Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo by Michael Christopher Brown

Hamida, 26 a sex worker living in the Benghazi neigbourhood 

During the Congo wars these past two decades, involving dozens of armed groups, and in an economy that largely relies on aid from the UN and NGO’s, some women, such as Hamida, who has four children, become somewhat forced to prostitute themselves in order to survive.
Hamida, 26, is a sex worker living in Benghazi, a neighborhood in the city of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.). She moved there in 2002, when nearby volcano Mount Nyiragongo erupted and destroyed her home in Berere. Benghazi, a slum of wooden shacks built atop lava rock, was named after the city of Benghazi, the Revolutionary base during the Libyan Civil War, as it is a place of “fighting and crying.” Many residents are prostitutes and their families. Upon arrival, she roomed with other sex workers to save money. She now has two rooms and pays $30 per month.

In 2000, when Hamida was 13, she went to the airport looking for water and was kidnapped by a FARDC soldier, who held and raped Hamida at a FARDC base for six months, calling her his “wife.” Hamida could not leave the base and though she did not have to cook or shop she was required to sleep with the soldier everyday. Her mother looked for her but received no answers until the soldier was sent home to Kinshasa and Hamida was set free. Shortly after, some sex workers learned of Hamida’s experience and gave her small things like clothing and brought her to nightclubs and found men for her, though Hamida was given no money. Eventually the women gave her money and Hamida would give it to her mother.

Hamida has four children by four different men. Several of her clients are UN soldiers and one of them, a South African, fathered one of her children. Another father is also South African and two are Congolese. The Congolese do not come to see the children but the South Africans occasionally do. Her oldest, Israel, is 13. “I see many people who have riches, money and cars, but they have no children. To keep a newborn in my body for nine months is not expensive, and it is something I can do. I have the kind of body that God gives children to. Sometimes I have used nine months to wake up in the road, so having children is something I can do. I have never studied, so maybe these children will help me one day. Yes, I could kill a baby and have less responsibilities, but I am afraid of the God of my mother.”

Hamida occasionally attends the Pentecostal Sepac church with her children and mother, who works at the church. “I have to go to church, to hear the preaching and the singing. When I was young I sang in the church. I respect the God my mother prays to. My mother was a muslim and converted to Christianity. My father is still a Muslim and when she converted they began having problems. He stopped helping to support her, saying she had ‘become the wife of Jesus.’”

“I have a difficult life. I live this way because I have many problems to resolve. I have no education or opportunities to study, but one day if I can have a job I can improve my situation. If God gives me a man to marry and who supports my children, I can also be happy. Because no woman can receive so many men in this way and be happy, it is only out of necessity. In Congo we do not have many men, the many wars here killed them. So have many women and to stay married is difficult. Often if we marry the Congolese man, we have a child after six months or a year and then he leaves. Sometimes the South African men forgets you and his child but sometimes he has a good heart and sends money. When we ask the South African UN soldiers, who say they come here to give us peace, why we do not have peace they can not tell us why. Sometimes they just cry and ask us why there is no peace in Congo.”


In search of ZACCA

It took me a couple visits to scout out locations and simply introduce myself to the owners of the area. Although one idea I had had was street portraiture, I didn’t feel confident enough nor ready to experience so much questioning and rejection. This is not to say that these owners were all welcoming.

In all honesty, owner of The BASH restaurant (as you can see by the closed shutters) never gave full permission so I only ever managed to take the photographs went they were closed. I later (along with owners of all the other businesses I photographed) went back and gifted her a framed photo. She loved it and said some extremely heart warming words. I was pooping my pants the day I went with the image, so I thank God she was okay with it. Must return to photograph the place whilst it’s open.

Found a few other Congolese owned businesses. Every time I went I had to reintroduce myself and the project. this was because one day I hadn’t done so and an employee came out to shout at me. I left feeling extremely crappy but no time to cry, work has to be done.

Arriving at ZACCA, (an advice and information centre for refugees and asylums from the former Zaire/ now D.R.C for HIV/AIDS; immigration; housing etc) was a mild disappointment. I was hoping to through this project work closely with them and families willing to participate to enrich the project, however they had closed down some years ago although the sign still shows them as being present. Absences in our presences or the other way around?

As the building itself [for ZACCA] would now no longer be relevant, I decided to focus on those that are here now! Or then at the time of photographing.

Above were all tests using my own 80mm lens. It was there I knew I’d need a wider lens if possible as sometimes you just don’t have enough pavement and standing in the street is dangerous. I know because I had to when shooting Pride of Tottenham.

CONGO. Goma. December 14, 2012. Abandoned planes are a common site at airports in Africa. At Goma Airport, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, planes left due to wars and volcanic eruptions over the past two decades have become a playground for street children, some of whom sell the parts which are made into stoves and other items to be sold on the streets of Goma.

One is generally prohibited from photographing this airport but in mid-December, 2012, after the M23 rebel force which occupied Goma left and before the FARDC (military of the D.R.C.) returned to the city, a security vacuum meant that nobody was guarding this section of the airport. Children guided me through the planes. © Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum Photos

Driven by the belief that a country should not be defined by its conflict, the photographer Sarah Stacke created an online visual resource that reveals the richness and complexity of the Democratic Republic of the Congo: http://nyr.kr/1oScbMw

Above: From a Nshindi family photo album. Kinshasa, D.R.C., c. 1975. Photographer unknown.