The diggers have been gone less than a year. In the grown-over patches on the slope of Mpama South, emptied anchovy tins rust in the dirt beside strips of tarp, thick plastic jugs, and waxy cartons of mango juice squeezed flat at the waist. Over them grows a lace of cherry tomatoes: some hard and green, some red and ready for plucking.
At the height of the boom that began in this part of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the early aughts, around 15,000 diggers inhabited this mountain, a place called Bisie: the richest tin deposit by grade in the world. Slight men slipped shirtless down the rickety mud shafts; children, too. At a distance, the mountain looks shredded. It was never meant to be a place where people lived, but during the tin boom’s wildest years, restaurants sprung up on the slopes, brothels and pharmacies, and anyway some of the diggers didn’t come back up for days, shitting and sleeping in the tunnels where they knocked at veins of cassiterite with a hammer.
The slope was once called “15 Minutes,” for the time it took to walk the mud-slicked path through the jungle to Manoire, a bedroom community of miners. Mpama North—“45 Minutes”—was cleared out in 2015, the shanties disappeared, the hillside stabilized with concrete, the cold mouth of the new industrial tunnel locked behind a red metal gate and loops of razor wire. In some places deep inside Mpama North, where the ventilator roars, no entry signs cordon off where the excavation punched through to the old vast network of tunnels. The roof there is unstable; the ore exhausted.
Now, Mpama South is a ghost town, the last trace of this scramble for minerals. Up top, two police in blue button-downs sit beside a shack built of scrap wood and tarpaulin, making sure no one comes to mine. A few dead trees rise leafless off the hill. Against the slope, stacks of sandbags still form stalls where the mine shafts open to the air—the bags shaggy, their fabric dyed red from iron in the dirt. Pools of putrid water collect in the enclosures, spill into the tunnels. Water backfilling unmarked graves.