Congo in Conversation - a photographic chronicle

By Matt Fidler

The 11th Carmignac photojournalism award is dedicated to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and to the human, social and ecological challenges it faces today. It has been awarded to photojournalist Finbarr O’Reilly. His reportage was due to start in January 2020, but because of the global coronavirus pandemic and gradual closing of international borders, the mission as originally planned was put on hold. O’Reilly and the Carmignac team came up with a new approach, creating Congo in Conversation – a collaborative online chronicle addressing the human, social and ecological challenges that DRC faces through close cooperation with Congolese journalists and photographers.

In this essay we feature the work of some of the photographers taking part in the project. Raissa Karama Rwizibuka examined environmental issues in Virunga national park, and fashion and self-confidence in a post-colonial context. Arlette Bashizi captured the realities of confinement in a country with unreliable electricity. Moses Sawasawa looked at politics and insecurity caused by the ongoing conflicts, along with Dieudonné Dirole. Ley Uwera photographed Ramadan under lockdown, and the challenges of living through a pandemic where access to water is severely limited. When the Black Lives Matter movement turned the world’s attention toward global anti-racism protests, Pamela Tulizo examined aspects of our collective post-colonial psychology, but also ideas about African women and beauty.

The likeness of a Congolese soldier stands in a field near the village of Tche in Congo’s north-eastern Ituri province in mid-February. With few government forces in the area, villagers from the Hema community erected the likeness in the hopes of warding off armed members of the Cooperative for the Development of Congo (Codeco), an armed political-religious sect drawn from the Lendu ethnic group that has been blamed for a wave of killings in the province over the past two years.
  • The likeness of a Congolese soldier stands in a field near the village of Tche in DRC’s north-eastern Ituri province in mid-February. Photograph by Dieudonne Dirole for Fondation Carmignac

This huge country, irrigated by the Congo River, benefits from immense natural resources, the world’s largest rainforest after the Amazon, the world’s largest producer of cobalt and coltan, and the second largest producer of diamonds. But DRC, ripped apart by recurrent inter-community and political conflicts, also accumulates misery, epidemics and clashes.

Vulnerable children gather for a shared meal at a Muslim community centre in Goma during Ramadan.
  • Vulnerable children gather for a shared meal at a Muslim community centre in Goma during Ramadan.

One of the lowest countries in the human development index (HDI) ranking, its literacy level is rising, but public health is in a state of abandonment, and violence towards women and children is endemic. Despite having the largest freshwater resource in Africa, it has the lowest level of access to drinkable water. It has one of the worst records in terms of transport infrastructure. It also tops the charts globally in terms of deforestation and the monopolisation of land and raw materials.

Neighbours and Red Cross burial workers in protective clothing gather outside the home of a family where an 11-month-old girl has died during Congo’s Ebola outbreak in the town of Rutshuru in North Kivu province, February 2020.
  • Neighbours and Red Cross burial workers in protective clothing gather outside the home of a family where an 11-month-old girl has died during DRC’s Ebola outbreak in the town of Rutshuru in North Kivu province, February 2020. Photograph by Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac

With the coronavirus pandemic, DRC is facing the worst global health crisis in a century while also managing the second-deadliest Ebola epidemic in history and the world’s deadliest measles outbreak. Decades of conflict and misrule mean that a lack of access to basic health care has caused millions of preventable deaths from easily treatable diseases such as malaria, cholera and diarrhoea.

Hospitals often lack basic equipment and staff and run out of essential medicines and supplies. The country has made measurable progress in recent years, as a result of improved leadership, coordination and investments in priority health issues by the government and international partners, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Members of the pro-democracy and civil society movement FILIMBI carry out a public educational campaign about coronavirus in a market in Congo’s capital Kinshasa in May.
  • Members of the pro-democracy and civil society movement Filimbi carry out a public educational campaign about coronavirus in a market in DRC’s capital, Kinshasa, in May.

For the people of DRC, life in the time of coronavirus has been no more difficult than during the Ebola crisis, the measles epidemics, the lack of drinking water and electricity, the absence of infrastructure, the endemic violence, the sporadic killings, the police brutality and the widespread corruption. It is merely a little more complicated …

Red Cross workers bury an 11-month-old girl who died in the town of Rutshuru during the Ebola outbreak, February 2020.
  • Red Cross workers bury an 11-month-old girl who died in the town of Rutshuru during the Ebola outbreak, February 2020.

The Congolese have adapted to imposed confinement and to the new sanitation rules – which are in fact difficult to apply – with a mix of obvious resignation, faint resistance and slightly blasé humour. Amid the vast country, from Kinshasa to Goma, the protective mask is at once a banality, a shield and – for the trendy – an affirmation of liberation and individuality. DRC, a country of 90 million inhabitants, has recorded fewer than 300 deaths from Covid-19. Here, the values of community, beauty and pride are not empty words.

A Red Cross burial worker shows a man how to put on protective gloves before the inspection of the body of an 11-month old girl who died during the Ebola outbreak in the town of Rutshuru in North Kivu province, February 2020. Finbarr O’Reilly
  • A Red Cross burial worker shows a man how to put on protective gloves before the inspection of the body of an 11-month-old girl who died during the Ebola outbreak in the town of Rutshuru in North Kivu province, February 2020.

People gather to fill containers from a water truck in Kanyaruchinya on the outskirts of Goma, the capital of eastern DRC’s North Kivu province, in 2017. Many neighbourhoods do not have access to running water and rely instead on communal pumps or water trucks.
  • People gather to fill containers from a water truck in Kanyaruchinya on the outskirts of Goma, the capital of eastern DRC’s North Kivu province, in 2017. Photograph by Ley Uwera for Fondation Carmignac

DRC is Africa’s most water-rich country, holding more than half of the continent’s fresh water reserves, but 75% of people have no access to safe drinking water. Lack of access to water and sanitation, coupled with poor hygiene, are among the top five risk factors associated with death and disability in the country. The lack of access to clean water is putting millions of people at greater risk of contracting coronavirus. People often walk long distances to collect water, a task that mostly falls on women and girls, putting them at risk of sexual violence in remote areas. The government’s poor basic infrastructure and lack of funds for maintenance of the state water provider Regideso means that foreign donors provide nearly 99% of water sector financing in DRC.

With schools closed during Congo’s period of confinement, 13-year-old Marie studies at home by the light of a mobile phone during one of the regular power cuts in Goma in April.
  • With schools closed during Congo’s period of confinement, Marie, 13, studies at home by the light of a mobile phone during one of the regular power cuts in Goma in April. Photograph by Arlette Bashizi

DRC has one of the lowest electrification rates in the world at just over 9%, with 1% in rural areas and 19% in urban areas.

Marie studies at home by the light of a mobile phone

The country hosts large hydrology reserves and has a potential to install up to 100,000MW of hydropower capacity. With an ambition of providing 65% electrification in 2025 and universal access by 2050, DRC faces issues in governance, electric utility performance, effective policymaking and implementation of existing plans.

Students attend class as schools reopened in the eastern city of Goma in August
  • Students attend class as schools reopened in the eastern city of Goma in August.

Two small hydroelectric plants financed by the EU and Howard Buffett, son of the billionaire businessman Warren Buffett, have begun operating in Virunga park on the DRC-Rwanda border. Four more are planned near the park. The small-scale power plants are crucial to an ambitious attempt not only to protect Virunga – Africa’s oldest national park – from threats including armed militias, deforestation and oil prospectors, but to jumpstart the local economy and potentially help stabilise one of the world’s worst conflict zones.

Rangers guard the Kahuzi-Biega national park in eastern DRC in January.
  • Rangers guard the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern DRC in January. Photograph by Raissa Karama Rwizibuka for Fondation Carmignac

Virunga national park is a Unesco world heritage site that sits on the forest-covered volcanoes of central Africa. Virunga is the continent’s oldest national park and largest tropical rainforest reserve, covering 7,800 sq km, and home to more than half the world’s population of mountain gorillas. The park has been repeatedly hit by violence, but still relies on tourism to help fund its conservation efforts. It was closed to visitors in March after experts said gorillas might be vulnerable to catching Covid-19. This has had a huge impact on conservation efforts.

A young eastern lowland gorilla, or Gorilla berengei graueri, is seen at the Kahuzi-Biega national park in eastern DRC in January.
  • A young eastern lowland gorilla, or Gorilla berengei graueri, is seen at the Kahuzi-Biega national park in eastern DRC in January.

Deforestation is one of Virunga’s biggest threats. Virunga plays an important role in offsetting carbon dioxide emissions. The park and plantations in the province are second only to the Amazon in terms of total forest area, according to the WWF. For cooking fuel, 97% of people living near the park rely on charcoal made by chopping down the park’s trees. The practice is illegal, but Congo’s charcoal industry is worth an estimated $35m (£26.3m) and helps fund deadly insurgents who hide in Virunga’s forests, according to the Enough Project.

Vendors and shoppers at a market on the shores of Lake Kivu in Goma, eastern DRC, 2 April 2020.
  • Vendors and shoppers at a market on the shores of Lake Kivu in Goma, April 2020. Photograph by Moses Sawasawa for Fondation Carmignac

Insecurity is by far DRC’s biggest impediment to progress. There are more than 140 armed groups active in eastern DRC’s North and South Kivu provinces. In central and eastern DRC, various armed groups, and in some cases government security forces, attacked civilians, killing and wounding many, according to Human Rights Watch. Much of the violence appeared linked to the country’s broader political crisis.

Protesters are arrested by police in the eastern city of Goma on 13 July while denouncing the nomination of an election commission chief accused of rigging past elections in favour of former president Joseph Kabila.
  • Protesters are arrested by police in the eastern city of Goma on 13 July while denouncing the nomination of an election commission chief accused of rigging past elections in favour of former president Joseph Kabila.

The humanitarian situation remains alarming, with 4.5 million people displaced from their homes, and more than 130,000 refugees who fled to neighbouring countries. Government officials and security forces regularly carry out widespread repression and serious human rights violations against political opposition leaders and supporters, pro-democracy and human rights activists, journalists, and peaceful protesters.

Protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally in Brussels carry signs denouncing Belgium’s imperial exploitation of what is now DRC.
  • Protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally in Brussels carry signs denouncing Belgium’s imperial exploitation of what is now DRC. Pamela Tulizo for Fondation Carmignac

The 60th anniversary of DRC’s independence in June 2020 coincided with the coronavirus pandemic – and with the sweeping denunciation of both the colonial past and the racist present everywhere in the world. Black Lives Matter, an activist movement protesting against police violence, amplified and demanded the removal of statues, signs and symbols of slavery still present in day-to-day reality and in national thinking descended from the American civil war. Above all, the protests sparked a vast international movement, forcing the confrontation of racial exploitation and injustice. Belgium and DRC mirror this colonial paradigm. In Brussels, regrets about the past were expressed for the first time and statues of King Leopold II were brought down, he being an executioner even in absentia of millions of Congolese people. In Kinshasa, where the relics of colonialism were replaced under Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled for 32 years until 1997, by authenticmonuments, independence was celebrated in spirit”. But nothing is forgotten.

From the project titled Black Consciousness, Pamela Tulizo’s inquiry into ideas about African women and beauty and how this leads to a deeper exploration into their sense of self-esteem and self-confidence in a post-colonial context.
From the project titled Black Consciousness, Pamela Tulizo’s inquiry into ideas about African women and beauty and how this leads to a deeper exploration into their sense of self-esteem and self-confidence in a post-colonial context.
  • From the project titled Black Consciousness, Pamela Tulizo’s inquiry into ideas about African women and beauty and how this leads to a deeper exploration into their sense of self-esteem and self-confidence in a post-colonial context.

Linda Maroy, 20, enjoys a quiet moment on Lake Kivu in the eastern city of Bukavu on the 60th anniversary of DRC’s independence from Belgium on 30 June.
  • Linda Maroy, 20, enjoys a quiet moment on Lake Kivu in the eastern city of Bukavu on the 60th anniversary of DRC’s independence from Belgium on 30 June.

Independence anniversary celebrations in DRC traditionally involve visiting foreign dignitaries and an extravagant military parade along Kinshasa’s main downtown thoroughfare, the Boulevard du 30 June. Because of Covid-19, the government scrapped public celebrations this year and announced the anniversary would instead take place “in meditation” with the anniversary budget redirected to containing the pandemic.