Alain Gomis’ character study of a struggling single mother in Kinshasa evolves into something far more sensually complex than it initially seems.
Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, goes the old saying — though for the variously stymied characters of “Félicité,” life hits them when they have no plan at all. A loose, vibrant fourth feature film from Franco-Senegalese director Alain Gomis, “Félicité” likewise builds to a fever of energy and activity while never sketching out more than the bones of a narrative: It’s a film in which a hard-earned smile, the contact between one person’s skin and another’s, or a serene strain of music amid the everyday noise can qualify as a dramatic event. Following a proudly independent club singer through the ragged streets of Kinshasa as she seeks a way to save her hospitalized son, Gomis’ latest is far from the miserablist issue drama that synopsis portends, instead weaving a sensual, sometimes hopeful, sometimes disturbing urban tapestry with threads of image, sound, poetry, and song.
Yeah I never got how ‘sex is a social construct’ could be understood in a Congolese context since women, girls and babies suffer sexual violence because they have ‘female’ body parts. And thousands of Congolese women have had their genitals mutilated (not talking about the cultural practice of female genital mutilation), breasts cut off and reproductive systems damaged by men. And the fact that ‘the destruction or the vagina’ is considered a war injury in Congo says a lot. I think, it would be really difficult to explain how sex is a social construct to Congolese people
For women anywhere in the world, smashing the patriarchy is a brave and difficult task, but especially in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Yet, every day, Maguy Washilama wakes up, puts on a man’s suit and shoes to match, hops in the rickety taxi she owns with her partner, and does just that.
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.”
There are estimates that one in three Congolese women has been raped during these wars. Aged as young as eight and as old as 73, and up to eight months’ pregnant, traumatised physically and mentally, few women have been spared. They may also end up with a forced pregnancy or infected with HIV. According to the head of a Congolese run hospital in Goma, there have been so many cases reported that “the destruction of a woman’s vagina” is now being considered a war injury and recorded by doctors as a crime of combat. There has been a powerful response by eastern Congolese women, who have launched public protests to bring attention to the issue. In March 2003, for instance, hundreds of women stripped naked in the centre of Goma and challenged thousands of dumbfounded onlookers, mostly men. Mama Jeanne Banyere, head of the Federation of Protestant Women in Goma, recalls telling the crowd: “If you are going to rape us, rape us now, because this must stop today.” As the men stood watching, the women chanted that they would no longer accept rape in the community. They demanded health care for women suffering from fistulae, who were being abandoned by their husbands and ostracised by their communities. The women who do manage to get to a hospital, probably a small minority of those affected, must wait for an operation that will enable them to return to a more normal life in their community.
“Separating Sexual Rights from Reproductive Rights.” Reproductive Health Matters, vol. 12, no. 23, 2004
Gender inequality and Social Institutions in the Democratic Republic of Congo - byAnnie Matundu Mbambi (WILPF DRC) and Marie-Claire Faray-Kele (UK WILPF), April-December 2010.
Early marriage is a common practice and an estimated 74 percent of women between 15 and 19 years of age are married, mostly in rural areas. The legal minimum age for marriage is 15 for women and 18 for men. As a result, the incidences of early marriage of girls as young as 13 years old, particularly in rural areas, are very common. These children are forced to enter into sexual relationships with men as old as 65 years old to ensure their wellbeing and that of their family without any provision for. Furthermore, it is estimated that 20% per cent of rural girls between 15 and 19 years old of age are mothers, either married, single, divorced or widowed.
The official matrimonial system in DRC is monogamy; however polygamy is widely practiced by men in total impunity, due to poverty and demography; women being a majority. A phenomenon known as the “deuxième bureau” (literally, the “second office”) has developed, whereby a married man enjoys extramarital relationships with several women. The women consider themselves to be genuine spouses, engage in this practice act and consider themselves to like legal spouses, and may even carry the identification cards of married women. They do not, however, have the legal status of a wife.
The “deuxième bureau” phenomenon is particularly common among rich men and Congolese politicians, particularly the highly educated elites. Although the phenomenon is seen by some Congolese women as well as their family as a form of ensuring their overall wellbeing and material gain, nevertheless it is a form of institutional prostitution as the woman is been given to the richest man, and can sometime be sent abroad to marry a man that she has never met but who could guarantee her and her family material gain. However, polyandry is a crime; if a married woman commits adultery, she is legally given a more severe penalty than an man who has committed adultery. .
Katanga’s forgotten children (Japanese miners committed infanticide in the Democratic Republic of Congo)
During the 1970s, an increased demand for copper and cobalt attracted Japanese investments in the mineral-rich southeastern region of Katanga Province. Over a 10-year period, more than 1,000 Japanese miners relocated to the region, confined to a strictly male-only camp. Arriving without family or spouses, the men often sought social interaction outside the confounds of their camps. In search of intimacy with the opposite sex, sometimes resulting in cohabitation, the men openly engaged in interracial dating and relationships, a practice mostly embraced by the local society. As a result, a number of Japanese miners fathered children with native Congolese women. However, most of the mixed race infants resulting from these unions died, soon after birth. Multiple testimonies of local people suggest that the infants were poisoned by a Japanese lead physician and nurse working at the local mining hospital. Subsequently, the circumstances would have brought the miners shame as most of them already had families back in their native Japan. The practice forced many native Katangan mothers to hide their children by not reporting to the hospital to give birth. Today, fifty Afro-Japanese have formed an association of Katanga Infanticide survivors. The organization has hired legal counsel seeking a formal investigation into the killings. The group submitted official inquiry to both the Congolese and Japanese governments, to no avail. Issues specific to this group include having no documentation of their births, since not having been born in the local hospital spared their lives. The total number of survivors is unknown source Till this day justice has not been served and the Japanese government refuse to listen to the mothers and survivors practically branding them as liars.
A striking image by photographer Patrick Willcoq from a series inspired by his former home, Congo. This image refers to the custom of some Congolese women (where, as in many other cultures) new mothers retire to a period of seclusion after giving birth.
Sandra Uwiringiyimana, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, survived a massacre in 2004. In this interview for #YouthWill, she shares her experience in finding solace, confidence and her voice through the arts, especially music and photography.