The Stores of Nsumbula

Africa, Documentary, street photography, travel


Nsumbula is a remote town in the province of Kasai-Occidentale, not too far from the Angolan border in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I was there in March for just a couple of nights photographing (for The Leprosy Mission Canada) those in the area suffering from leprosy. Walking through Nsumbula one afternoon I decided to take just one or two photos of each of the hand-painted stores and dealers that lined the main street. I didn’t think much of it at the time – often I like to just record things for the sake of looking back in 20 years time and saying, “oh right, that’s what it was like then.” But I’m just editing the several thousand photos I took in that month-long trip now, and I rather liked this small sequence of shop scenes. As with most of my favourite images these days, I think there’s significance in the details.

I think I took 26 shots in the 7 minutes it took me to walk down the street and here’s my quick edit of them.

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Fashion á la Congo

Africa, fashion

I’ve taken a step back in time somewhat, to a photoshoot I did in the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo some 10 months ago. Mélanie Gouby, the journalist I was working with at the time has been slaving away on a personal project for sometime… namely Mutaani Magazine, a glossy publication for the Congolese youth, launched this month. Mutaani means ‘in the city’, and it’s targeting the educated, urban youth of the area.

Mélanie and I were out having a drink one evening at a bar with live music and heard the girl you see above… Volpi. She was in DRC’s equivalent of the X Factor or American Idol or something, and she didn’t win, but I guess is quite well-known in the usual reality-TV age group. Anyway, we met her afterwards, and she turned out to be very polite, quietly charming and pretty normal for a teenager that’s spent much of the last year competing in a televised singing contest. Not exactly Jedward…

She agreed to be photographed for a shoot, and I agreed to photograph her. 10 months later and the first issue is out after huge efforts from Mélanie and her team. Here is a sneak peek of the tear sheets from my shoot with Volpi. Possibly my only attempt at fashion… so gulp it in.

I should also mention that you can buy Mutaani Magazine – online PDF, iPad or in paper. This truly is a piece of history. Where the international media are still only interested in country’s constant conflicts and corruption, here is a source of light and hope, highlighting DRC’s “normality” and that it can and will one day have this “normality”. Buy it here.

Mélanie and Volpi chose the clothes and Nadine Lusi (Goma’s go-to person for…. well, anything) helped us scout out a decent venue (the cathedral destroyed by the nearby volcano 10 years ago). Tom McHale was the glamourous assistant who managed to bribe some local kids with some sweets to be his glamourous assistants. All of them were very good in trying to get me to stop shooting after some local smack dealers (was it smack?!? – I never stopped to ask) decided to encroach on the shoot towards the end. Turns out it was ‘their territory’. Quite enjoyable otherwise, even considering the rain…

A Day in the Life of a Congolese Surgeon

Africa, Documentary

For a day in the DRC I photographed and filmed two surgeons and an anaesthetist, on an outreach for the Goma based NGO and Hospital HEAL Africa.

The main surgeon in this – Dr Jo Lusi – founded HEAL Africa with his wife Lyn Lusi in 2000.

Many of the photographs in this move too fast to see – echoing the sheer amount of work and concentration that I saw them put into their day. They work very smoothly and closely as a team, a well-oiled machine. The intensity of their labour is balanced with jokes and they interact much like a bunch of old school mates who have known each other for decades.

It’s why they are so good at doing what they do, and it’s the reason why thousands of young Congolese can live a normal life. I felt truly honoured to witness them. I see too often in my work those raised in the West helping Africans. Though I think this passion and dedication is admirable, there is something very right about watching Africans helping Africans, especially using skills most often found only in the upper echelons on this planet.

LRA: IDPs, FARDC, UPDF and other exciting acronyms

Africa, Documentary, Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, Photojournalism, Uncategorized

Today’s post about Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and other results of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) being in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Above: The government denies that the LRA are a serious threat there. When I spoke to a few officials and Commanders of the Congolese Army I’d hear something along the lines of: “There are 8 or 10, maybe as much as 20 but no more. These attacks are just local bandits”.

Above and below: However these ’10 or so bandits’ have caused well over 300,000 people in Orientale province, an area the size of France to flee their villages and set up in clusters around places such as Dungu and Doruma. Sometimes these are not much safer, Doruma has suffered multiple attacks in the past few months where civilans were killed, abducted and food and supplies were looted.

Above: The roof of the hut of a former soldier for the LRA. He was captured at the age of 17 and made to fight for the LRA for over a year. Now he has returned to his family. At 19, he is living in a displaced camp where he is hoping to find a way to get educated.

Above: A man rocks back and forth on his stool, staring unnervingly at the ground. He is mentally handicapped, but according to his sister he has done little else since moving from his village to the IDP camp in Doruma.

Above: A man a woman clear land and burn wood at the edge of an IDP camp in Doruma while their children wait patiently.

Above: Three young men talk about their experiences with the LRA. They were all captured for a short while (1 week, 2 days, and 1 day respectively) in order to carry supplies that were looted from them. In two cases they escaped, and one was let go. “We were made to carry things to their camp. We had no shoes, and our feet were swollen and bleeding, so when they let us go, we just collapsed and slept on the forest floor.”

Above: A man in the IDP camp in Doruma fills his jerry can from the nearby watering hole.

Above and below: IDPs in Doruma and Gangala.

Above: Tengende was working for the NGO Premier d’Urgence and was hitching a lift with one of their food trucks to see his baby son who was ill. They were attacked by the LRA and he was shot in the arm and a bullet just scraped above his right eye. The driver was killed, and the other man in the truck was dragged out of the front seat. Tengende played dead and witnessed the LRA beat his friends head in with a machete. Gasoline had leaked all over the ground and Tengende was lying a in a pool of it. One of the LRA thought they saw him move as they were leaving and checked by poking a bayonet into his neck. “I do not know how, but with God’s will I found the strength not to react”.

The LRA set the petrol alight, and Tengende lay burning until they disappeared. He rolled in the grass and staggered down the road where Congolese soldiers were running towards him. He was taken back to Doruma and treated for burns on his right arm and all over his back. Luckily they were treated early enough so as not to cause long-term damage and they just resemble large skin patches.Premier d’Urgence refused to send him to Dungu to get surgery on his eye because he had not formally requested to go with the truck. He is blind in his right eye. All the LRA took were two sacks of rice.

Above: Catholic church at an IDP camp in Dungu.

Above: USAID provides basic food supplies once a month or so various IDP camps. This food is generally sold or used up after a week.

Above: Esperance, 18 was captured in December 2008. Her father was killed on the same day. She escaped only two months prior to this post, in a UPDF attack on the LRA camp. She was forced to marry one of the commanders, and now lives with her mother and siblings in an IDP camp just outside Dungu. “I can’t go to get water on my own anymore, and even then, only when it’s very close. I’m scared that they’ll take me again, I don’t want to go back to them.”

Above: Esperance watches her younger brothers playing outside their hut.

Above: Despite the fact Esperance is now back safe with her family her mother is still very concerned for her well-being. She is a young woman who has spent over two years among soldiers and slaves, looking to get educated in an IDP camp, and scared to be on her own.

Above: IDPs are crowding market places in their new settlements and looking for different ways to make a living. Their presence is naturally effecting current residents, many of whom do not make as much money as before. This IDP has, for a good price just sold a sack of beans he carried from his village when he was displaced.

Above: This IDP is selling charcoal in the market place. Her husband was killed and two sons captured by the LRA. All around her is evidence of unemployed youth, many of whom have just finished their education.

Above: This IDP is making a living as an ironmonger. His resourcefulness has come in handy and he has made a tool to continually blow air onto his hot coals so that he can heat and forge metal. Sometimes he makes simple things like axe heads, but using these same methods he can make more complex contraptions like shotguns too.

Above: It’s not just IDPs that are trying to scrape money together. This woman in a soldier in the Congolese army (FARDC). The FARDC is infamous for poorly paying it’s troops if at all. She is selling charcoal in her time off just so she can feed her family. Her husband is a policeman who’s recently been transferred here. His story is the same.

The FARDC is now considered to be one of the greater threats in Orientale (well actually not just in Orientale…). Bizarrely, it is an army sent in to provide security by the same government that denies the LRA are a threat. The soldiers have very little will to actually be useful to the local populations they’re based near, and since their first priority (as with most humans) is to make sure they are fed, they have few options but to abuse their power (which is an AK-47 with perhaps one loaded bullet) and bully and threaten people into providing money or food for them. But not only are they just not doing their job, they’re actually a real danger to the societies they’re posted by.

Above and below: With the FARDC’s arrival in Doruma HIV/AIDS prevalence has shot up to 23%. The average in the DRC is 6% (however this is according to the ever so reliable government). Both of these babies were recently born HIV positive. Their mothers are unmarried and didn’t want to say who the fathers were. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) have said that to battle this problem in Doruma would far exceed their budget. At the moment they only have the resources to deal with trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness).

Above: When attacks first occurred self defence groups (SDGs) were quickly formed by the locals to protect themselves, their families and their crops from murder, abduction and pillaging by the LRA. However the FARDC banned them from doing this (at least alone) when they arrived on the scene. This hasn’t stopped them entirely. It is these local self-defence groups that the government blames for many of the (quite obviously) LRA attacks.

Above: They meet twice a day to discuss what they can do. There are always a few that stay guard around the towns and IDP camps, on the off-chance of an attack. This particular meeting was called because the LRA had been spotted earlier that day just 12km from Doruma.

Above: A few men from the SDG march out in the early evening to track down the recently seen LRA. Since the FARDC refuse to acknowledge the problem and have no motivation, the SDG has little choice. “When we go in we are thinking of our brothers, sisters, and children that have been killed or taken. We go in with anger and revenge. That is what keeps us going.”

Above: The SDG make their own ammunition as well as the shotguns. They can be dangerous, and one shotgun cartridge went off in this mans left hand, taking off the tip of the little finger. However the LRA fear the SDG’s guns, which can kill an elephant and take down 8 men abreast at once due to the spread of the shot. The cartridges are a mixture of lumps of metal and matchstick heads. One former abductee said: “We really feared the self-defence groups. They would put their lives on the line. The FARDC weren’t feared, sometimes we would attack their patrols if they had something we needed.”

Above: Not all members can afford or get the resources to make shotguns.

Above: The main characters of Doruma’s SDG pose in the early evening.

Above: It is not hard to see that motivations like anger and revenge in the minds of untrained men with deadly but dodgy weaponry is going to have consequences somewhere down the line. However MONUSCO (the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo) does little but sit tight in their compounds in relatively secure areas, the UPDF (Ugandan People’s Defence Force looking to kill the LRA leaders) comes and goes with little communication to anyone else, and the FARDC is a detriment to society. These small self-defence groups are brought together just to do something for their people.

Above: The president of Doruma’s SDG (middle) sits back during an evening meeting where it was reported that the LRA had now been spotted just 6 km from Doruma.

Above: The UPDF suddenly showed up the next evening in Doruma, having heard reports the LRA was close by.

Above: The FARDC major had refused to give this UPDF commander (with the map) any information of the recently seen LRA. So when we met up with the commander we brought along the vice-president of the local SDG so he could point out where the LRA had been seen the previous night.

Above: The UPDFs map of Orientale province with red dots to show where the LRA have recently been spotted. Rather different from the mental map the FARDC major tried to give us (no red dots).

Above: The UPDF commander thinks he has a seen a pattern with the sighting and hopes to intercept an LRA group that appear to be heading towards the Central African Republic (CAR) where their leader Joseph Kony is thought to be in hiding.

Above: Generally the UPDF troops were happy to be photographed. This friendly individual called himself BmaxB (I guess you spell it). Apparently this friendliness could have been related to my nationality: “The British are my favourite whites”. The commander even offered me 5 kilos of beans to take home. A rather stark contrast to the FARDC which often just take food from the locals.

Below four photos: Suddenly the order came for the troops to move out. In less than five minutes 95 troops had packed themselves into one truck, in the most dazzling display of military efficiency (though perhaps not discipline) that I have yet seen in the Congo.

Above: And just like that the UPDF disappeared again.

In all my interviews with various former abductees, it seemed that most of them had escaped during UPDF attacks. One boy who had served as an LRA soldier said “At first we feared the UPDF the most because they would kill anyone in the camp, even women and children, just to get to the Ugandan LRA commanders. But now it is just commanders that fear them. Many children escape the LRA during the UPDF attacks.”

Above: This was the closest shot I could get of the FARDC; the bottles left over from the Major having a drink with three officers. I took this photo at 7pm.

The US has now sent in military advisors to help these armies (MONUSCO, UPDF, FARDC). However in my opinion, unless they advise the Congolese government to pay their troops better and on time, the FARDC are going to continue to hold back any real progress in these areas – however MONUSCO and the UPDF change. With November elections looming it seems the government finds it cheaper and easier to deny the matter than spend money defending the lives, rights and homes of some of the poorer individuals in their country.

The problem with Pygmies

Africa, Documentary, General comment, Photojournalism

As part of my project on leprosy in the DRC I arranged with Dr Jacques (my amusing, capable, half-Congolese-but-fully-Congolese host) to go to Libenge, a town on the Ubangi river that separates the DRC from Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo. Originally when the capital of the Belgian Congo (now DRC) was being debated it was between Libenge and Kinshasa. I think Libenge is the closest to Belgium in terms of flights, and as such I believe is home to DRC’s first airport.

Anyway, leprosy is endemic in the area and I was looking forward to meeting a variety of different patients on the way there as well as in the surrounding areas. My trips either way were, despite the long, bumpy, 6 hours of red, drunken, dirt road pretty fruitful in terms of the stories I heard and the patients I saw. However the full day I had in and around Libenge was unsuccessful photographically, so I haven’t got the array of shots I was hoping for in this post. I’ll explain.

The thing I was most excited about was meeting pygmies. My previous pygmy knowledge went something like this:

They are shorter than most humans. They live in the bush.

I couldn’t remember anything more from the episode I’d seen two years ago where that guy went around different remote tribes in the world trying to fit in and ended up losing loads of weight having taken their local medication/brews and being very sick in the process.

I was right about one of those things. They are shorter than most human beings, averaging less than 5 feet.

I knew that there were four people in the community I was visiting that had previously had leprosy:

  • Bishop, a nervous young boy around 13 or 14.
  • Gobi, a single mother in her late thirties.
  • Mado, an elderly, but as it turned out fiery woman.
  • And Monyabo, an elderly man with a kindly smile and a quiet understanding it seemed.

At first I just sat down with Bishop. He was terrified of me and said nothing. I sat next to him, slightly dwarfing him, on the low straw bed in the hut that barely counted as an abandoned shack. A few sticks, and bits of straw with gaps occasionally filled with mud daub I can’t imagine it provided much shelter during the frequent storms – indeed the similarly built and sized Catholic church had fallen down in the last storm. Jacques translated what his marginally taller, thin and seemingly pregnant mother told us about this being his first encounter with a white man. So I moved to the floor and did my best to smile in a non-threatening way from behind my increasingly bushy beard, even scratching a puppy which staggered out from under the bed, which Bishop picked up. I could visualise a few friends back home squealing in adoration at the sight two feet in front of me. But this is DRC and naturally, it will either die within a few weeks, or be eaten if it doesn’t become painfully thin. Dog meat is still meat.

So I interviewed him/his mother, every now and then shooing away the nosy children that had nothing better to do (literally) than to gather at the door and stare at the white man. Bishop’s leprosy was diagnosed quickly as a result of the awareness work that ALM have been doing in the area (another pleasing display of the competence of Jacques and his team across this vast northern-equatorial province). He was put in the MDT and now appears to have made a full recovery. He of course still suffers stigma from it – neighbours make fun of him and the family are ridiculed for being ‘affected by leprosy’. Their community is not large… and this is not easy to live with for a very young teenager.

As a continuation of the commitment to help those currently and previously afflicted with leprosy, ALM has paid for his school fees. However we quickly learnt he had dropped out of school because he didn’t like it. I found this surprising – most children I meet on this continent rave about going to school – they know learning is their doorway to a better life. I’ve found this basic wisdom pretty common across most of my travels in Africa. Jacques suggested to him that it was worth returning to school, and one day he may have a chance to get a better house and more food for his family. He agreed silently – presumably terrified of giving a different answer. I didn’t believe we were getting very far.

I moved on to interview Gobi.

Gobi is probably one of the poorest people I’ve ever met. She got leprosy at a young age and it has affected her hands so she can no longer grip a machete properly (pretty essential for farming here), and she has lost most of her toes. Her stigma means she’s never been married, but she has a daughter, Bea, a bit younger than Bishop. Apparently her family, realising no one would ever take her brought a man to sleep with her to get her pregnant.

She has had no education, very few people to look after her and only her close family will speak with her. She lives with her daughter in a minute shack, again mainly just sticks lightly tied together with grass and looking like it would barely stand up if someone leaned on it (which someone did, dislodging a stick).  She owns two pots for cooking and a large rag as her clothes. The clothes she was wearing were borrowed from her sister; she hurriedly pulled them on when we arrived. “I still thank God though”, she explains. “I am suffering but I am still alive. I just ask that he may provide daily food”.

Mado and Monyabo, the other previously leprosy-affected patients are sitting next to her and start to chip in. A comment from Gobi that her daughter also doesn’t want to attend school a moment later and Jacques’ disturbed reaction provokes enthusiastic explanation of their situation, and the problems of Pygmies.

During colonisation, a white Belgian colonialist persuaded this Pygmy community to move away from their hunter-gatherer lifestyle deep in the bush (still maintained today by some tribes) and move near to Libenge where a town was growing. It seems like he meant the best for them.

They moved, but their community was located quite far out of the town still and they suffered ridicule from the locals – they were recognised and set aside as different, inferior. Kept poorly educated, underpaid when allowed to work and basically kept as slaves. Nothing has changed in that respect until this day it seems. Their regard as inferior humans is reminiscent of racism across the world, the Hutus and Tutsis coming to my mind first, and their treatment is not unlike that of the way migrants in many western countries are treated, taken advantage of, underpaid and not given the time of day for respect or understanding.

None of the children in the community attend school because they are bullied for being pygmies and poor (life is relative after all). Mado was particularly passionate about this: “Stones are thrown at our children and they are spat at. They have poor clothes and shoes and are laughed at because of it.” It is no wonder this community is so poor, its being shunned by society has sent it into cycle of poverty with no-one offering a chance of an opening.

We were beginning to attract interest from other members of the village that had heard of our presence and come back from their work in the fields…

Mado had started to get irate when Jacques said we have not come to give them money. I calmly explained with Jacques’ help that we are here only to collect stories for ALM. They show these stories and photos to Americans so that they may donate money so ALM can continue to help people like them. We could not promise them anything on this trip bar that the community health officer that has helped them before will continue to give his best efforts.

I’m always careful not to give false hope – more often than not, once I’ve explained these reasons via a translator people readily agree to be part of this process. At first it seemed like that in this case, and they agreed to have a photo outside Gobi’s shack. Afterwards I was hoping to spend a few hours photographing their lives generally. (Ideally I’d want a couple of return trips, but when you’re photographing projects across 400km connected only by roads kneaded by rain there’s not much time for those kinds of luxuries).

Jacques had said we’d give Gobi, Mado, Monyabo and Bishop’s mother a sack of salt to share, and I think it was around then that the arguments with other villagers started. Why are you giving it to them and not us? What have you brought us? Why is it you white men come but never give anything back?

It seems that in recent times they’ve had white doctors visit, get stories and take photos, with the promise that they’ll build a hospital or bring money the next day. Whether this is entirely accurate or not I don’t know, but I’ve no doubt there is truth there, and unfortunately in this case, not a good outcome.  I hesitate to add that ALM has not been among these people – I’m the first white person from ALM to visit this community.

I wanted to explain to the chief who had shouted at Jacques and the community health officer; he’d demanded salt for himself. I couldn’t understand the Lingala they were speaking and was slightly surprised when Jacques suggested we get moving, a noted urgency in his tone. I said (in my naïve white liberal way of thinking any situation can be solved by talking) that I should really go after the chief and explain what I had to the three leprosy-affected. But Jacques was quite insistent and I submitted. Most of the villagers were now shouting at us as we piled back into the Toyota landcruiser. It hadn’t got violent but Jacques and the health officer assured me it was looking to turn that way if we didn’t head right away.

I sat in the back of the landcruiser as it went out of the village, disappointed and upset. It didn’t help that we still had the salt we had promised our patients. I was angry with the chief for denying Gobi and the others a small something to make their life easier even for a short while. But I’d missed a trick, born, as with many of these misunderstandings, out of ignorance.

Pygmies have, in their society a strong culture of sharing. You give something to one of them, then you give it to all of them. ALM cannot use their resources to please the whole village – they deal with those who have the additional burden of leprosy, helping them in different ways to have the same chances as those that haven’t suffered this disease. Giving to a whole village, however great the need is denying the leprosy afflicted elsewhere. Us giving salt in front of so many people to just four people is an insult. It was Mado that threw it in the back of our vehicle as we left.

“It goes further than that” Jacques explained. “When we gave them the treatment I did it in private in their homes. I gave the MDT pills to the patient, and then multivitamins or whatever harmless pills I could find to the rest of the family. Previously the whole family has shared out the Multi-Drug Therapy, despite it being useless to the others.” Even though this culture of sharing, in my opinion has an enormous amount of benefits and I think is something generally missing from every day Western lifestyles, cultures and even policies, it appears to have gone beyond common sense in this place. Perhaps through lack of education, I don’t know.

But it was truly upsetting seeing that not only is this a stigmatized community, but those with leprosy are then stigmatized within it, and the cultural practices of Pygmies have prevented us from helping them, at least on this occasion. I couldn’t get the photos I’d planned, and as someone who’s contribution ‘to the cause’ as it were is to get photographic evidence of the need/the good work/the stories/whatever, I felt pretty useless.

We visited a health centre next for Jacques to confirm a few leprosy cases. I still had a very sour taste in my mouth – not helped when Jacques noticed they had been reusing needles there. Needless to say he scolded the health officer in charge explaining it is better not to use them at all than to reuse them in an area where HIV prevalence is so high. I won’t go into the sexual practices and forced prostitution of this region in this post…

One of the cases was a pygmy boy and his father. His father was already a confirmed case, but the boy was confirmed then and these by Dr Jacques, with evidence on his legs already showing cuts and infections he could not feel. He was put straight on the MDT and ALM gave them some shoes for protection. As they went away a few young men in the (now expected) small gathering jeered and shouted at them, laughing. It was the all too familiar bullying you see as standard in schools. “They are asking why we gave pygmies shoes when they are not true human beings” Jacques said gravely.

It makes my blood boil. The rest of the day was thoroughly unsuccessful and the team seemed quite tired from the day’s events. I had no impetus to do any more work that day. I asked Jacques if any NGO or missionaries were doing anything to break down this stigma. No-one at all.

Life for me, has since become less frustrating, but this problem with Pygmies remains, and no one is doing anything about it.