LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo, Jun 30 – There’s no electricity and only 500 residents in the Congolese village of Makwatsha, but a longstanding tradition by its womenfolk has turned it almost by accident into a star attraction for Chinese tourists.
The outside walls of the huts are decorated with paintings of local life, flowers and butterflies, making “the village of the women painters” a draw also for tourists from France and Belgium.
“For the colour, we use only the earth,” says Prosperine Mwelma, 60, dressed in a bright blue and yellow wrap and holding a paint brush.
“We dig to find the pink colour,” she says, her hands covered with the village’s ochre clay soil.
The murals of daily village life, painted by the women during the dry season and using only natural pigments, caught the eye of the director of the local French cultural institute when he passed through on holiday — and he decided to let the world know.
Not only did he contact a local travel agency to try to put the village on the tourism map but he also organised for some of the women to be invited to Paris in 2014 to exhibit their paintings.
For the Paris trip the villagers painted their works onto canvas and sold eight of them for a total of $60,000 (52,600 euros).
“On our own, we couldn’t have done it,” says Jean-Pierre Kabaso, chief of the village some 40 kilometres ( 25 miles) south of Lubumbashi, the capital of Haut-Katanga province in the southeast of Democratic Republic of Congo.
Now on tourist itineraries, the village’s painting tradition could become an important source of income in the future, the 52-year-old chief says.
When tourists come to the village on a day trip, they walk around, see the huts, discover how the villagers collect clay nearby to make the colours and are able to talk to them.
“There are other projects in the works, including plans for an exhibition in Washington,” Kabaso says.
Lone tour agency
In Lubumbashi, the only tour operator in the region sits in the dark in his office there’s electricity here but many power cuts.
Isaac Sumba Maly, who runs the Palma Okapi Tours travel agency, says he is preparing for a visit by Chinese tourists.
The Chinese have been coming to DR Congo in increasing numbers for business, especially to Katanga province where Lubumbashi is located, because of its mining activities.
Most want to fit in a tour or buy souvenirs during their free time, boosting tourism and sales.
China, together with Belgium and France, are the main sources for the trickle of tourists — about 100 each year — who venture to this remote corner of DR Congo.
To attract more travellers, the tour operator has launched a festival of painting at Makwatsha, teaming up with tourism and hotel schools and local media to showcase the women’s work once a year.
He’s also planning a trip to China this year to negotiate a tourism contract with a private company looking to send its employees on holiday to Lubumbashi.
But it’s a tough job selling tours to DR Congo.
“The Congo has a bad image overseas due to insecurity, war,” says Maly, dressed impeccably in a suit despite the heat.
For the past several years, DR Congo has been mired in a political crisis, which has worsened since President Joseph Kabila refused to step aside when his mandate expired in December. Elections are supposed to take place by the end of this year.
And in several regions, armed militias battle against government troops, creating a plague of violence that makes foreign visitors fearful of venturing into the huge central African nation — around two-thirds the size of western Europe.
“The Congo is vast,” says Maly, arguing that size is an advantage.
“If there is war in the north, that’s thousands of kilometres from here! In Israel, there are attacks, bombs, but nevertheless thousands go there for tourism,” he says.
– Green stone crocodiles –
In Lubumbashi’s old town, another artistic venture can be found in ateliers where, to the deafening sound of electric saws, workers sculpt statues out of malachite the green mineral found throughout the region.
Green stone statues of rhinos, lions or even larger animals are coveted by the Chinese tourists.
“They come with their orders for big pieces like crocodiles several metres long that they take back to China,” proudly says Stanis Chansa, who has been a sculptor for 45 years.
The intrepid travellers who do manage the journey to Haut-Katanga leave an impression on local residents.
“The international tourists often make the Congolese realise the beauty of their homeland,” says Eric Monga, a local official of the Federation of Congolese Business.