The names DRC, Zaire, Congo-Kinshasa, Belgian Congo, Congo Free State, Committee for Studies of Upper Congo, International Association of the Congo, etc, refer to a vast, mineral but poverty-stricken central African nation whose existence and status as a ‘democracy’ and ‘republic’ are doubted by many. Perhaps to assure any “Doubting Thomas” that a country named Zaire by Joseph Desire Mobutu Sese Seko and Democratic Republic of the Congo by Laurent Desire Kabila does exist, Congo Eza (Congo Exists!), a book of photographs and minimal but precise text that documents daily life in this country has been published. After all, is it not only what exists that can be captured on film? OGOVA ONDEGO reviews the book.
Some 25 photographers drawn from across Congo-Kinshasa have, through 192 dramatic but non-postcard or tourist photographs, immortalised life on the Congolese streets, beer-drinking places, worship and market centres, classrooms, homes, and at graduation, funeral and wedding gatherings.
To enhance the value of this 264-page book and touring exhibition, text by four critical but playful Congolese writers accompany the photographs that have been presented in eight thematic sections: Koyekola (learning, educating, growing), Kolingana (loving, one another), Kobeta libanga(getting by, surviving), Koboiger (moving, travelling), Kosambela (praying), Kopona bakambi (choosing, voting, electing), Kokoma (writing, sketching, painting on walls and in the street, communicating), and Komilakisa (showing off, posing).
In a light-hearted commentary tinged with irony and humour, each writer–Marie-Louise Bibish Mumbu, Vincent Lombume Kalimasi, Andre Lye Mudaba Yoka of Kinshasa and Fiston Nasser Mwanza Mujila of Lubumbashi–presents an article on two themes from a historical, socio-cultural, political, economical and artistic perspective.
Instead of going to school–there are no teachers, seats and parents cannot afford fees–children as young as seven years old are forced to ‘work in order to buy, pay for, earn their future.’ These children are ‘buried in no-hope, mindless jobs, staggering around mines in search of ‘stones’ that promise a better life, carrying loads on their heads and in their arms which weigh more than they do.’
In a poetic and dramatic description that could apply to many African metropolises that have spawned out of control “Nairobi, Lagos” Mujila writes about the hustles of going to and from work by public transport: “A throng of men and women, fed up, harassed, irritable, impatient, dripping with sweat–all waiting for the bloody taxi–which would always dump you at least three hours late at the other end.”
As the taxi arrives, Mujila continues, “every man for himself, fighting to the death.They hurled abuse, spat expletives, tugged at their clothes, clambered and scrambled and clawed each other’s eyes out, taunting, kicking, sighing, sobbing.”
The rain turns roads into raging rivers to the delight of hustlers who pray for more rain so they may make more money from desperate commuters. The police, too, are delighted as they stop “people every five seconds to hassle them into greasing their greedy palms.”
If you live in Nairobi, you will think Mujila is writing about Kenyans who, desperate to avoid paying fare, travel on top of trains and hanging outside the locomotives where conductors cannot reach them!
According to Kalimasa, the Congolese have “a thousand and one ways to survive, like the shieles, prostitutes barely out of their childhood who spend the night on their backs like bewitching dancing beetles; like the light-fingered pick pockets who love the crowds and throngs.”
To pray in DRC, Kalimasi writes, “means to fight, to wage a relentless war against hunger, against nightmares, against a sunless present and future; it means calling on the help of the gods in their faraway celestial spheres to crush forever every kind of misery and ugliness that crushes men…it is an attempt to escape to the other side of the world, the hidden side.”
And perhaps to assist the gods in conveying their message across to humanity, Lye Mudaba Yoka appears to write, “Cheeky kids; graffiti, garish ads, snatches of Bible passages, mystifying drawings, self-promoting tags and signatures, orders and threats: everything screams out to the passer-by” on walls, gates, shop fronts across Kinshasa.
The commentaries end with Mwanza’s Ex(former) that questions the enigma of what is today DRC: “My country is not just a geological scandal, it is also and above all a political scandal. 46 years after independence, and still trying to square the circle, 32 long-years-of-dictatorship, 16 years-of-transition plus 3 wars of liberation, 2 to 4 secessions.”
Tongue in cheek, Mwanza concludes, “Congo ezalaki. Congo eza, Congo ezakoya” (Congo was, Congo is, Congo is coming!). In other words, the country was Congo in the beginning, is Congo today and forever shall remain Congo irrespective of the so-called change or political regimes!
So why was this 264-page hard cover on high quality, durable art paper Congo Eza: Photographers from the DRC that can also serve as a mobile exhibition, published?
Mirko Dragolioub Popovitch, who was in charge of this initiative, says the aim of the book “is to bear witness to the dignity of a people fighting for survival.”
The book, Popovitch adds, “is also a showcase for the cultural diversity of the Congo, a diversity which, paradoxically, brings about social cohesion, affirming national identity and enriching our collective cultural heritage.”
In the 21st century, Popovitch contends, a country that wishes to have control over the image it projects to the outside must allow its own photographers to tell their own story.
He argues that though photography exposes, condemns, interprets and seduces, its language is never neutral. “Photography does not record reality, however ‘real’ an image may appear. To Popovitch, taking a photograph, is to take a stance, to voice an opinion.”
Taking photographs in the DRC calls for extra-ordinary courage as the path to the practice is littered with police intimidation, corruption, threats and arrest.
This book ends with the biographies of the writers and the photographers involved in the project whose 194 printed images were taken in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Goma, Kisangani, Katanga, Bas-Congo and Bukavu.
Amidst all the chaos in the Congo, Mumbu writes, the Congolese “just want to love, love one another. They look, smile, whisper promises, kiss, hug, cry, show off.”
Congo Eza, published in French, Dutch and English by Africalia Editions and Roularta Books of Belgium, sells for 29 Euros.
Viva Congo. Congo ezalaki. Congo eza, Congo ezakoya!