Rachel Mwanza – The Congolese Actress Bringing African Fashion to the Red Carpets
“Hello, I will tell you a witch story. Not the kind of witch we’re all familiar with – with a hooked nose, a broom and warts. But a witch from Congo. This witch is me and my story is a story of courage, strength and faith,” this is the chilling statement Rachel Mwanza opened her TEDx Talk in Paris with five years ago. A statement that sent shivers down the audience’s spine, especially those who recognized what it means to be accused of being a witch in Congo. In the last few years, the ancient phenomenon of witch-hunts in Sub-Saharan Africa has garnered attention all over the world, with more and more children being subjected to torture, violence and abandonment upon being accused of witchcraft, typically by false prophets or charismatic preachers like Helen Ukpabio. In the Congo alone, an estimated 25,000 children are homeless due to witchcraft allegations, and a further 50,000 are kept in churches for exorcism rituals.
Various media institutions and human rights organisations hold Ukpabio responsible for the upsurge in the numbers of children being accused of witchcraft. In her book, Unveiling the Mysteries of Witchcraft, Ukpabio insists that “under the age of two, the child screams at night, cries, is always feverish, suddenly deteriorates in health, puts up an attitude of fear, and may not feed very well” is actually exhibiting signs that it is possessed by demons or other evil spirits. Considering Africa is a continent that is steeped in superstitious beliefs, these types of fearmongering statements are quick to wreak havoc, especially in impoverished communities with a lack of access to good education. And this was exactly the case for Rachel, when her father uprooted the family – herself and her five siblings – to Kinshasa, from their former place of residence in Mbuji-Mayi, in the Kasai Province.
Rachel and her siblings often lived with family friends, as her mother struggled to find employment and the children often went hungry. The children would often walk miles in search of food, and it was on one mission as such that Rachel found herself far from home as darkness was already beginning to set. This is when a lady invited her to stay the night at her house, reasoning it was safer for Rachel to return home at first daylight. During the night, however, the lady witnessed Rachel talk in her sleep – and it changed the then six-year-old’s life, forever. According to the lady, Rachel was talking to demons. Following the lady’s warnings, Rachel’s mother and grandmother sought the advice of a false prophet who was adamant that she was the cause of their family’s misfortune. “Once I was named a witch, it was impossible to go back.”
Rachel and her siblings went on to live with their grandmother while their mother left for Angola in search of work – but she never came back. During those two years with her grandmother, Rachel was treated like a witch. Her grandmother told people not to help her, talk to her or play with her; instead, she was confronted with constant accusations, was forced to fast and had hot pepper thrown in her eyes. She was alone, poor, hungry and was never shown love. She finally ended up on the streets, no longer a witch but a shégué (street child). “In the street, we became soldiers to survive; we forget how to read and write to learn how to fight.”
Then, aged fifteen, her luck suddenly changed when director Marc-Henri Wajnberg came to the city to film Kinshasa Kids, a drama focused on street children abandoned by their families due to witchcraft accusations. “For the film Kinshasa Kids, the production team was looking for children living on the streets or in shelters. I was in that situation at that time, so I was contacted to participate in the casting. I have to confess that I had no idea what the purpose of this whole process was, but I was very curious and always open to any opportunity to escape from my daily life at the time. Even to this day my life amazes me – as it amazes everyone. All I can say is that, the grace of the Lord was already upon me. With this experience, I also learned that what's yours is yours,” Rachel told Fashionomics Africa.
“It was a huge change, because from one day to the next you go from a situation where everyone rejects you to the one where you are at the centre of attention. I really enjoyed being part of a team with whom I shared such a great project,” she goes on to share. Her part in Kinshasa Kids was a stepping-stone that led her to star in Kim Nguyen’s War Witch (French title: Rebelle), in which she plays child soldier Komona, who is believed to be a witch and is forced into an African civil war. “I first had a casting session with the Congolese production team, and then with Kim Nguyen, the director of the film. He booked me right away and I was taken in to prepare for shooting. Shooting the film was already a big change for me because I had received a fee and I was no longer living on the streets or in shelters.”
“During the shooting of War Witch, I was passionate about getting into the skin of the character and doing totally unusual things like shooting Kalashnikov style. The promo was fun, and I liked the fact that I could talk about very important things like access to education for young girls, with leading personalities like Valérie Trierweiller (former First Lady of France) or the Education and Empowerment of Young Girls Department of UNESCO. Thanks to the fame I acquired with the cinema and my book, Survivre pour voir ce jour (Survive to See the Day), I was also able to speak at the World Forum of Francophone Women in Kinshasa,” she proudly tells us.
The real turning point in Rachel’s young life was when an actor uttered the sentence "The Silver Bear for best actress goes to Rachel Mwanza" at the 62nd Berlin Film Festival. “I was far from imagining that this little silver bear would take me to the Oscars, to lead me to publish a best-selling book that has been translated into several languages (Polish, Italian), be received at the Elysée Palace, at UNESCO, by the Prime Minister of the DRC or return to Kinshasa to speak at the World Forum of Francophone Women. I also played in a very good Belgian film, Third Wedding by David Lambert in 2018. Although I am continuing my acting career and now live in Montreal, Canada, the effect on my life that I am most proud of is the fact that I have returned to school. The hope of one day returning back to school allowed me to survive on the streets.”
Rachel has been living in Canada for six years now, and it has allowed her to grow in maturity and autonomy. It has given her some perspective on, “how we in Africa sometimes idealize the life of Westerners that we often imagine to be "wonderful". All is not rosy and despite favourable living conditions, many people are in distressed situations that sometimes seem a little derisory to me. This is not a judgement, but a statement I make to young people who often ask me how I have managed to go on.” She has not forgotten about her Congolese roots – in fact, she still feels a deep attachment to the Congo and to the friends and family she left behind. “Although my daily life is very different, I try to keep this connection alive as much as possible, for example by communicating with my family or eating Congolese food. But in the end, Montreal is where I feel happy and loved.”
While Rachel’s main ambition is to continue her career as an actress, she would love to be the face of African fashion designers and maybe even have her own collection one day. “I've always loved fashion... I'm Congolese after all,” she laughs. “When I won the Silver Bear in Berlin, I realized that I was the very first African actress to receive this distinction. So, I very quickly understood that I represented the whole of Africa in a way. It was only natural that I decided to enhance my African identity through the outfits I wore on TV sets or on the red carpet. This was very important for me because it gave me a lot of self-confidence. At the time of War Witch, I didn't speak English at all, French was quite difficult and often journalists were mainly interested in my life on the streets. Showing myself to the world with African elegance and grace helped me to value my culture, my person and the identity I share with the Africans I represent in the media,” Rachel explains.
“Until now, I have mainly collaborated with young African designers living in the diaspora in France and Canada, such as INYÜ or Zimpala, etc. And let me just say at this point – a big bravo to FASHIONOMICS for this platform that allows us to discover all these talents. My contribution, to help these ambassadors of African fashion, is to wear African outfits as proudly as possible during my public appearances. Whether it's accessories, dresses or just a touch of loincloth on a sportswear outfit, I take the opportunity to be an ambassador as much as I can. I make myself as accessible as possible, to allow young designers to shine.”
What Rachel likes about fashion is its impact on everyday life, not necessarily on the catwalk. It's a way to share African cultures with the rest of the world and maybe have African brands become like Zara or Mango. “I can see myself having a brand like that one day – anything's possible isn't it?” she beams. Naturally, she is most drawn to the extravagant diversity of Congolese fashion. “I love it. Our country is gigantic and culturally very diverse, but unfortunately, the Congolese are more famous in the world for the way they value international designers (Italian, Japanese, French) instead of Congolese designers or African designers in general. Congolese fashion has no limits, like the young people of the Zalayo Sapatu brand, for example, which you mentioned on your platform.”
Timid and soft-spoken, one wouldn’t immediately peg Rachel as someone with so much zest, determination and joy de vivre, but upon speaking to her, one can sense her eagerness, her new-found confidence and the gratitude she feels for the opportunities she’s been given and the many things she has accomplished. She radiates hope and profound strength that is guaranteed to take her places – perhaps back to the African continent to film her own documentary on fashion.
“My plans for 2020 are to survive this Coronavirus, to continue to work on improving my acting and to continue to make films or play in the theatre. I've been asked to do a TV show on fashion on the African continent, which I hope to see the light of day because our fashion designers deserve this visibility. Thanks to my notoriety, I would like to make a documentary film in which I would travel around Africa to meet fashion designers, so that the general public can get to know them better... and above all - buy their creations!” – Fashionomics Africa, for one, couldn’t agree more and we wish Rachel the very best in turning this dream into a reality.