression that there is no alternative to an exploitative economy. He recommends the book “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.” Are the anonymous people paying the price for “our ability to enjoy technologies” or for the ability for some people to make a gross profit from technology?
The structure of Blue Gold effectively juxtaposes the gripping stories of three girls who are approximately fifteen years old, on three different continents, and over the same time period. Each story emerges from the historical, political, economic or social context of the girl’s environment, and each girl faces a major predicament and decides how to resolve it. Yet, the three stories are inextricably linked because they are united through conflict coltan: Africa is the place where it is mined; Asia, where it is used in manufacturing electronic devices; and North America, where it is consumed. The three stories are interrelated in a subtle and reflexive manner, because each individual story adds nuance and understanding to the other two. Ultimately, when the stories come together (although the three protagonists do not meet), we learn through the experiences of these girls that conflict materials like coltan are part of a global problem (and not just because of violence and corruption in Africa) and that the girls suffer because of it.
What I liked best about this book is that the three girls are not portrayed as victims; rather, each one takes charge of her own life, sometimes with the help of supportive friends or family, to confront and rectify her problem. In doing so, the girls take responsibility for trying to resolve a personal and global issue. However, I agree with Deborah Menkart’s review that the African and Asian mothers in the novel are not supportive of their daughters. For instance, the African mother is completely defeated by her circumstances: she is unable to overcome the traumatic experiences the family undergoes in the DRC (such as murder of her husband, rape, destruction of home, fleeing to Tanzania as refugees). Instead of being the adult and protecting and looking after her children, she has to be taken care of by them, especially by Sylvie, whom she blames repeatedly for every problem that the family encounters. Likewise, the Asian mother expects Laiping to support the family financially by working in the oppressive factory in China where the electronic goods are being manufactured. These mothers represent stereotypical images of women who are defeated by difficult circumstances and cannot fulfill their responsibilities as parents.
This novel will encourage social action and global awareness.
Meena Khorana, PhD
Member, CABA Committee