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The lithium-ion battery that powers your cellphone, laptop, tablet, or electric vehicle has a key ingredient called cobalt. Seventy-five percent of the world’s cobalt comes from one country and is mined essentially with slave labor. Siddharth Kara’s deep dive into the cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is an eye-opener that will make you think twice about upgrading your electronic devices.

Kara takes the reader to a place where workers have no rights, where dust from the mines makes it painful to breathe, but a place where if you do not dig, you do not eat. Children routinely drop out of school to help feed the family. They crawl into tunnels deep in the ground that are known to collapse instantly. “We work in our graves,” said one father of a boy who barely survived a cave-in.

Despite 10-hour days in toxic conditions under a baking sun, most earn $1, maybe $2 per day. The mined cobalt is sold up a supply chain for ever-increasing prices, making people rich except for those who do the most dangerous work. At the top of that chain is the market for batteries powering our electronic devices and especially electric cars (whose batteries require a thousand times more cobalt than a phone).

Congolese people are being exploited by China’s mining companies who buy more of their land each year from Congolese government officials, who then line their own pockets. Government officials get rich but do not enforce laws to protect citizens. Companies get rich but care nothing for the workers. “Across twenty-one years of research into slavery and child labor,” writes Kara, “I have never seen more extreme predation for profit that I witnessed at the bottom of the global cobalt supply chains.”

He brings the reader face to face with young children who work in tight passageways underground and young mothers who carry babies on their backs while vigorously sifting rocks in muddy ponds. One mother thanked God for her two miscarriages that spared her children from the treacherous mines. “Please tell the people in your country, a child in the Congo dies every day so that they can plug in their phones,” Kara’s translator tells him.

One noticeable absence in the book is solutions. Kara does not offer any prescriptions to help or remedy the terrible suffering in the Congo. He simply remarks that the biggest problem for the miners is that nobody up the supply chain will take responsibility for them or the working conditions despite the profits being made at every level. The main purpose of the book is to inform the world of what is happening in the DRC.

The only bright spot of the book are the few glimpses of people’s faith despite their suffering. At one point, Kara enters a church and finds a large room full of people singing passionately. “I understood at last how the people of the Congo survived their daily torment—they loved God with full and fiery hearts and drew comfort from the promise of salvation.”

This is not an enjoyable read but an important one. It shows the impossible situation that defies any simple solutions offered by the political left or right. It colors outside the lines of our cozy understandings of this world and how it works. Mostly, it reminds us how badly we need a perfectly righteous and just Savior to solve our world’s problems. (St. Martin’s Press)

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