– Eden Sparke

Early one morning in May, I took a short flight from Nairobi to Kigali, before driving through northern Rwanda to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I was due to visit the workshop of a man called Theodore, an experienced tailor who trains others under the auspices of a concept called #GiveWork.

I had been warned that driving through Rwanda before crossing into Goma would be a shock; three people unnervingly used the phrase “like going from heaven to hell”. The warnings were not entirely untrue; after three hours of driving through stunning forest and mountains, I was greeted at the DRC border by temperature checks and a tannoy system loudly reminding passers-by to wash their hands at the chlorinated water stops. The country’s most recent and biggest ever Ebola outbreak, which seems so far away in the UK, suddenly loomed large.

Tailors work on clothing for Pour Les Femmes in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo: Eden Sparke / Arete)

After making it into Goma unscathed, we drove through the chaotic traffic to the workshop. Theodore, a tall, regal man only just in his sixties, greeted me warmly before giving me the run of the place, where people were working on the latest order for Pour Les Femme, an exclusive sleepwear brand that supports #GiveWork and produces a capsule collection of pyjamas in DRC. Everyone in the workshop was busy cutting, sewing and pressing pure white fabrics that contrasted heavily with the thick grey dust covering the floor.

I began taking photos, paying mind to the mid-afternoon light that shone through the large windows and bounced unforgivingly off the cream-coloured walls. The tailors, who glanced at my equipment before fastidiously returning to their tasks after I had introduced myself and asked the Swahili equivalent of ‘pretend I’m not here’, relaxed after a few minutes and began asking me to observe what they were working on.

Theodore works in his office in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo: Eden Sparke / Arete)

I also took the opportunity to interview Theodore. His office, a tiny room to the side of the main entrance, just about held his chair and two stools for myself and Cherubin, my translator. The background noise to the captured audio featured the whirr of sewing machines and the occasional stifled laugh, but overall it made a great place for an interview.

It was in this room that I discovered Theordore’s motivation for having trained over 50 people in tailoring. “I am proud of the people that work around me, and I am proud that when they leave here, that they will be ready to be independent,” he says. “All of humankind are called to God one day — I am proud that I have people who will keep doing this work in my absence.”

Elysée works in the early morning light in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo: Eden Sparke / Arete)

I returned to the workshop the next day, and in the early morning light saw Theodore’s son and senior tailor, Elysée, poised to turn on the generator. After his confusion at me wanting to photograph him pressing a button wore off, he started up the generator, which roared into life and allowed the workshop — at a cost of over ten precious dollars per day — to begin functioning.

Fifi poses for a photo in Theodore’s workshop in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo: Eden Sparke / Arete)

After taking advantage of the softer morning light for wide and portrait shots, I also spoke with Fifi, the widow of a Virunga National Park ranger who had been murdered by bandits years before. After her husband died, she found it difficult to support herself and her two children. “I had to work in the fields for around 1 dollar per day,” she explains. “Sometimes my children were sent home from school, and I had to beg the teachers.”

Fifi learned to sew on a programme, where she met Theodore, who was one of the trainers. Following the training, she had the opportunity to create the first and second capsule collection for Pour Les Femmes at the Virunga National Park facilities.

Theodore’s niece, Deborah, prepares cassava leaves to be cooked while his wife Adeline, 60, lights their lamp in their kitchen in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo: Eden Sparke / Arete)

That afternoon, we visited Theodore’s home. Located 90 minutes on foot from the workshop, in an area with no running water or consistent electricity, Theodore’s four-bedroomed home is home to 10 people. While sharing a loaf of bread, Theodore’s family told me of their plans to move closer to town, hopefully into a five-bedroomed house. His wife, Adeline, showed me their small kitchen, and the bucket and hose they used to collect rainwater to avoid going to the public tank, about 10 minutes’ walk away. It seemed strange that a man working so hard to do so much good should be living in such difficult circumstances.

On my penultimate day in DRC, I visited another workshop, run by local association AGAPE, which creates accessories for Pour Les Femmes and where Theodore used to work. As people filed in, I began to photograph the embroiderers, who were tacking names onto cloth that would be made into make-up bags. Children played in the compound outside, and it seemed far away from the noise and chaos of the part of Goma that I had become used to.

Vicky, 54, works on a piece of embroidery that will be made into a pouch for a private event held by SISLEY UK in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo: Eden Sparke / Arete)

I found a helpful whitewashed wall and began asking people to come and pose for photos for me. Standing in an area looked in on by the workshop, they were understandably nervous about posing, but once again Cherubin came to my rescue, cracking jokes and helping them to relax enough to provide some beautiful portraits. I struggled more with the lighting inside the workshop; despite the glaring sunshine outside there were areas that were incredibly dark. Part of my learning curve was understanding when to focus my efforts elsewhere.

Parfait, 19, poses for photos outside one of the Don Bosco workshops in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. “For now, we don’t have permanent electricity, and this has a negative impact on the amount of orders that we get,” he explains. “Once we get an order, due to the lack of electricity, we miss their deadline, and it doesn’t give them confidence.” (Photo: Eden Sparke / Arete)

My final day was a mad rush to visit Don Bosco — a sprawling orphanage for babies and children up to the age of 18. After being tasked with taking portraits of the younger children who were undergoing vocational training in the compound’s workshops, we found that they had all disappeared to sit their school exams. Luckily the Programme Manager, Monica, rounded up a group of — at first slightly unwilling — young men and women to have their photo taken and to explain to me why the lack of consistent electricity in the area posed such a problem for them.

I spent barely three hours there before being whisked back off to the border on the news that the Rwandan president was visiting Gisenyi, the Rwandan crossing point, and shutting all the roads down as he went. It was a fleeting end to a visit that felt equally as quick.

Theodore’s family pose for a photo outside their house in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo: Eden Sparke / Arete)

For all the warnings I received, Goma and its people felt welcoming, if chaotic. Even after spending barely a week there, the potential of the region is obvious; there is an energy that permeates the town even through the complex web of poverty, conflict, and yet another Ebola outbreak. People are motivated to educate themselves and to work, but they are being held back by a systemic lack of job opportunities. Schemes like #GiveWork are vital, because they empower people who have been disenfranchised by forces beyond their control, and allow them to create a sustainable future for themselves.


From the Photographer: First time in DRC was originally published in Arete Stories on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.