Ac­ci­den­tal at­trac­tion

Painted huts of­fer Con­golese vil­lage a tourism life­line.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Art -

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 US$60,000 (RM257,910).

“On our own, we couldn't have done it,” says Jean-Pierre Kabaso, chief of the vil­lage some 40km 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-yearold 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.

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.

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 HautKatanga 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. – AFP Re­laxnews

— Photos: AFP

Chil­dren stand­ing in front of a hand-painted hut in Mak­wat­sha, DR Congo. There is no elec­tric­ity in the Con­golese vil­lage of Mak­wat­sha but a long­stand­ing tra­di­tion by its wom­en­folk has turned it al­most by ac­ci­dent into a tourist at­trac­tion for Chi­nese vis­i­tors.

Mala­chite work­ers han­dling mala­chite stones at a mala­chite wok­shop in Lubum­bashi.

Vil­lager Pros­per­ine Mwelwa paint­ing a hut with a brush in Mak­wat­sha.

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.

Vil­lager Josephine Mu­loba paint­ing a hut with her hands in Mak­wat­sha. 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.

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