It is still dark when Solange leaves home at 5:00am for her job in the mines of eastern Congo, where she digs by hand for a dull black metallic ore called columbite-tantalite.
You might never have heard of it, but this ore — known as coltan for short — contains a key metal used in the manufacture of electronic circuit boards that power smartphones, game consoles and computers.
But the story of coltan is about much more than mining profits and technological wonder. It is also a story of exploitation.
Congo’s black gold
Years of violence and political conflict across the Democratic Republic of Congo have made its vast mineral wealth an attractive revenue raiser — and rebel groups will do whatever it takes to control supply.
As a result, the coltan mining industry, and the prized metal tantalum extracted from it, is a “conflict mineral”, closely linked to a range of human rights abuses in a similar way that Africa’s so-called blood diamonds are also sold to fund conflict.
Children like Solange are the first to pay the price of the coltan trade. Many start working from as young as seven years old.
Solange started work in the mines when she was just 11. By 14, she was married. Now 17, Solange is already a widow and the mother of two little boys aged one and two.
There are 53 workers at the mine site in North Kivu, including 32 girls like Solange. When Solange was hired, she was assigned to work alongside a team of 18 men, digging coltan with them all day and eating with them at night.
“I got used to them. I was not ashamed like other women,” she says.
Most of the mine workers come from poor families and have little education. They have few other options for earning a living.