Teaching Activities (Free)

Congo, Coltan, and Cell Phones: A People’s History

Teaching Activity. By Alison Kysia. 28 pages.
In this lesson, students learn about the colonial history of Congo, debate responsibility for crimes against humanity, and investigate the connection, past and present, between the exploitation of natural resources and violence.
Time Periods: 19th Century, 20th Century
Themes: Imperialism, US Foreign Policy, World History/Global Studies

More than 5 million people have been killed in Democratic Republic of the Congo since the late 1990s, home to some of the most serious human rights violations since World War II. A look back at Congo’s history sets the stage. From 1885 to 1908, Congo was colonized by the king of Belgium, Leopold II, who took it as his own personal property. Initially, Leopold did not know that Congo was rich in wild rubber, one of the hottest commodities on the global market at the time. At the opening of the 20th century, Congo was the most profitable colony in Africa. It is estimated that Leopold made about 220 million francs, equivalent to $1.1 billion today.

Artwork by Eduardo Relero, drawn in front of the Apple store in Madrid in June of 2016 for an Amnesty International campaign against child labor. See more street art by Relero. Used by permission of the artist.

Leopold refused to pay a fair price for labor or resources, and instead enslaved the population through a terror campaign, forcing the Congolese to harvest rubber. The magnitude of the violence is incomprehensible. During Leopold’s rule, 8 million to 10 million people were killed through a variety of colonial policies, making it one of the worst cases of European colonial brutality.

Congo’s colonial history foreshadows the current instability and violence plaguing the country. Since 1997, more than 5 million people have been killed there, making it one of the bloodiest battle zones since World War II. That year marked the end of a 32-year dictatorship (1965–1997) led by Joseph Mobutu, also known as Mobutu Sese Seko, a generously compensated and welcomed friend of six U.S. presidents. He came to power by assisting the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in assassinating the first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961. They wanted Lumumba dead because of his desire to nationalize natural resources in Congo where the money could be used to create a functioning state.

Lumumba at the 1960 Round Table conference | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Patrice Lumumba (center), at the 1960 round table conference in Brussels to discuss Congo’s independence. Source: National Archives of The Netherlands.

Just as the bloodshed of the colonial period was financed by highly lucrative natural resources like rubber, the violence today is likewise fueled by natural resources. One of those is coltan, a mineral required for cell phone production. Congo is rich in coltan. By studying this history, we can see a direct connection between the brutality of colonialism and the contemporary injustice in Congo: highly coveted natural resources, exploited by distant, powerful nations.

The mixer activity includes roles for:

  • Nzinga Mbemba Afonso / Afonso I, king of the Kingdom of Kongo from 1506–1543
  • Edmund Dene Morel British citizen, journalist, and pacifist
  • King Leopold II of Belgium, Congo colonizer
  • Mary French Sheldon, British travel writer and publisher
  • James Cardinal Gibbons, Catholic Archbishop of Baltimore
  • Roger Casement, Irishman who served as a British representative
  • Leon Rom, head of the Force Publique
  • Charles Lemaire, Force Publique officer
  • Chief Mulume Niama, Congolese freedom fighter
  • Joseph Mobutu / Mobutu Sese Seko, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1965–1997
  • Ilanga, resident of Waniendo Village, Congo
  • Patrice Lumumba, first elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Mark Twain, author and member of the Congo Reform Association
  • George Washington Williams, African American minister, veteran, and historian
  • John Dunlop, co-founder of Dunlop Company
  • Chester A. Arthur, U.S. President
  • Otto von Bismarck, German Chancellor
  • General Henry Shelton Sanford, U.S. diplomat turned lobbyist for Leopold
  • Henry Morton Stanley (John Rowlands), explorer and colonizer
  • Reverend William Henry Sheppard, African American missionary for the Presbyterian Church

The trial activity includes roles for:

  • King Leopold II of Belgium
  • Colonial Administrators
  • Force Publique
  • Capitalism
  • Consumers of Rubber
  • Ilanga, resident of Waniendo Village, Congo

Classroom Story

We use so many Zinn Education Project resources. Our favorites are Bill Bigelow’s mock trials about Columbus and Alison Kysia’s on the Congo. The skill development with connecting evidence to arguments is great and the wrestling with the responsibility for these two tragic events is so thought-provoking. The students really get a sense of how difficult it is to assign blame. I especially like the students wrestling with the system as defendants. I am doing the Columbus trial again next week.

The Congo trial is such a new area for students. There is little to no background for most students coming in. I love how the students see the parallels between Columbus and Leopold.

—Michael Stapleton
Middle School Social Studies Teacher, Barkhamsted, Connecticut