Sunday, 13 June 2010

Congo: 50 Years, 50 Faces

The Congo is 50 this year and to mark half a century of independence, Stephan Vanfleteren took 50 pictures of Congolese men, women and children. I've not looked through the whole collection, but below are random selections of the pictures and stories that moved me the most, thus far.

Augustin Mfukidi: 'I am the only Catholic in a family of Protestants. In the 20s, my parents were under the spell of a preacher in a local church formed by British Protestants: my older brother had a hump and was miracu­l­ously healed by him. But the Belgians were not of our faith; we were persecuted, displaced and exiled. As the youngest, I was forced into Catholicism.'

Denis Mukwenge, surgeon, Bukavu: 'This hospital is really a maternity clinic, but because of the war it became an asylum for thousands of women who had been sexually assaulted. An average of 10 new victims a day report to the hospital. Sexual violence is a weapon of war, a nuclear bomb that blows society apart. Things were very difficult from the start. Various armies came here to fight their battles: Ugandans, Rwandans, Burundians, Zimbabweans and Congolese. It was total war, and it seemed as if all the soldiers were looking to rape Congolese women. I was operating almost non-stop. I have chalked up 25,000 operations. By 2001 I had had enough. I felt it was not enough to operate on one violated woman after another. The extent and brutality of the violence was intolerable. So I contacted Human Rights Watch. I thought: OK, now the world knows, now something will surely be done. Well, I was wrong.'

Maman Nicole: 'I've known I was HIV positive since 1993. When my husband died of Aids, my family rejected me. Look at Marianne: her husband was the ambassador and she ended up sleeping on a cardboard box! There's only the two of us here now, at Femmes Plus (Positive Women). Chantal used to sleep on a piece of fabric, her food covered in mould. She used to have to drag herself to the filthy toilets on all fours. When she died, we buried her. The street kids who live in the cemetery called out, "How long have women had to bury the dead?" The coffin was too heavy for us. They ran over, pushed us aside and took the coffin on their shoulders. They had tears in their eyes.'
Larousse-Marciano, musician: 'I mix American hip-hop with atalaku, our kind of rap. That's my thing. My dad was always getting me to look up words in the dictionary - so that's where "Larousse" came from. Rocky Marciano was the only heavyweight never to be knocked out. Me, I box with words, and I want the whole world to know me. Then I can go out drinking with friends, and all the ladies will come and make up to us. With my money I would also like to build schools and hospitals. When I'm ill, I think about death: I don't like being sick. Actually, I'm off to a funeral now - my friend's cousin. She was 25 years old and she died of, erm, cancer.'

Nkongolo Kanyonga, student, Shamatenge: 'Each of my four brothers has light eyes. They are grey and green. Why that should be so, I don't know. It just happened. My ma has brown eyes, but my dad also has these green ones. It was already like that with my ancestors. God gave us them.'
Jules Badibanga Kabula, headmaster, Mikalay: 'No, no, I don't want to go back to the colonial times with Belgium. But why can't we work together? In the past, the roads were good, the schools were excellent and we could live a civilised life. But the dynamism in this region disappeared with the last white father. The people wept. We got corrupt, incompetent leaders instead. Fanatics serving their own interests. And when they visit the schools, they just complain how bad everything is and give out a football or two. Always giving away these footballs. I don't want to see another football. Instead of investing money in the schools, they are putting it in their own pockets.'

See the rest of the collection here.

All Photographs by Stephan Vanfleteren/Panos Pictures


Anonymous said...

I saw these pictures in the Guardian and I was struck by their sombre melancholy and the accompanying thumb nail bios which offered up the usual litany of abuse, material collapse, despair and macabre humour. I wondered if the Congo was not more than this....after all this is the home of Soukous, Kimbangu and Sape. True, the Congo and the Congolese have had a hard and cruel 50 years (and longer) but I am sure a more composite human picture is possible. Perhaps I am a foolish 'Afro-optimist' African incased in safe Europe. But I do tire of these kind of pictures.....I was not moved. And, consequently, I did not look too closely.


Anonymous said...

Actually, on reflection, it is the accompanying thumb nail text I dislike; the pictures are fine...


KonWomyn said...

Wsup Ebele

I hear you on the absence of the Sapeur, the Rhumba and Soukousse musicians, the fashion designers, the hiphop scence - I really was hoping to see that because Congo's got a very vibrant cultural side to it.

However what I liked in the selected pix was the range of stories and diff identities. I get that its instinctual to be reactionary and dismissive of representations of Africa and it's warranted to some extent, but OTOH there's something one misses.

These pix tell the stories of ordinary people living in the Congo - not all the Congolese are dying at war nor are they sitting with begging bowls waiting for USAid. The doctor is one of my faves bec he touches on the Congo as a battlefield for everyone and the failures of international rights bodies. He's also been through alot.

The hiphopper Larouse, was cool. He's like any other hiphopper on the Continent. The li'l boy again, simple just like any other kid but in such a simple way he touches on something that complicates Blackness and African identity.

iLove the teacher's frustration, rite on brotha! Many of us sit around talking/blogging about how frustrated we are with our countries' situations.

The woman with HIV - the humanity in her story and the street kids helping her, was moving to me.

There were other pix that show the lingering influence of the Belgians on the Congo. Also, the Black colonial mentality of White is Right still persists and those pics irritated me, esp the first pic in The Guardian's collection.

I didn't like the shots sometimes bec I felt they were extreme esp the ones of the old people. If they'd been in color or sepia it may have better, softer on the people and humanized them alot more methinks.

Anonymous said...

I hear you Sis wam...that rapper Larrouse has a head just like Pharrell, don't you think?

Big Man said...

Powerful stuff sis.

KonWomyn said...


Lol, rite on the money! They got the same heads.

Tue dat, the stories are very powerful. Still wld have preferred softer looks, but still it's impressive work.