10 December 2013

Cheap Cream & Carved Combs

Spoiler alert:  Everyone is getting one of these as their "gift from Africa" this year:

Why, you ask, would I be giving everyone a foreign-made cheap pot of skin cream?

Because I love you.  And I'm at a loss.  Both.

Apparently, this little blue tin is a coveted member of the beauty cult classics club.  And the Hamburg version sold in Kinshasa (not to be confused with the sad petrolatum-laced Mexican version commonly available in the U.S.) is nothing short of a whipped miracle.  Or so they say.

"They" are a people like Claire - who used Nivea on one side of her face and Creme de la Mer on the other side (which I guess costs like a billion dollars) and then had her face scientifically examined.  The cheap cream won.  If that's not proof, then...well...

One time I bought shoes in Barcelona during the government-mandated sales and the saleslady told me that I had to treat my leather shoes like I would treat my skin.  She said that only Nivea would do for a new shoe massage - or daily face moisture - and gave me a half-used blue tin from her bag on the spot.  I was impressed by her accent and generosity. However, upon retelling, it's pretty gross that I unquestioningly accepted a stranger's half-used lotion.

So, when I saw the little tins with their amazing graphic design all over Kinshasa, I started buying them.  They retail for around 1000FC ($1) for the small size.  I asked Mama Vida and though she is a pure shea butter girl herself (come on, she's from Ghana), she said it's common for women in Kinshasa to use Nivea - or the even cheaper knock-off - to keep their skin gleaming.

When I was in Accra, I snagged Mama Vida an old peanut butter jar full of raw shea butter in the gift shop of my hotel.  I also brought her a couple of fancy boutique jars of fair trade stuff for fun. In Accra, shea butter is everywhere - a quality local product valued by locals and tourists alike. That's not something that happens easily in Kinshasa. I truly wish I loved the local coffee and honey, but...it's just not that great.  We buy it anyway and each time I open that sticky top I guiltily think, "This could be so amazing.  Why isn't it?"

Few of those gorgeous crafts and products you might buy at your local Ten Thousand Villages or Oxfam come from Congo. (But, some do!)  If we want to buy something fairly inexpensive and local, we head to the "Thieve's Market" to haggle for a random assortment of bottle openers, Belgian coins, and gourd shakers.  Sometimes, we try to talk a seller down on one of the expensive nkisi statues.  Like this one from the Met's collection:

No luck so far.  They want hundreds of dollars are are not willing to budge for these precious (and rumored to be fake) objects.  I usually buy kuba cloth (local, but difficult to give for several holidays in a row) or pagne (made in China) as gifts.

Authentically African? Think Again.

Alternatively, I ask Mama Vida to whip up a batch of pili pili and dole out the deliciousness in small jars I pray will not leak in my luggage.

Don't get me wrong - it is possible to find locally made products in Kinshasa.  It just takes some dedication, luck, connections, money, time and mileage.  There is a small store, Artisanat et Développement (or "the Mennonite store"), with beautiful furniture and other objects.  Occasional pop-up markets like the Fête de Noël last weekend at Symphonie des Arts, offer handmade ornaments made by Atelier Elikya and wenge wood creche scenes. When you can catch it open, College Boboto has some amazing pieces. There are generic paintings and carved wood Tintin figurines on the side of the road, but if you know where to go and who to ask, you can score unique art from Kinshasa artists such as Aicha.

Aicha and the painting that now hangs in our house.

Académie de Beaux Arts de Kinshasa is an incredible hub of art - from sign painting to sculpture.

There are talented artists everywhere. They just don't have the luxury of producing art.

I got really excited the other day when I saw a man on the side of the road selling beautiful baskets woven out of colorful recycled objects.  When I stopped to ask him about the price, he quoted me around $20 for two.  When I began to reach for my wallet, he upped the price to $40 and started reaching into the car, yelling, "Donne! Donne! Mes enfants!"  We drove away.  I felt sick.  The starving artist in his truest form.

I asked my friend Dominique about this situation.  I wanted to know if I was just being a lazy, assumptive expat or if there really isn't an easy way to support local artists in Kinshasa.  She began by saying that when she was a child (and she's really not old) the roadside open-air market called  Delvaux, which now sells furniture, was filled with fine arts.

Delvaux now.

There were paintings, carvings, and exquisitely made furniture.  Families were proud to have these products in their homes.  "It was true art, generated from the heart of the artist" she says.  Now, most crafts are produced as quickly as possible to meet the needs of the few tourists who find themselves in Kinshasa.

"Even combing your hair used to be an act of art," Dominique told me.  The combs were carved from wood and the texture made quick work of knots.  Today, there are few wooden combs.  Mass produced plastic imports are what most people use these days to tame their hair, all the while knowing that a generation ago, their mothers used first-rate products made locally with care.

Dominique says that it comes down to food.  An artist simply cannot feed his or her family.  The government does not place value on - and therefore subsidize - art.  A cheap import is always more affordable to the general population.  Most artists are selling soap or bananas at the market, she says, because this is where they can be guaranteed the francs they need to survive.

There are, of course, the stubborn and brave who persist and create despite it all.  Kinshasa isn't about haughty artisanship, it's about rough-edged DIY shit that would make a Seattle punk artist gape in awe. That scene is for a whole different post.

Despite the creative outliers, your future Christmas present will still be that ubiquitous blue tin, which might be a more authentic representation of present-day Congo than the paintings, knick-knacks, and jewelry you imagine. Nivea Creme instead of delicate hair combs. Imported goods over locally crafted products.  It's globalization's answer to survival.


  1. I just wanted to comment and say how much I really love this site. It's the only thing I've ever clicked through on CoJ that I've actually returned to, several times a week now. I read this post and it's obviously for your friends who read your site (and are getting Nivea for christmas) and it struck me that I hadn't commented to tell you how much I enjoy it. Anyway, you have at least one devoted reader in Australia who wants to read your upcoming post on the beaux arts scene in Kinshasa (and who incidentally was struck by how much better quality the Nivea is here than when I was living in LA with itchy skin from the horrible air pollution, so it must be the same stuff).

  2. I second Alicia's comment. Truly love to be a reader here. :)

  3. Wow, Alicia and Michelle - your kind words made my/our day. Thank you so much for reading and taking time to comment. Alicia - I keep thinking about that future gritty beaux arts scene post...stay tuned!

  4. I'm also loving your blog, and I discovered it through Cup of Jo as well! The Nivea makes me laugh - it's ubiquitous in Kenyan shops too. And heck, it may go over better than the beautiful local crafts you had in mind. I brought home many a wood carving from Kilwa (Katanga Province, DRC) when I lived there, and I can't say they were as appreciated as I'd hoped they would be... Like you say - globalization's answer to survival...

  5. Hello Jill and Sarah!

    I'm another reader who found you through Cup of Jo - although I am a much more dedicated reader of your blog than hers! I've also never commented, and thought now would be as good a time as any to chime in and give my thanks as well. I'm a Master's student working on issues related to Congolese migrants, and I love hearing about Kinshasa and your homes there.

    You two have such gift, and I love coming to this space. My absolute favourite post (and I think I've read all of them now!) has been your interview with Mama Youyou and Tchic - their own voices come through so clearly. Keep on keeping on!

    1. Yay! Glad you enjoyed that one. I'll have to get those two together again sometime soon for a Part II. Discussion topic suggestions welcome!

  6. Nivea makes the best creams, I also do a couple skin care review at my site about how to tighten skin.


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