Barbershops and beauty salons are everywhere and overflowing with customers in Goma, a city on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Women get their hair extended, dyed, or elaborately braided. Men have the edges of their beards and moustaches shaped or faded in innumerable ways.
The shops become busier toward the end of the week as people get ready for clubbing, church, and other social outings. “Everybody is always trying to outdo everybody else,” says journalist and filmmaker Shayla Harris. “It’s like a nuclear arms race of aesthetics.”
This race for beauty is run in a city where people might be sitting in near total darkness at any given moment. In Goma, energy is so scarce that people don’t even remark on the rolling blackouts, says Harris.
She went to Congo in May to research energy poverty after seeing a satellite image of the world at night. It showed a veritable day and night contrast between the dark center of the African continent and bright Europe, Asia and the United States.
The central African nation has one of the world’s lowest rates of electrification — fewer than 10 percent of its people have access to electricity. That affects everything from small businesses to children simply needing light to do homework at night. And while the country has the largest hydroelectric potential in all of continent, only about 2 percent has been used. To make matters worse, Congo’s hydroelectric production was threatened by droughts reported earlier this year, after water in the Congo River fell to its lowest level in a century.
As part of her reporting, Harris walked into beauty salons, barbershops, clubs and churches. At night, she wandered through a market lit only by the headlights of cars. In the dark, vendors struggled to verify whether the money they were getting from customers was real or counterfeit. She found another market nearby that had a string of solar lights. Locals liked to hang out there and called it “Miami.”
Harris also found that the acronym for the national energy provider, SNEL, is “pretty much a dirty word” to Congolese, who “curse them on the regular.” But despite the obstacles of everyday, everyone goes to great lengths to look sharp.
Harris spoke to NPR from her Brooklyn home. She was a 2017 fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation’s African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.
You went to Congo to research energy poverty. Did you know you’d find such dapper people?
I was aware that there was this tradition of sapeur in Congo and Congo Brazzaville — this tradition of gentlemanly men who are wearing incredible suits and very dandified costumes. What was surprising to me was the everyday Congolese person walking down the street is just stunning. I was surprised on the street, in a barbershop, in a small clothing store that everybody is dressed to the nines.
Tell me about some of the people you met.
One guy [Theobold Kawa, a 55-year-old pastor] who stood out at a church service had an exquisitely white suit that was blinding in how clean and bright it was. It had this gold braided edge that was just to die for. I was really drawn to the fact that this guy was wearing a white suit through a courtyard that is covered in dust and chickens, and none of the dirt is getting on him. How does that happen? The way that he discussed it, “I’m dressing up like this because of the glory of God — a servant of God shouldn’t look dirty.”
From your photos, it seems there’s a mix of blend African and international styles.
There was this musician I met [Olivier Bayongwa] who goes by “El’Weezya Fantastikoh.” He was wearing a denim outfit, very current and modern. But some of his accents underscored the pride he had in being African. He had these dreadlocks, which is not something that I saw a lot on the streets, and he had a couple of necklaces. One of them had an Egyptian medallion, one of the pharaohs. He said to me that he wore it was because [Egypt] was one of the first African powers in the world.
So there are a lot of personal touches.
One guy [named Sadiki Ndume Fally] I met was working in a barbershop [called Coiff’Emoi]. His particular look, which was so clean, was just a mix of patterns. The whole outfit had a foundation of black and white but the pattern in his hat was a checked pattern and the shirt was a gingham. It was this mix of patterns that totally went well even though they could be jarring. He had this Hermes belt — a superfancy fashion label, though I don’t know if was legit — and this chunky metallic watch that sort of looked like a Rolex. It was a mixture of high and low that said a lot about the style I saw there.
How much would someone in Goma spend on a cool outfit?
One of the guys I interviewed, he said there are Congolese who don’t make a lot of money but even if they have only $50, they are definitely spending all of it on an outfit or getting their hair done. I think it can be as expensive as you want it to be.
What were some surprising ways that people dealt with energy shortages?
Everybody has their own little “hack.” I saw it particularly in the salons. There are a lot of elaborate back-up battery systems of about ten batteries that have been storing power throughout the day that they can jerry-rig a system. There is a tradition of somebody buying a generator, which is extremely expensive, and then people sometimes tapping into it for a fee. It’s called kigroupé. And there was a barber shop I came across in Himbi [a quarter in Goma] where they have one solar panel kept on their roof during the day. They would store the energy in a little generator that would power one little light bulb.
Tell me about one place in Goma where people looked really spiffy.
There is just no outdoing anybody in church. That is a place where everybody is going to see and be seen. I felt very self-conscious being in church with my pants and my little running shoes. A lot of women that I saw in this particular church service were wearing the more traditional wax fabric with patterns, from traditional geometric shapes to one woman who had dice [as a design element?] and another who had roosters.
Were there any people who thought looking good was trivial?
No, no one. I thought there would be someone who would say “Oh, why are they spending their money that way?” I talked to a wide cross-section of people, older, younger, rich, poor. They all said, “It’s in our blood. That’s what we do.”
What would you say to people who might consider such focus on appearance vain or shallow?
There could be a way of seeing this attention to appearance and dress as trivial. And not something that a person who lives in an impoverished place should be spending their time and their money doing. But I think that for the Congolese, this idea of really taking pride in who you are and what you look like is the thing that keeps them going every day in a place where nothing really works.
Why is it so important to them to take care of their appearance when they are facing the larger issue of energy poverty?
I think it’s because there is really strong Congolese pride. To them, it is all about the face that you put forward. You really tell a story about who you are with how you dress and what you look like. That is what they have the most control over. That’s their power.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sasha Ingber is a multimedia journalist who covers science, culture and foreign affairs for such publications as National Geographic and Smithsonian. Contact her @SashaIngber