An Interview with the ‘Peace Walking Man’ of Congo

“How can you translate in English this Italian idiomatic expression: ricco da morire?”

In Italy, when someone is too rich, we say he is “ricco da morire”, which can be literally translated as “being so rich to die from it”. The man who is asking me this question is a Congolese activist that I’m interviewing in a small bar in Reggio Emilia, a not-so-big town in the north of Italy.


This is his story: his name is John Mpaliza, he’s 47 (but he looks half his age), and he was born in Bukavu, near the border with Rwanda. He moved to Kinshasa to study electronic engineering when dictator Mobutu was still governing the country. Then, in 1993 he moved to Parma, Italy, where he studied informatics engineering and became a developer; a job that he has been doing for almost twenty years, until he decided to quit and completely change his life and dedicate to his life to a different cause. Around six years ago, John quit his job and started organising events to put the spotlight on the situation in Congo, where consistent violations of human rights have been registered and an economic war is now devastating the country, principally caused by the massive exploitation of mineral resources such as coltan and cobalt.

As contribution to his beloved country, he organises long marches from Reggio Emilia to different cities all around Europe and different international institutions, like the European Parliament, as a way to protest and ask them for several solutions for Congo, such as the traceability of minerals used in the production of electronic devices.

For this reason he has been renamed as “Peace Walking man”, and now he’s on his way to walk from Reggio Emilia to Brussels, with almost no money and without using transport, to ask European Parliament to cooperate to stop violence in Congo and the exploitation of resources.

What is happening in Congo nowadays?

“What is happening in my country can be considered an economic war. An Economic war, because Congo is rich in natural resources which are heavily exploited. Do you know how big is Congo? It could contain France and other European countries.  And it is really really rich. A Congolese proverb says that when God created the world he had a bucket full of every sort of goods on his head, and then, when he reached the top of Kilimanjaro the bucket fell over the Congo. This is why our country is so rich with natural resources and minerals like diamonds, gold, cobalt and coltan.”

The exploitation has intensified in the present days, but it has always been a part of the story of Congo, a story which turns out more and more violent.

“After the independence from Belgium in 1965, Patrice Lumumba, the leader of the anti-colonialism, took the power. Do you know that here in Reggio Emilia exists a street named after Patrice Lumumba? He was a promising leader. But after one year he was sworn in he was killed.

Then Mobutu took the power, and it would have been on government until 1996.”

The complete name of Mobutu Sese Seko was Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Zabanga, which literally means “Mobutu the warrior who always wins and cannot be defeated”. He was a dictator politically supported by United States and Belgium, and during his government Mobutu established a one-party state in which all power was concentrated in his hands. He also became the object of cult of personality. During his reign, Mobutu amassed a large personal fortune through economic exploitation and corruption.

In 1996 his regime came to an end after wide protests took places in the country, and Mobutu, affected by cancer, fled to Morocco.

These are the hardest times for Congo: in 1996 the Rwandan Army occupied the eastern part of Congo, which was also facing a refugee crisis after the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Rwandan Army occupied Congo to control its natural resources and a war spread out, known as the first Congo war. The Rwandan occupation replaced the previous dictator with another president, Laurent Desiré Kabila, and the military groups controlled border cities and mines. But Kabila started to be increasingly sidelined from important decisions concerning the borders and mines.

So, in 1998 Kabila dismissed his chief of staff James Karabebe, a Rwandan, and substituted him with a Congolese. Karabebe came to Congo with Kabila and took the Congolese citizenship, but after he was dismissed he went back to Rwanda. Nowadays he is the Rwandan present Minister of Defence.

Kabila, to avert a coup and also to avoid the exploitation of Congolese resources by Rwanda, forcibly expelled the Rwandan forces from Congolese territory; he thanked Rwanda for its help and ordered all Rwandan military forces to leave the country. Within 24 hours they were unceremoniously flown out.

Groups of military rebels remain in Congo, trying to destabilise the country and exploit mineral resources. This is the concept of war on resources, from which Congo is a victim.

This economic war brought nothing more than extreme violence among civilians. John shows me his arm – “one of relative is death, and one of my sister is disappeared, I’m wearing a strip on my left arm as symbol of mourning”.

There is a report edited by United Nation, known as Mapping report. It says that from 1993 to 2003 there have been more than 5 million deaths in Congo, but the number is assumed to be much higher, partly due to the fact that the report analysis does not cover a wide-range period. From 2003 to today, violence and rapes continues.

Rape has been use as weapon of war during the war in Congo, and nowadays Congo is the country with the highest rates of rape in the world.

In 2001 Laurent Desiré Kabila died, and Joseph Kabila took the power and he is still in government. He has completed two mandates and a period of government without a mandate. He has provided some political dialogue to stops the war, but he has brought little change in Congo.

Back to present days, what is the war on coltan? 

“The economy of Congo relies heavily on mining. The country is the world’s first cobalt producers, a major producer of copper, coltan, gold and diamonds. Despite this, the mining activities principally are carried on by artisan and small-scale miners, and it is counted that only a small part of the production, (for example the 7% of the whole drawn gold) left the country through legal transactions.

Among those minerals coltan is considered the most important. Coltan is the short for Columbite-Tantalite, a dull black metallic ore principally transformed and used in the production of tantalum capacitors and other parts of electronic devices such as computers and smartphones. It is proven to be a ductile material and resistant to extreme temperature. Without coltan it could be impossible to send rovers on Mars.

Basins of coltan were discovered in Congo in 1930. This mineral is extracted in Australia, Canada and other countries, but in Congo is possible to find the 80% of the world’s reserve, and also a high-quality coltan, with the major percentage of tantalite.

After the technological development of the last decades and the creations of laptop and computers the coltan became more and more important and its price started to grow. On 2008 on the European markets its price levitated to 600$ per kilos, but in Congo it was paid around 50 cent per kilos.

But also Congolese coltan is so cheap because the miners are underpaid, and the majority of the mining are the control of groups of rebels.

Have you ever thought about the fact that the majority of mining activities takes place in Congo rather than Australia? because of the high quality of Congolese coltan, for sure, but also because our coltan is extracted principally by artisan miners.”

Who are the miners?

“They are principally children, women, and poor. Children dig up deeply in the mines searching for coltan, everyday, it is an exhausting activity. It is also very dangerous: as you know coltan is a bit radioactive, so lots of women and children get cancer and leukaemia.

By the way, you’re probably asking to whom they sell the coltan. They sell it to the military rebels who control the mines. As I’ve said before, the country is very rich in mines, but just a little number of them is institutionally controlled by the state. The remaining part is controlled by the militias, and when a miner get the coltan, he has to sell it to the military who impose a price.

Then it is sell to the multinational companies, which principally are based outside Congo. In Congo there are a bit multinational companies, and the majority of coltan is sell to foreign industries through connections with Rwanda.

President Joseph Kabila knows this commerce, but it doesn’t intervene in this economic war.”

He has been governing the country since 2001, when he was sworn in after the death of the previous president Laurent-Desirè Kabila who has governed the Congo during the period of the first and second Congo wars. 

Under the leadership of Kabila the situation in Congo has not changed. The miners, who started this work attracted by the possibility of becoming rich, are treated like economic slaves of the military rebels, and exploit them for gaining minerals, selling it to foreign companies, who finance them with money or weapons. This coltan rush has brought nothing more than misery and war.

The rebels still control the mines and part of this region. Congo is still under an economic war where the number of deaths increase year by year and military uses violence mass rape as a weapon of war to put the population under their control.

As John says to me, Congo is the country with the highest number of rapes, with hundreds of women, and even children, being raped by the rebels. He even gives me the name of a famous gynaecological surgeon, Denis Mukwege, known as ‘the man who repairs women’, who has created an hospital for physically and psychologically curing female victims of rape.

“This is why I’m marching from this city to Brussels, to ask European Institutions to help Congo stop this war.

Another mineral is becoming more and more important, and it is cobalt. Cobalt is principally used in the production of electric cars. The automotive sector has its interest in use Congolese cobalt, but the exploitation of this minerals will worsen the condition of Congo.

We are asking the institution to help ending the government of Joseph Kabila, guarantee the respect of Constitution, and condemn all people who have killed million of men and raped women. It is important to institute a specific international tribunal court to judge international crimes committed in Congo.

Then, the Congolese people must establish a State of Law. We have already lots of protests inside our country with independent movements and organisations like “Lucha”- lutte pour le changement-, and  Filimbi (whistle, ndr) and Telema (stand up, ndr). They risk their lives every day for protesting against the government and asking for change. Here in Europe, with our marches we have already asked the traceability for minerals to European Institution, but it has been rejected. In Congo is carrying on a violent war for natural resources, where thousand of people have been killed and raped and the violence is continuing, and twenty thousand blue helmets are not helping. We are a country that is incredibly rich and wealthy, and for this reason we have been exploited and victim of resource curse I’ve decide to left everything, my work and stability, to make other people hear  my voice for the cause of Congo.”


The interview is over, and John has to go because has the march to prepare for. He recommends me to write everything of what he has said to let people know about Congo. 

Congo is facing a desperately poverty, widespread violence, and exploitation which is leading to corruption, child labour and lack of freedom.

Now, thinking about the question John asked to me – how can you translate “ricco da morire” in English language? I can find the answer: as hell, it can said to be rich as hell.


Written by Chiara Campanelli 

Image: Stefano Stranges