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Democratic Republic of Congo: Finding a dress in displacement

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Skye Wheeler is a Humanitarian Press Officer for Oxfam America.

A best friend is getting married 24 hours after I get back from here. “Here” is the beautiful, troubled eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where a recent surge of violence has caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee.

Marceline Habyarimana sews a dress in Kibati IDP camp on the outskirts of Goma, eastern DRC. Photo: Skye Wheeler / Oxfam America

The fact I have nothing to wear for a wedding is not at the front of my mind as I walk around Kibati camp on the outskirts of Goma town where Oxfam is trucking water and building latrines. The camp houses some 60,000 people and more are arriving every day having fled yet more conflict. In every direction are shelters of branches covered in tarpaulin. Inside are beds of leaves. Some families are sleeping out in the open and it seems everyone struggles to find enough food to eat.

But among the hundreds of white tarp-covered shelters is a splash of color. Marceline has set up shop. She cuts a long rectangle out of a piece of eye-wateringly bright material patterned with flowers and then, her foot paddling her sewing machine into action, she calmly turns it into a sleeve. The Congolese have a great passion for intensely colored material, boldly depicting drums or favorite beers, presidents, leopards etc. cut into dramatic dresses.

“(As we ran) I carried the sewing machine on my head and my husband carried the table,” Marceline said. She charges about 1,500 Congolese Francs to make a dress (less than $2). Her clients are from Goma town. “These people don’t have any money,” she says, indicating the sea of shelters around her with her large tailor’s scissors.

I wonder if I could pull off one of her gorgeous dresses. But it’s not for sale; it’s been ordered. Neither are fellow tailor Gaspard’s dresses and shirts. “I don’t have money to buy material,” he said “I have to wait for clients to bring cloth.”

I am not the only one looking for clothes. I meet a young man who was recruited by an armed group. He spent a month and a half carrying a bag of mobile telephones for a commander who frequently threatened to kill him. He escaped shedding the uniform he had been given as he ran, arriving in the camp in underwear. The blue jeans and shirt he now wears were loaned. “But he wants them back now,” he said.

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