When photographer Léonard Pongo was growing up, the Democratic Republic of Congo was both a fascination and mystery. Born to a Congolese father and Belgian mother, Pongo was raised in Belgium and had not been to the DRC until 2011, when he went to cover the highly anticipated presidential election.
Despite growing up reading news about the country, he was startled by how different the DRC was from his expectations. “I felt very lost, lacking references,” he says. “It became quite clear to me that the daily life in the country was pretty remote to the events I was covering.”
Although Pongo had researched on religious worship in the DRC, he was still stunned on his first visit by its prevalence and frequency: in the DRC more than 70 percent of its 77 million inhabitants attend religious service weekly, and of those 90 percent follow some form of Christianity.
A few of Pongo’s family members worshipped in a revivalist church, which he found particularly fascinating. Revivalism is a Christian movement that has proliferated in the DRC since the 1980s. The practices of these independent churches fuse Protestant doctrine with rituals based on an indigenous blend of superstition such as witchcraft, which perpetuates the belief that people can be possessed by malevolent spirits.
At a typical congregation, a pastor is inclined to carry out exorcisms by shouting with passion at his congregants in order to cast demons out from their bodies. It’s not uncommon for the extraordinary performance—sometimes lasting five hours in extreme heat—to end with exhausted believers rolling uncontrollably on the floor. A basket will be passed around to collect money.
These self-proclaimed pastors, often young and charismatic men, indeed have accumulated immense influence in the DRC, and they did so by claiming to possess special gifts endowed by God. Some can speak in tongue, claiming prophetic insights into the future. Others maintain the ability to cure diseases by the mere laying-on of their hands.
Pongo recounts the story of his cousin bringing him to one of these pastors, who swiftly granted permission to photograph the service. The pastor moved on to discuss “business” with Pongo’s cousin, who was campaigning to become a local politician at the time. “The pastor explained how much power he had, and how easily it would be for him to explain to his followers that to vote for [my cousin] was to follow God’s will,” Pongo says. “After some negotiation, the deal was set: 500 votes for $500.”
“In the beginning, I was extremely angry to see the amount of power [the pastors] have,” Pongo says. But the longer he spent photographing the uncanny rites of this religion, the more he came to empathize with the worshippers. “[The churches] are where people can go to unleash the pressure of a pretty tough life,” Pongo says. “Their faith was real.”
Besides a ray of hope and comfort, these churches also offer public services which in many areas are still lacking in post-war Congo. In primary education alone, more than 70 percent of the students go to schools funded by the government but administered by religious institutions. Pongo says that although the churches he experienced may appear exploitative and corrupt, without them people can be left with no fundamental services, which inspired him to name this body of work “The Necessary Evil.”
The project was only the beginning of Pongo’s long-term foray into capturing what life is like in the DRC. To achieve this, he plans to focus more on documenting topics central to the Congolese experiences.
“The press tends to have one see Congo as a mere geopolitical catastrophe and a country in crisis,” he says. “The crises and wars are true, but what I've come to understand is that what defines the Congolese people is not just those wars. People have lives, identities, dreams, ambitions.”
To fully submerge into the culture, he started learning Lingala, the langua franca of the DRC. He has also teamed up with local TV crews in various region.
“If I can cover all the small events that actually matter to the locals, even though they are absolutely irrelevant internationally,” he says, “my bet is that the combination of all these little events eventually have more to say about what life means in the DRC.”
Léonard Pongo is a photographer based between Belgium and the DRC. You can see more of his work on his website.