Answer the Call

My 1-year-old and 3-year-old love my cellphone. “Hello? Hello? Beep, beep. Yeah!” Its lights and sounds delight them. Our 6-year-old is not a fan. When she was younger she threw a cellphone in the trash, another in the toilet and used any opportunity to hide them. They were the enemy, disrupting our home with calls from work, hurting more than helping, she thought.

I share her concerns, but mine go beyond the work/family balance and include the lives that hang in the balance because of cellphone production. Cellphones, laptop computers and other consumer electronic devices use coltan (tantalum) and other minerals (tin, tungsten, gold) in their circuitry. But presently the unregulated, nontransparent trade in minerals fuels the horrific war in the Congo. Rebels fight for control of the mines and profits. They rape and mutilate young girls and women to destroy communities and drive people away from the mine areas, in what the United Nations deems war crimes and crimes against humanity.


The International Rescue Committee estimates nearly six million people have died in the conflict in the Congo. More than a million refugees and internally displaced persons have been forced from their homes. The price of our phones is higher than we think.

Recently, I fished the phone away from the kids and slipped out the door. I was on my way to the Capitol to lobby members of Congress to support S. 891 and H.R. 4128, bills that would increase the transparency of the global supply chain so our cellphone purchases could help the people of Congo rather than hurt them. I called Jerry Ernst, organizer of our delegation, many of whom are parishioners from St. Camillus parish in Silver Spring, Md. Jerry and his wife, Sherelyn, became active on this issue when their daughter Amy, a rape counselor, began working with child rape victims in eastern Congo through the Crosier, a Catholic religious order. On her blog (, Amy describes the girl-mothers with whom she works.

Jerry fielded multiple calls to shepherd us on the Hill. Beatrice Mundela and Iyofe Christine Kankwenda, parishioners who are members of the Congolese diaspora, speak softly but powerfully about the violence their communities are enduring. “We are afraid to pick up phone calls from home,” Iyofe says, “afraid to hear what has happened.” George Alula, a Congolese presidential candidate in 2006, distributed copies of his book in DVD format, The Ignored Economic Genocide. Jacek Orzechowski, O.F.M., delivered letters and pictures from St. Camillus schoolchildren urging action. I prayed silently as we trudged through the rain from one Congressional office to another: “Ask and ye shall receive.”

While we walked the halls of Congress, others took the message to the Internet. The human rights activist Lisa Shannon, the author of A Thousand Sisters and founder of Run for Congo Women, organized protests at Intel’s Oregon headquarters (Intel opposes the legislation) and brought jars of pennies representing the estimated one penny per product it would cost to audit supply chains to make products conflict-mineral free. They inundated Intel’s Facebook page with requests to make products free of conflict minerals. Intel responded clumsily, closing its Facebook page to posts on May 19.

What can you do? Write your Congress-ional representatives and ask them to support the bills. Write, send e-mail, post on Facebook and Twitter to the makers of your cellphones, laptops and Intel, and let them know that you want your products free of conflict minerals. Organize a group to lobby members of Congress. Join the Catholics Confront Global Poverty initiative sponsored by Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ( Interviews with members of our delegation are available at

Consumer transparency and advocacy campaigns have succeeded in the past, from dolphin-free tuna to conflict-free diamonds. We can do it again. Together we can put the warlords out of business and return the profits from the mineral trade to the Congolese people. Then I’ll join my kids in their enthusiasm for cellphones.

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David Smith
8 years 7 months ago
Sounds like a worthwhile project, but do you really want to encourage people to advocate something they don't understand, just because doing so makes them feel good?  Because few if any of the people you might convince to make a protest will take the time and trouble to understand the history and economics of what they're protesting.


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