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DR Congo: Finding a dress in displacement

Posted by Skye Wheeler

5th Sep 2012

After much indecision, a best friend has just declared she's getting married 24 hours after I get back from here. "Here" is the beautiful but troubled eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where a recent surge of violence has caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee, adding to an already dire situation.

The fact I have nothing to wear for a wedding is not at the front of my mind as I walk around Kibati camp on the outskirts of Goma town. Humanitarians estimate the camp now holds some 55,000 people and more are arriving every day, having fled their homes because of yet more conflict. In every direction are shelters, made of branches tied together with string, covered in tarpaulin. Inside are beds of leaves. Some families are sleeping out in the open and it seems everyone struggles to find enough food to eat. Most of these people have been displaced before.

Among the hundreds of white tarp-covered shelters I see a splash of color. In the midst of chaos, Marceline has set up shop. She cuts a long rectangle out of a piece of eye-wateringly bright material patterned with flowers and curling leaves and then, her foot paddling her Singer sewing machine into action, she calmly turns it into a sleeve. The Congolese have a great passion for intensely coloured material, boldly depicting drums or favourite beers, presidents, leopards, the Chanel logo, flags, fly whips, coins. You name it. The dresses often come with enormous matching headscarves, puffed sleeves and flared bottoms.

"I carried the sewing machine on my head," Marceline says as she tells the story of how her family fled fighting, "and my husband carried the table." Like most in the camp she fled following the formation of yet another armed group in eastern DRC. She charges about 1,500 Congolese Francs (less than £2) to make a dress. Her clients are from Goma town. "These people don't have any money," she says, indicating the sea of shelters around her with her large tailor's scissors.

I wonder if I could pull off one of her gorgeous dresses or if the intensity of color would lead to a kind of fashion combustion. But it's not for sale; it's been ordered. Neither are fellow tailor Gaspard's dresses and shirts. "I don't have money to buy material," he said, "I have to wait for clients to bring cloth."

The central place that hand-sewn flamboyant clothing has in DRC means that even in a displaced peoples' camp there are tailors everywhere, machines clicking away between tarps. But they all tell me to bring my own cloth. No dress for me.

I am not the only one looking for clothes. I meet a young man who was recruited by an armed group and spent a month and a half carrying a bag of mobile telephones and solar charges for a commander who frequently threatened to kill him. He escaped a couple of weeks ago; shedding the uniform he had been given as he ran, arriving in the camp with only underwear. The blue jeans and shirt he now wears belongs to a fellow internally displaced person. "But he wants them back now," he said.

Blog post written by Skye Wheeler

More by Skye Wheeler