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Summer Reading

27 Jul

Every year, libraries around the country hold summer reading programs designed to spark kids' imaginations and encourage them to read.  As you can see from the image on the left, this year's poster depicts the summer reading series as a colorful adventure--a journey  full of chances to get plumb wide-eyed as you chase down the horizon.  The stage for this path to discovery is grand: stories can come from all over the world, and libraries often reach out to speakers who can bring personal experience and encourage something hands-on for the kids to do, so that they learn a little about the life and culture of a place and its people in the process of getting a bit of entertainment and occupation on a summer's day.

Knowing about our Congo work and love of stories, the Fulton County librarian, Linda, invited us as speakers for the series, so my mom  (Judy) and I trotted off to the library to whip up enthusiasm for Congo and for books in about 120 children with an age range of infant to 14.  As Mary shows here, holding the Congo flag, one is never too young to give up a big grin for the DRC and I couldn't have asked for a better model to set the mood.  Our presentation was about intrigue and good humor and maybe even a little mischief, all of which come across well in her expression.  With an age range so broad, keeping them all on the same page had its technical challenges.  So, we started simply, using the idea Linda innovated when she gave them all summer passports to fill with records of their virtual visits.   You might say that we granted those in attendance a visa to the kid-friendly parts of Congo for an afternoon; in a benevolent mood or maybe because they were so well-connected, we didn't even hassle them at the border.

To visit a place you have to first know where on earth it is.  Though my mom is vaguely pointing at the whole continent here, you can see a red string on a pin stuck into the heart of DRC, and we made sure they could see where it was and had one of them volunteer to poke at it in front of the crowd.  In retrospect, maybe I should have also reminded the kids of where America was, too, since one of the boys bragged to me before the presentation that he'd traveled to several other countries, including the exotic territories of Maryland and Virginia.  It's exciting to see children building awareness about geography, and we did our part to give a sense of how far away and how big the DRC is, and how we'd lived there happily once upon a time, when I was their age.  We passed around a few artifacts of our life there to give them something to handle, particularly the VW bug, a car hand-made from wire with some clever engineering to make its hood and trunk fully workable.  I used the opportunity of reflecting on material goods to remind the kids that having a library is a great privilege; to contrast, I explained that few Congolese children in the area I grew up had the chance to dive into a book whenever they like because of so few libraries and so much work to be done.  "But they don't miss out on stories altogether.  Many children hear oral stories instead of reading them, which is a very old way of passing them down through generations."  To have them relate, I explained that this is a style of storytelling often done around campfires.  Ah!  Many noises of recognition rose in the sea of fidgeting.  Then I said: "This story--the one I'm bringing you--you won't find in books.  It's a story that's mostly spoken," but I promised them a few pictures to go along with it.  I pointed to a couple of posters on an easel with their backs facing forward.  I was going for a little suspense.

Instead of flipping them right away, I started by describing the scene and the main character of the story, Bwana Shida (Mr. Troubles).  "So, Bwana Shida was going out to chop wood one day for a fire.  Anybody do that in your family?"  Again, lots of recognition from these rural PA kids.  "My dad does that!!" one boy yelled, unable to control the strength of his identification, if the volume of his voice was a reliable indication.  Then I described Bwana Shida's toil at the tree, working to fell it on a hot day and how he was almost finished when...  "Suddenly he heard a roar behind him and scrambled up the tree lickety-split."  I asked them: "What animals in Africa might roar?"  There were a lot of guesses, many of them rightfully in the big cat category, and one hit bingo: lion.  "Yes!  He looked down and saw a lion... but just as he thought he had gotten to safety high up in the tree branches, he turned and saw a.... what dangerous animal do you think might be in the tree?"  Again, somebody guessed it.  "Yes, a poisonous snake!  He thought to himself "I'll just jump in the river where the snake and lion won't follow me, but when he looked down, he saw another sharp row of teeth waiting for him.  What do you think was down there in the water?"  Crocodile!  

At this point I revealed the image of Bwana Shida dangling in the breeze, threatened every which way by aggressive dangers.  I asked the children to guess what would come next.  A dissonant chorus arose of "he'll get away!" and "he'll die!"  I asked them to raise their hands to indicate which fate they believed awaited him.  The vote was a nearly 50/50 split with one kid hedging his bets by voting enthusiastically that the character would both die and escape.  The youthful pessimists must have been glad, because I explained next that things only got worse for Bwana Shida as the wind began to pick up and make it difficult for him to keep his grip after he was already tired from working.  Nonetheless, Bwana Shida said to himself, "I'm just going to hold on as long as I can and wait to see what happens."

Then I revealed what my nerdy literary books call the "deus ex machina"--the surprise ending that fixes everything in one miraculous go just when fortune seems most impossible to turn for the better: the wind makes the tree fall, which pins the lion and snake, and the sound of the mighty tree cracking sends the crocodile into a watery skedaddle that takes him out of predatory reach.  To his astonishment, Bwana Shida walks away unharmed.   An uproar of "I told you so!"s and "He got away"s and "look at that!"s ricocheted around the room.  Then I told them what Bwana Shida learned: that when things are tough you have to hold on, and that when things are tougher you have to hold on tighter, because you never know what the wind may blow your way.  The parents who had been holding their breath ever since I took my casual poll about whether or not the man would die a terrible death seemed visibly relieved and also very pleased with a moral encouraging basic stick-to-it-iveness.  Perseverence is hardly a contraversial topic, and the resolution was happy.  In the end, I got to convey a little Congolese ingenuity and cleverness and good sense through this story that I like so much, and to a group that would never otherwise hear it.  It's worth noting that, while I took poster print outs for this event, Jeff and I had the paintings above commissioned so we can use them for educational purposes like this, and the original canvases are currently sailing over the seas to meet us (paintings are copyright: Mkumba Steven www.tingatinga.org).  You will see these images again on this site, I assure you.  There's a little something for everyone in this story.  When asked what he liked most, one boy told me "I liked when the tree squished the snake," which his mother interpreted as a matter of strong personal taste.  "He really hates snakes," she told me.  Whether you are a person who likes perseverence or a slither-o-phobe, the story has its various charms.


After the reading and the recommendation of a few books about Swahili in the library, we began with the "hands on" portion of our visit.  I explained to the audience that children often have serious work to do in the family, including carrying water and caring for younger siblings.  So, those were our activities--work recast as fun; because it takes some skill, the children were up for challenging themselves.  Boys and girls lined up by the dozens to balance a bucket full of tiny wiffle balls from one end of the room to the other, cheering each other on, admiring loudly, and roaring with glee when the whole thing slipped to the ground in an instant, sending the balls bouncing in all directions.  Though we also had a coloring activity for the kids, nearly all of them who could walk wanted to see if they were up for the task of being a Congolese country kid for a time.  If it weren't a dry run, I assure you 80% of them would have been soaked straight through by the end of it.  With a little practice, though, some of them were getting quite good!  Next on the agenda was caring for siblings, and I explained the special way that babies are strapped onto the caretaker's back.  Mom handed me a Congolese doll we had brought along and we pointed to the model.  You can see me below with Jimmy on my back, and this is standard issue for carrying children small enough.  It surprised me a little when I asked for volunteers and adults eagerly asked to have their little ones strapped on their backs.  The kiddos seemed pretty contented, too, to serve as guinea pigs.

After the adults, the kids came up to have me strap on a baby doll, as you can see.  One boy said it was his favorite part of the whole presentation to learn about how mothers carry their children on their backs.  It's hard to see the extent of his expression at this size, but the boy with the Steelers' jersey looks mighty pleased with himself, and should.  He's a bonafide African big brother, in this imaginative exercise.

As I explained a little about what their life might look like as a child in Congo, I stressed the responsibility of older sibings, and mentioned that many children just 6 years of age may carry infants and toddlers, sparking a new trend in experimentation at the behest of parents.  Here we see my flag model, Mary, on the back of her brother, who is doing his best to keep her balanced by a combination of sheer will, face-making, and bending over to distribute the weight.  Not surprising, as he's really not that much older or bigger than she is.

He brought his turn and our visit to finish with this flourish: "My pants and underwear are starting to come down."  That, folks, might be the universal sign to bring things to a dignified finish while it's still possible.  So it was that we all finished up our chatting and experimenting and imagining ourselves in Congo and came back, without a hitch or delay, to the good old USA.  

Bless children and their verve, curiosity, and candor.  I couldn't have asked for better traveling companions, even the ones that announced immanent depantsing.  It still makes me grin to think of the one kid who stopped me mid-introduction to say "Wait.  Isn't a story a lie?"  And when I tried to explain fiction to him he gave a knowing smirk and said to his buddy next to him "I told you so."  I fear to know exactly what I confirmed for him, but I know that, if rumors about fiction are alive and worthy of buzz in the existence of modern eight-year-olds, I have hope for the future of books.  A girl of 13 signed up after our visit for her first library card, which tells me something good, too.  Travel, away, love.  Travel far.  Maybe you will meet me in the Congo one day, face to face.  I promise I'll try to get you over the border smoothly that time, too, but one knows that Congo is full of Bwana Shida adventures.  Still, you never know what the wind may blow your way.


A big thanks to Linda and the Fulton County Library for inviting us.

For more photos of our visit, click here.

Crisis in the Congo Film

6 Jul

On June 30th, DR Congo's 51st anniversary of independence, we screened a 26-minute version of the upcoming feature film "Crisis in the Congo" at the Paramount Film Exchange in Pittsburgh.  Friends of the Congo produced the film to help educate people about the ongoing crisis in Congo and build a global community of folks invested in peace and social justice for the Congolese.  If you missed our screening, please visit the Youtube link below.  It will help you understand the reason that Jeff and I have gotten involved in advocacy for Congo.  It will powerfully convey how we are already connected to what's happening there, and why we ought to be paying close attention to US foreign policy.  Maurice from Friends of the Congo explains in the film that what's happening now is a 125 year long problem, with roots in colonialism and in the world powers' desire to control resources in the Congo--this has perpetuated practices benefiting only those who exploit the country's resources and its people while disempowering those who would invest in democracy and care for its people.


After our screening, the audience seemed a bit shellshocked, and it's no wonder.  Many had never heard about the humanitarian crisis in the the Congo or Americas' connections to it.  When mainstream media covers the violence there, it often makes what's happening in that area look like an impossibly old and deeply-rooted problem (ie. tribal)--one that is not only difficult to understand for the average viewer, but has nothing to do with either the West or the twenty-first century.  This film completely devastates those assumptions and puts it in political and economical context.  As it points out, and as we have explained on this site before, a big part of the reason so many have died in Congo has to do with powerful people's desire to capitalize on the world powers' distinctively modern demand for coltan, a mineral fundamental to our electronics industry.  Violence is rampant because the stakes are so high in this resource war and because there is a climate of impunity that "opens the door" for more atrocities, as Anneke Van Woudenberg, Sr. Researcher of Human Rights Watch explained in her film interview.

To put the Congo's situation in historical perspective, I showed the audience my derriere.  That happens to be the only part of my skirt that clearly shows "50 ans" (50 years, in French) of the specially printed independence anniversary cloth that Bizi had tailor made into an outfit for me last year.  I explained: "I want you all to remember that it's only been 51 years since Congo's independence.  If you think about what was happening here in the US fifty years after independence, you know that we hadn't even had our civil war yet.  Minorities couldn't vote.  On the books, Congo is actually doing better than we were during the same time period in terms of rights and laws.  Women can vote, for instance; there are a lot of things in place to make it a functional democracy if only peace were the norm and the institutions could be allowed to thrive."  This is a hope we share with Friends of the Congo: that strong institutions, not strong men, would hold the power to organize the country. 

"Crisis in the Congo" does an extraordinary thing: it makes the roots of the issues in Congo relatable and discussable.  It is both critical and hopeful.  While there is much left to debate, such as the number of verified casualties and whether or not some regional conflicts can be technically categorized as genocide, this film is fundamentally eye-opening and empowering to its viewers.  It motivates response and makes the conflict in Congo something an American audience unfamiliar with the subject can begin to talk about in clear terms.  I can say from our screening that the film moved the audience in attendedance.  It caused them to ask good questions, to look for ways to learn more,   and discussion continued long after the film ended; these are signs of its effectiveness.  Friends of the Congo understands that none of the atrocities would be possible without the weakness and/or complicity of local and international governments, proving that the problem is essentially political and calls for political action.  It is the responsibility of people in participatory democracies to hold their governments accountable as respresentatives of the people's will.  There's plenty of work to do and Friends of Congo's Take Action page helps give good hints for ways to get involved.  I look forward to the full version of "Crisis in the Congo" and more conversation.  Until then, I encourage all of you to watch the short version of the film, share it, and spread its information as far as your networks will reach.  Click http://congojustice.org/ to visit the website, which has more information that you can refer to and share.

I'll leave you with a small vignette from independence days as food for thought.  In the spring of 1960, an American correspondent in Congo, D'Lynn Waldron, reported that Congolese vendors were selling little matchboxes advertized to hold freedom.  She describes a man who was wearing one: "He had a new little box on a string around his neck. He told me that a man from the city had sold it to him for 50 francs and that it contained his ‘Uhuru’ (Freedom), which he could take out of the box on the 30th of June."  Whether it was naivety, the heady spirit of hopefulness in those times, or the feeling that freedom was purchasable--people bought these little boxes, believing that opening them on independence day would help them experience something essentially different from the oppression that had characterized their country's history since 1885, and that there would be a clean break between colonialism and the bright future.  Maybe it did help many feel something new in the air for a time.  It's beautiful and troubling to imagine so many people opening their freedom boxes on independence day.  If it had turned out like they hoped, it could have been the beginning of a lovely national tradition or style--commemorating a moment of release from oppression.  Yet, looking back, the symbolism is double-faced.  It's hard not to notice, in retrospect, that even the Congolese people's hopes for independence had been exploited, and that little tangible freedoms came from their hope.  The combined symbolism is powerful.

May what happened symbolically in the opening of those freedom boxes happen in reality for Congo.  May Congolese freedom cease to be sold by opportunists exploiting the people's hope and desire for peace.  May the Congolese people cease to pay for what ought to be theirs by right.

A Volcano's Broken Heart

26 May

On January 17th, 2002, Mount Nyiragongo erupted and destroyed approximately 20%-30% of the buildings and homes in Goma.  News about the event and scientific reports are easy to find with a simple Google search, explaining everything you would ever want to know about the disaster, including pictures of the city ablaze and a detailed look at fumaroles.  The video below gives a reasonable overview of Nyiragongo's 2002 eruption, its impact on the city of Goma, and the measures being taken to predict future eruptions more accurately, so that fair warning can be given to residents.

If this eruption managed to blip onto your a t.v. or computer screen in 2002, I'm sure that much of what you saw focused on the dangers of living next to an active volcano and the "kicking-them-while-they're down" timing of this disaster, given Goma's long string of other problems (this article calls it a "crucible of conflict" for over 15 years).

My family had more access to personal accounts of the eruption than the average American because we had friends living in Goma sending us eyewitness news.  When Lyn Lusi was finally able to write, she explained that they had to leave their lakeside property by boat, because the lava had cut off the roads on both sides of the house. They sailed through the sulfuric stink and hiss of lava pouring into the water, and past boiling patches of lake to the bordering town in Gisenyi, Rwanda until it was safe to return.  Luckily, the Lusi's house was untouched, but their medical NGO, HEAL Africa, had one of its main buildings completely buried by the lava flow.  During that following spring/summer, I spent three months volunteering for HEAL Africa  as they leveled and started to rebuild that facility, and I overheard much about the eruption during my stay. "What I saw”, "how I escaped", and “what I lost” were common elements of these stories.  A young man named Jean Luc, whose family had lost everything, told me without a trace of self-pity that they were “starting again from zero"; then, because I'd expressed interest, he gave me a copy of the four-hour VHS tape circulating in the local marketplace; it was essentially a home movie with a mezmerizing catalogue of lava-driven infernos.

These raw reports interested and saddened but rarely shocked me, given what I knew about Nyiragongo's power to destroy.  What did surprise me were interpretations I heard about the eruption's meaning and importance. These creative explanations about the event's impact were explained in very regional terms.  Consider the difference between the international news lens and local rumor about the same event: a BBC news story covering a gas station explosion.  The news story revolves almost entirely around calculating loss of life and property.  For local folk, however, curiosity surrounded the man who owned the neighboring, unexploded station. Since the lava avoided his structure while destroying the one across the street, he got a reputatation as someone in God's pocket. The  remaining business not only  became a corner monopoly, but people often took pains to patronize his business, hoping some of his luck would rub off on them.  I have seen that petrol man swagger around his station pumps as a minor celebrity--not something that would make the news, but which does emphasize how, as Goma residents sought to explain patterns of benefit and misfortune from the eruption, the popular imagination was more interested in figuring out how to access elusive benefits and protections than to catalogue losses.

Besides accounting for why certain people profited and others lost, local stories about the general nature of this disaster were making their rounds in Goma, too.  Lyn mentioned a popular one in her letter: many local folk said that the eruption was Patrice Lumumba's revenge for Mobutu's part in his assassination; they pointed to the date (the anniversary of Lumumba's murder) when a rivulet of lava burnt one of Mobutu's houses on its way to the lake. Another story, a religious one, claimed that a Congolese prophet had been summoned to the top of the mountain and been asked by God to pray for Goma's forgiveness because of its moral chaos and corruption.  The man refused and the eruption was God's chosen form of divine punishment. A British friend of mine working with World Relief at the time, told me that some of her Congolese co-workers had begun calling the mountain General Nyiragongo because, they said, “Only a general could chase out so many people at once.”  With a mixture of dead seriousness and wry humor, local Congolese demonstrated how literal, geological rifts tearing apart the area and causing eruptions could be re-read as figurative ones—as the natural buildup of a long history of injustice, exploitation, and moral disorder.

In my view, these stories are not only arresting but give a telling snapshot of the local imagination in Eastern DRC.  They show how human-made disasters can mimic natural patterns of eruption; the stories identify some deeply-rooted historical rifts that destabilize the region and lead to bigger eruptions of violence.  Sustainable solutions to the problems in the Congo must address not just the individual disasters as they arise but the the “seismic” political activity in all over Congo--here my focus is primarily on the East, but I believe many of my insights here apply to broader regions across the country.

What strikes me immediately about the stories I heard in Goma are that they pinpoint some of the biggest and most persistent problems in the region, namely: the vulnerability of the local people in the face of unchecked military powers (ie. General Nyiragongo) and both international and local politics undermining democratic processes in Congo  (the CIA and Congolese politicians killing Lumumba, an official elected by the people).

There's a tremendous talk these days about the issue of "conflict minerals" in Congo.  I would encourage readers to carefully consider the issue of Congolese resources and who's benefitting from their exploitation; there are many good conversations about the "conflicts minerals" focus in activism and policy-making: some convinced that cleaning up the supply chains will help end the conflict in DRC  others raising serious concerns about this approach.  Jason Stearns has an excellent review of what's at stake in this argument.  Of course, resource control is not just about profit but power and politics; the question of who benefits from "business as usual" is worth asking, and one must not only  listen to  experts, but to what local folks in DRC have to say.  Consider the fable a widow told me in the summer of 2002 about the volcanic eruption:

Once upon a time, Nyiragongo an Nyamulagira got married.  Nyiragongo was a wealthy Congolese and Nyamuragira was a Rwandan from a family of somewhat meager means; the couple was blissful for a short time.

After her wedding, Nyamulagira went over the border to her family in Rwanda, bringing them many gifts from her new, materially rich life.

After a time, as her gift-giving continued, Nyiragongo's family and friends started to grumble and whisper that Nyamulagira had put her arms around her new husband only to reach the wallet in his back pocket. There were rumors that she and her family in Rwanda were laughing at Nyiragongo and plotting to clean him out.

Meanwhile Nyiragongo was whistling in the garden.

He was so oblivious, so unsuspicious, that, finally, his family and friends approached him and raised the alarm: “Has anyone ever heard of the thing Nyamulagira is doing? A wife taking this many things from her husband to make her family back home rich! She has bad designs. She is not just giving gifts, she is making a calculated transfer of property. Look! She is impoverishing you.”

Nyiragongo blinked his eyes and realized he'd been deceived. He started shaking from anger; he shook so hard the earth moved.

Then, as they say, “he blew his top.”

And this is why the volcano Nyiragongo erupted.

I didn't know what to make of this story when I first heard it, but I knew it was important to write down.  Nobody makes  a new fable for nothing: this is the kind of material people intend to preseve and pass down to their children as important cultural information.  The story's message is this: a bad relationship between Rwandans and Congolese has caused powerful destruction in Congo.  The suspicion that many Congolese have developed toward Rwandans comes from evidence that the Rwandan government and economy has profited directly and significantly from Congo's destabiliation.  As places like Goma continue to struggle with the negative effects of the 1994 genocide, having trouble meeting the basic needs of its population, the city's inhabitants can nevertheless easily see over the border into Rwandan cities like Gisenyi, where neighboring Rwandans have, in that same time period, achieved comparative peace, order, and prosperity. 

In a country where free access to information can be very limited for the average Congolese, a lot of people have to rely on experience, observation, and rumor to help them form opinions.  These perceptions--even when they are oversimplified or misinformed--can point out shocking discrepancies in fairness one would do well to note and examine further.  One Congolese man complained to me during my visit that "It's like Rwandans have been rewarded for genocide!  Congolese are peaceful by comparison and we are punished for it!  We would have given more international support if we had been murderers."  Consider the average Congolese perception: After the Rwandan refugees arrived in Goma in 1994, it became harder for local folk to feed their families and take care of daily needs.  The whole area became overpopulated and resources were stretched very thinly.  Disease outbreaks like cholera grew rampant.  Medical assistance was even harder than usual to come by--every medical facility experiencing the tide and undertow of overwhelming emergencies.  Rwandan military occupation and abuses followed on the heels of these refugee arrivals, destabilizing and spreading disorder throughout the region for over a decade. 

More than just expressing discontent, the fable explaining "how Rwanda broke Congo's heart" plays out a local fantasy in its conclusion: that Rwandan trouble would go back into Rwanda and that Congo would be able to prosper from its own resources.  This is a powerful sentiment and understandable.  It is my hope that the energy building from Congolese dissatisfaction and frustration will be well-directed and used to repair dysfunctional relations rather than fuel greater disasters--because Rwandan people are not the problem--most Rwandans are seeking to meet their basic needs in the same way as Congolese are.  Bad government and weak institutions of justice and accountability are the problem.  I encourage Congolese to overcome their hesitations and work to develop trust and relationships with Rwandan people who are partners for peace and stability.  Many Rwandans understand the explosive ways that political resentments and grievances develop into large-scale tragedies if they are not properly managed; they are potentially excellent allies in developing good prevention and good diplomacy in Congo.

Remember this: Politicians looking for more power thrive on exploiting divisions.  They act as Mr. Nyiragongo's family did, raising alarm and feeding fear and resentment rather than encouraging dialogue and cooperative solutions.  Yes, Congo's exploitation by Rwanda is real.  The essential and difficult work remains to build a platform of justice, not revenge.  Put the suspicion where it belongs: on the politicians who are working only for themselves--both internationally and locally.  As many people in positions of power have repeated: "when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled."  What about when volcanoes fight?  What is the collateral damage in that metaphor--between whole countries?  With the election year at hand, one already feels seismic rumblings in Goma, as elsewhere in Congo.  Friends have been calling us about more killings on the road to Rutsuru and increased insecurity in the rural parts of the Kivu region.  As always, many stand ready to profit from the chaos and confusion--the same people who would benefit from perpetual war.  I hope that readers will continue to inform themselves about the efforts underway to find long-term solutions to conflict and instability in DRC; we encourage you to visit the information blogs of reputable organizations working for peace and social justice, like Friends of the Congo,* who believe that strong diplomacy and good dialogue are absolutely necessary to prevent more violent eruptions, address Congolese grievances in a productive way, and pave the way for peaceful, popular elections.  


*I recommend reading Kambale Musavuli's article "Libya and Congo" to understand why diplomatic solutions are necessary, and signing the petition to get the US to implement PL 109-456, which has been law since 2006 but never fully implemented.

Fabric n' Bougies

14 Apr

African wax print fabrics tell a story about global politics, culture, and economy that's as colorful as the prints themselves.  The short version of its history goes like this:  the Dutch learned about batik from the Indonesians and imitated this process, hoping to factory-produce similar fabric at a cheaper price.  Like a mid-1800s version of Walmart, their success would have run the local, traditional artisans out of business, but the Indonesians turned up their noses at the Dutch copies, preventing such a fate.  Then, laden with unsold fabrics, Dutch ships found a market for their product in another portion of their trade route: the  African "gold coast" (Ghana).  The rest is Euro-African history.  For over 150 years Dutch wax fabrics have not only reigned in the textile market of West Africa but their popularity quickly spread South and East, into Central Africa, including our  area of special focus: DR Congo.

Yes, you heard right: Dutch wax cloth was produced by Europeans imitating Asians but sold to Africans--talk about a global marketplace.  What makes these fabrics African, then, is not who produces them but how they are used and who gives them social value.  Wax fabrics designed in Europe are imported into African countries and sold by entrepeneurs who often serve as arbiters of taste, naming the fabrics and popularizing certain designs.  In the 1980s this was such a lucrative position that women sellers, like the ones in Togo, earned the name "Nana Benz" because their business was so profitable they could afford Mercedes' in a place where many couldn't afford cars at all.  Wherever Dutch wax fabrics are sold in Africa, they serve as a strong sign of class and wealth; only well-heeled folk can afford to purchase them for tailor-made clothes.  The symbol of  the bird in the egg above the "Super Wax" shop sign  is popular west African fabric design called "money flies" (meaning: money gives you wings), celebrating the comforts that come with being economically stable.  This is no small thing to appreciate when steady sources of income are threatened or scarce, which is commonplace in unevenly developed areas and failed/weak states.

Those who make it beyond "comfortable" to "wealthy"  will likely buy from Vlisco, a Dutch wax company (established 1847) considered the haute couture of Dutch wax fabrics.  They have only six physical storefronts worldwide; five of them are in Africa, including one store in DR Congo's capital city, Kinshasa.  These retail locations sell not only the fabric but a line of designer clothing; the company has  begun marketing themselves as a fashion designer to stay competitive, since China and Japan have been producing Dutch wax imitations; the photo on the right comes from one of Vlisco's recent collections.  Many of their patterns are  stunning, colorful, geometrical designs like this one; these patterns have gained broader global appeal in the last few years, and many are being used in US and European fashion and interior design.

Fabrics with culturally specific meanings, however, often do not have the same appeal in the West and are infrequently  sold or even seen outside of particular regions in Africa.  Many of these designs are printed only once and reflect a specific historical moment, a current social concern, or popular opinion.   The  equivalent of a  bumper sticker, these designs deliver a punchy endorsement or criticism.  For instance, in 2002,  I remember an anti-polygamy cloth pattern in Congo splashed with "one plus one" monogamy mathematics.  In the summer of 2010, Bizi sent me an outfit made of "50th anniversary of DRC's independence" fabric, reflecting national pride.  The design pictured in pink, red and green was made for March 8th, International Woman's Day, showing a community of women gathered together in the center, surrounded by ladies in a wide variety of  professions; the cloth is spattered with printed messages, such as one denouncing violence against women.  These types of designs often contain text that reflects serious social concerns and leaves no mystery about their meaning.

The meaning of other designs cannot not be readily understood  unless you know their names.  Meanings vary by area, sometimes reflecting  a place's proverbs, current events,  and the mood or innovation of  individual entrepreneurs.  For instance, since the image of a caged bird has been used heavily in Western fiction to symbolize forms of oppression, some looking at the design on the right might be tempted to read this image as a celebration of freedom.  However, in this case, flying out is a sign of trouble; the pattern's name delivers a sassy dissuasion to would-be cheaters: "You go out, I go out!"  Meanings like this reflect not only historically eventful but  domestic, everyday things happening in the lives of those who are selling and wearing the design.  This is an area of expression particularly open for women to voice opinions and concerns, as the designs we've examined suggest.

Vlisco's "bougies" pattern represents how an area's history shapes what people yearn for and how they express it; this pattern registers a complex relation between textile, design, and politics. You can't see the writing on the spark plugs at this size, but it says 1940, because that is the original date of the fabric's first manufacture.  I happened to stumble across the history of this design while reading a 1950s travel book.  Shortly before independence (1960), Felice Bellotti wrote a travelogue titled "The Fabulous Congo" in which he explains the role of textiles that shaped as well as reflected DR Congo's history.  At the time, DR Congo's eastern mining sector was booming; this made many Europeans extremely rich, while local Congolese generally got little except harsh working and living conditions.  Desperate for laborers in the mines, officials used red blankets to trap local men into working contracts they did not fully understand.  Acceptance of the blanket was  legally recognized by the Belgian government as the equivalent of signing a working contract of several years in length.  Felice mentions that every Congolese man he spoke to in the mines claimed he was there against his will; many were looking for an opportunity to escape conditions that paid next to nothing and exposed them to risk and disease.  Only one man he met expressed contentment in his job--a man who served drinks to the the expatriates in the mining camp's club; away from collapsing tunnels and sweaty labor, and he admitted to Felice that he took a sip out of each glass of liquor before he served it, which may account for his feelings of compensation.

Expatriates' wealth was far from a well-kept secret in colonial DR Congo; they flaunted it and competed with each other openly.  For instance, public buzz surrounded the six-cylinder car because mining officials had brought some over at great expense and cock-crowed around them in showy displays of "I'm richer than you are."  The six-cylinder car became, as a result, a very public but generally elusive status symbol for Congolese who would never significantly benefit from the wealth coming out of those mines.  A Congolese expression arose: "six bougies" or "six spark plugs" became code for a premium standard of excellence.  Men who knew how to compliment a woman's good looks began calling the most stunning among them "six spark plugs," prompting a Dutch wax producer to make the "6 bougies" pattern; it became wildly popular.  I was startled to see that, in February, Vlisco just released their "New History" collection, and one of their patterns updates the expression, using the V8 motor.  As you see, the new pattern shows "8 bougies" or "8 spark plugs" and the current year, 2011.  The dandy in the center with his cuban cigar and three-piece suit emphasizes the point: "having class" means belonging to a certain class.  Bougie, indeed.

While some patterns, like the "bougies" series, show it more spectacularly than others, wax print fabric, by virtue of what it is, stages contemporary negotiations about African identity and imperial history.  Artist Yinka Shonibare is perhaps the most famous contemporary artist to use Dutch wax fabrics as a means to explore and express that relationship; on the left you see one of his exhibited installations discussed on The National Museum of African Art's site: "Leisure Lady (with ocelots) features a "lady of leisure" promenading ostentatiously with her three leashed wild cats. Nineteenth-century fashionability, exoticism and the taming or subordination of nature are themes embodied in this work. It is no coincidence that the patterning on the Dutch wax costume worn by Shonibare's leisure lady features clocks--a symbol of time and its rich abundance." 

Shonibare's work has been featured all over the world; typically he reproduces famous European paintings in 3-D displays, and he always clothes his figures using Dutch wax fabrics: "Using material such as Dutch wax-print fabric that has its own history of movement between continents, Shonibare addresses, in a decorative and seemingly lighthearted way, the shared history uniting Europe (and America) with Africa. At the same time, a more serious point is made, says the artist: “…the idea behind it is to draw a parallel with the relationship between the contemporary first-world and third-world countries. I want to show that behind excessive lifestyles there are people who have to provide the labor to make this kind of lifestyle happen.” (The Warhol

I would add to Shonibare's astute observation that certain patterns emphasize this fact: behind our comfortable, technology-saturated lifestyles in the West there are places, like DR Congo, that not only provide labor but the raw materials for these products.  Patterns like the one on the left serve as a strong reminder that long-established veins of supply and demand continue to operate in ways that pump profits only one direction.  They reinforce rather than repair economic gaps in places like DR Congo. In fact, some have called DR Congo's mineral expoitation and its destabilizing  force in Eastern DR Congo the "Playstation war."  While this name seriously oversimplifies the complex nature of relations in the Great Lakes region, it's undeniable that our consumption of "hot commodities" like the Playstation affect how people do business in DR Congo, and that economic gaps feed the roots of unrest in that area.  Much like the "6 bougies" fabric in its day, the playstation pattern reaches the DR Congo primarily as a status symbol.  It's reasonable to guess that, in DR Congo, a lot more people have worn the Playstation fabric above than actually own the game console--despite the fact that the most vital raw materials needed to produce its components are extracted from DR Congo. 

Studying wax fabrics presents opportunities to explore moments in contemporary African cultures and the corresponding iconography that people choose to express their values, hopes and fears.  Each fabric records a snapshot in the continually shifting landscapes of contemporary tastes and identity as well as the character of the global marketplace; culture is never static and, with short runs and fast turnovers in design, wax prints seem particularly tuned in to developments in African tastes, registering complex responses: concerns, affirmations, rejections, appropriations and expressions of exchange.   Visit our flickr set to see more examples of wax fabrics and more of Shonibare's work.  Stay tuned as we will keep adding to this cache of photos and offer you more examinations into these swatches of African history.