Dialogues - Issue #8
Forced into labour as a child in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s cobalt mines, Kikuni Papsher escaped and now helps refugee children in Uganda.
“I was a child once, caught up in many bad things, kidnap and violence, and saw my family killed,” says 25 year old Kikuni Papy Victor Papsher, the founder of the Refugee Child Centre in Kampala, Uganda. “More and more, the children are coming. They are exploited by gangs in the Congo, put to work as soldiers and miners. When you come from my background, a place of suffering, you know that you have to help the children.”
Born to a poor family in Kolwezi in 1996, a mineral mining town in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Papsher’s family quickly found themselves in even more poverty when the local community were laid off with the sale of the Gécamines (the state controlled corporation founded to exploit mineral deposits, and one of the largest mining companies in Africa) to foreign hands. Papsher’s father was among those made redundant and, like many other former mine workers, fell into impoverishment and debt. In the aftermath, discontent erupted, and the army had to be enlisted to maintain order. In the ensuing violence Papsher’s family was killed, and he found himself in the hands of organised crime gangs who were enlisting young children to guard private mining initiatives. At that time, it was estimated that 40% of all children in the country were working under such conditions in the Congo.
“I remember I was kept under guard with many other children, some very violent,” he says. “We hardly slept for fear. We feared each other and feared our death, but it seems there were other plans for us.” At the age of 10, Papsher was ordered to start lowering himself into the intricate mining mazes in search of cobalt - the ever-in-demand mineral that is driving the west’s insatiable need for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, an integral part of the mobile technology and electric cars that have become commonplace in recent years. He was even shown how to dig his own mine and how to chip away at the rock so as not to destroy too much cobalt when it was found.
“We worked bare hands, bare feet, no protection, coughing all day long,” he says. “Some children I work with collapsed dead in the mine of exhaustion and we had to drag their bodies out and continue digging in their areas. We were supposed to be paid some dollars each day but some of the money was taken to pay for our accommodation, which was a hut with no beds, no water. We all slept there.
“One night, I ran away. I waited for the guards to fall asleep and I fled with what money I could save. I had to hide it because sometimes the leaders would beat us out of what we saved.”
Vulnerable to further victimisation, Papsher took a series of buses by himself half way across the country to Butembo, a small market city that has trade with Uganda.
“All I knew is I had to escape. It is what my father would have wanted, for me to be proud and work for myself, help others,” he says. He stayed for ten years in Butembo, working on market stalls and running errands, all the while learning English so he could eventually move to Uganda. With the meagre savings from his market work, he eventually made his way to Kampala.
“In the beginning I see new problems, young people like me have no jobs so I have to work somehow and I start dancing for the people,” he says. In early 2016, he could be found dancing and making music in the Ugandan refugee camps and, later that year, his appearances caught the attention of a local businessman who asked him to make music professionally.
This led to the Babu Dance Project, set up in 2016, which saw Papsher produce music that he describes as “African culture, and a mix of hip-hop, rap trap, and afro-pop with my Congo heritage”. Peace, the climate, and hope are a consistent thread in all of Papsher’s work.
In 2017, African, Dream Again was released, in which Papsher is filmed dancing in a makeshift desert littered with burned trees and rotten cactus. The beginning of the video sees him searching for energy as the narrator says “rise up”, before breaking into an eclectic tribal rhythm coupled with synchronised body movements.
“I suffered many things, many abuses, many more things I cannot tell you, but through the art of music and dance, I can express them,” he says. “I help many refugee children through my talent because we are from same situation. We provide a space where children and young people can gain confidence and learn that skills to become self-sustainable.”
Those using mobile phones or driving electric cars might want to reflect on their true price, and the suffering endured by Papsher and the children that he helps. For now, the Babu Dance Project offers them the chance to dream again.
African, Dream Again