The Democratic Republic of Congo has become one of the bloodiest conflict zones in the world. In the last twenty years, more than five million people have died; millions are forced to the brink of death by starvation and disease, and gender-based violence and brutality is a daily occurrence.

Despite receiving nearly 20 billion USD in foreign aid, it remains one of the poorest countries in the world with 70% of its people living far below the poverty line ($1.90) on less that $1.25 a day.

The culture of aid cannot diminish the tide of unrest and hopelessness – with much of the money being misspent on projects that have no lasting impact on the country’s people. Aid is still necessary, but an increasingly youthful and enlightened population is now demanding jobs; not aid.

One of Arete’s photographer’s, Eden Sparke, retells her first experience in DRC, getting a glimpse of individuals who are empowering themselves, to empower one another.

Theodore, 60, returns home from work in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, on 08 May 2019.

FROM THE PHOTOGRAPHER: EDEN SPARKE

“Early one morning in May, I took a short flight from Nairobi to Kigali, before driving through northern Rwanda to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I was due to visit the workshop of a man called Theodore, an experienced tailor who trains others under the auspices of a concept called #GiveWork.

I had been warned that driving through Rwanda before crossing into Goma would be a shock; three people unnervingly used the phrase “like going from heaven to hell”. The warnings were not entirely untrue; after three hours of driving through stunning forest and mountains, I was greeted at the DRC border by temperature checks and a tannoy system loudly reminding passers-by to wash their hands at the chlorinated water stops. The country’s most recent and biggest ever Ebola outbreak, which seems so far away in the UK, suddenly loomed large.

After making it into Goma unscathed, we drove through the chaotic traffic to the workshop.

I began taking photos, paying mind to the mid-afternoon light that shone through the large windows and bounced unforgivingly off the cream-coloured walls. The tailors, who glanced at my equipment before fastidiously returning to their tasks after I had introduced myself and asked the Swahili equivalent of ‘pretend I’m not here’, relaxed after a few minutes and began asking me to observe what they were working on.

I also took the opportunity to interview Theodore. His office, a tiny room to the side of the main entrance, just about held his chair and two stools for myself and Cherubin, my translator. The background noise to the captured audio featured the whirr of sewing machines and the occasional stifled laugh, but overall it made a great place for an interview.

It was in this room that I discovered Theodore’s motivation for having trained over 50 people in tailoring.

I returned to the workshop the next day, and in the early morning light saw Theodore’s son and senior tailor, Elysée, poised to turn on the generator. After his confusion at me wanting to photograph him pressing a button wore off, he started up the generator, which roared into life and allowed the workshop — at a cost of over ten precious dollars per day — to begin functioning.

After taking advantage of the softer morning light for wide and portrait shots, I also spoke with Fifi, the widow of a Virunga National Park ranger who had been murdered by bandits years before. After her husband died, she found it difficult to support herself and her two children.

Fifi, who has worked with Theodore as a sewer for over 10 years, poses for a photo in Theodore's workshop in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, on 08 May 2019.

Fifi learned to sew on a programme, where she met Theodore, who was one of the trainers. Following the training, she had the opportunity to create the first and second capsule collection for Pour Les Femmes at the Virunga National Park facilities.

That afternoon, we visited Theodore’s home. Located 90 minutes on foot from the workshop, in an area with no running water or consistent electricity, Theodore’s four-bedroomed home is home to 10 people. While sharing a loaf of bread, Theodore’s family told me of their plans to move closer to town, hopefully into a five-bedroomed house. His wife, Adeline, showed me their small kitchen, and the bucket and hose they used to collect rainwater to avoid going to the public tank, about 10 minutes’ walk away. It seemed strange that a man working so hard to do so much good should be living in such difficult circumstances.

For all the warnings I received, Goma and its people felt welcoming, if chaotic. Even after spending barely a week there, the potential of the region is obvious; there is an energy that permeates the town even through the complex web of poverty, conflict, and yet another Ebola outbreak. People are motivated to educate themselves and to work, but they are being held back by a systemic lack of job opportunities. Schemes like #GiveWork are vital, because they empower people who have been disenfranchised by forces beyond their control, and allow them to create a sustainable future for themselves.”

The Arete Stories Charitable Trust (ACT) has been established to #givework instead of aid and help people regain their dignity, promote the talents and decide on their own destinies.

Originally posted on exposure.co
All photos by Eden Sparke