Democratic Republic of Congo
The Heart of Africa
Once a giant in the coffee and mineral trade, the Congo’s industrial infrastructure today lies buried under years of neglect. The vast plains of coffee trees that built the fortunes of giants such as Folgers and Mills Brothers in the 1960s and 70s are hardly recognizable, the berries only traded locally in rural markets these days. Strategically placed railways that linked plantations and mines to ports in what was then Portuguese Angola are functional for just a few kilometers, if at all. River ports that carried inland trade along the country’s massive rivers lie reduced to eerie ruins. The ghosts of past times are everywhere. The Bakwanga Club, once a hub of activity populated by employees of the country’s flagship diamond mine sits idle in the provincial town renamed Mbuji-Mayi, its dining rooms, pools and tennis courts still intact beneath a thick patina of decay. Meanwhile, far away in Nairobi, old Kenyan farmers wistfully describe excursions to the romantic lakeside cafes and hotels of Bukavu in South Kivu, then a popular honeymoon destination, now a warzone. The awesome Congo River itself, once the life blood of the nation, is barely navigable.
Lucy traveled to the DRC in in 2021 to visit Mbuji Mayi, in the Kasais, where she collaborated with GeoBeat and USAID to lead the marketing component of a project that is bringing improved water services to peri-urban communities. “Flying to Mbuji-Mayi in the tiny turboprops operated by the UN remined me of my father, who was an amateur pilot in Kansas where I grew up. It also brought home to me just how vast the Congo really is and how remote a lot of these communities are. In the Kasais, you don’t even see many farms. The only economic life visible from the air are the trenches dug into the red earth to mine diamond by people who dream of striking it rich.”
Lucy’s photos from the DRC are amongst the most evocative demonstrations of her ability to approach and connect with the people where she works. “She’s in her element in the field, it’s amazing to watch her. Despite the language barrier, she would be the first one to jump out of the Land Cruiser and introduce herself, and then she would come back with a wealth of vignettes and insights into local life.” Her photos capture the resilience of life in this most challenging of places. Young children line up to draw water from village handpumps, returning home with plastic jerrycans balanced on their heads. Men harvest cassava and maize, vital staples, with handheld jembes (machetes), and women pound them into family meals in wooden pestles. Laborers in rubber gum boots and torn overalls coax a little production out of cast iron machines forged in pre-war Europe.