In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Beauty and Fashion Are a Weapon Against War

Amid one of the world's deadliest civil wars, Congolese women turn to beauty and fashion to create a sense of control and normalcy over their lives.

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Vanessa Jados, a 29-year-old entrepreneur from the war-ravaged city Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, is a woman with rather unusual business ideas for her hometown, which has been the center of a decades-long, bloody civil war.

Jados developed a taste for fine baking when her parents sent her to Belgium to study when she was twelve. When she returned to her beloved hometown at the age of 23, she realized there were no mouthwatering pastries in Goma. In an attempt to solve this croissant crisis, she opened Goma's first boutique bakery, Au Bon Pain (no relation to the international franchise), in May 2014; she feels "Congolese people deserve good croissants too." She's currently working on her second business that one might not expect to see in a conflict zone: a spa and beauty center.

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"It's absolutely stunning here. We have a beautiful lake, wonderful nature, and mountains. But all people talk about Goma is war," Jados said, sitting on a stylish bamboo chair in her bakery and sipping a cappuccino. Despite the occasional U.N. peacekeeping helicopters hovering in the sky and the aid delivery or army trucks passing in the street, inside, the chicly decorated café is a different world. The dark-orange walls contrast with brown furniture. Although Au Bon Pain isn't signposted, the unlikely smell of the freshly baked butter croissants gives away its location in Goma's city center easily.

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"I want people to have good experiences about Goma, too," added Jados, who shines with joy and passion when talking about her hometown and country. "People might think it's a weird idea to open a spa and a beauty center, but I feel the opposite," she added. "We need it more than anyone. People, especially women here, have gone through a lot."

When Jados says her fellow residents have gone through a lot, she means it. The eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a vast Central African country the size of Western Europe, has been in conflict since the early 1990s. Some have dubbed it World War III. The war has taken more than 5.4 million lives. Nearly 80 percent of the Congolese population live in extreme poverty, according to United Nations. The war and poverty also took their toll on women's rights, as the DRC consistently ranks as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, with extremely high rates of maternal mortality and sexual violence.

Furthermore, since 2009, 3 million people in the DRC have been displaced, with at least 40 armed groups active in the eastern provinces of the country. Millions of people continue to live in camps for internally displaced people, where up to 80 percent of the population is women and children.

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Jados is far from the only woman in the country who takes comfort in beauty and fashion to cope with the reality of living in a conflict zone, in an environment that can often be hostile toward women. The Democratic Republic of Congo might be one of the poorest nations in the world, but it has an apparel market worth $620 million, a figure that is growing fast. Although mainstream Western-style garments like jeans as well as high-end designer pieces are popular, many women still choose to wear the traditional one-piece Congolese dresses, epitomizing the sartorial creativity of the nation with bold colors and buoyant patterns. Traditionally made with the West African fabric pagne, these dresses are the centerpieces of millions of wardrobes.

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Streets of Goma might have seen devastating fighting, rebels taking over the city, and military tanks, but especially on the weekends, they also see flamboyantly dressed and meticulously groomed Congolese people who wouldn't look out of place in a show celebrating African fashion. Women wearing stylish pagne dresses with fitting head ties are everywhere from churches to the fish market by the lake.

According to Seraphine Nyenyezi, a veteran fashion designer based in the capital city of Kinshasa, this growth of appetite for fashion and beauty has happened not despite the war and economic difficulties but because of them. When people go through hardships, they need to counterbalance it with some form of self-care — and in the case of many Congolese women, this is pretty clothes.

Nyenyezi gets passionate when asked why many Congolese women are so well-dressed.

"Here in the DRC, fashion and beauty are in our blood; it's our culture," she said, beaming and expressing clear pride for her heritage. "Yes, we have seen wars and poverty. But we are still human beings, you know?" she rhetorically asked, sitting on the veranda of her design and textile workshop in Kinshasa, where she employs more than 30 people to create customized dresses, many of which are made from pagne.

Nyenyezi thinks beauty is akin to a fundamental human right. In hard times, it's not just food and shelter one needs, but also some glamour to make them feel human again.

"Everyone needs beauty," she said. "You cannot control wars, but you can control how you look. You have to look respectful. Looking good doesn't actually have to cost a lot of money. But you cannot give up on yourself."

Back in Goma, Riziki Noawiheba, 42, who has been living in a camp for the internally displaced people since the 2000s, hasn't given up on herself. She has no idea if she'll be able to leave the camp and rebuild a new life somewhere else. Yet away from all the fashion hubs and living in a tent, Noawiheba gets up early every day to pick out something nice to wear and put on some makeup. When interviewed, she was wearing a salmon-pink top with a white-lace neck and an elegant long skirt. Her black head tie covered her hair but not her gold-plated earrings. In the mornings, she wears gray, smoky eye makeup and a dark-red lipstick.

As she's working as a secretary for the camp she's living in, she feels that it's her responsibility to appear good and respectable to her fellow residents, to keep the morale high.

When complimented on her beauty, Noawiheba put on a wry smile and said, "Actually, I used to be more beautiful, but this war stole my beauty."

Didem Tali traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo as an African Great Lakes fellow of the International Women's Media Foundation.

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