Writers from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have almost no opportunities to get published – if they do, their books appear in Paris or Brussels. In order to change that, EUNIC and the EU Delegation have inaugurated the Prix Makomi, an award for young Congolese writers. Bart Ouvry, Ambassador to the DRC, and Carmen Garcia, Cultural Focal Point at the DRC EU Delegation, present the project and share their vision for future collaboration between EU Delegations and EUNIC.
The “Prix Makomi”, a prize for young Congolese writers, was just awarded for the second time two weeks ago. How did it go? What is the objective of this award?
Bart Ouvry: The audience of the prize ceremony was quite enthusiastic, and there were a lot of new faces around. This is good as it proves we’re reaching different and new audiences. The prize wants to give visibility to young writers and provide them with an opportunity to come forward and get published.
I see that writers talk about the hardship of their lives, the daily struggles. Is there a critical element in the writing? Is literature seen as a tool to change society?
Bart Ouvry:I do not necessarily find that people write in a very critical way. It’s about showing the struggle to live. I am neither a critic nor a Congolese writer, but sometimes I would want them to go beyond describing, and to dream a bit more. To show a bit more about why this is happening, who is playing a role in what happens to people. But maybe that is my perspective as a diplomat, as we always want to find out why something is happening, and who is in charge.
Why do you support young writers and literature in the DRC?
Bart Ouvry: For me there are two reasons. The first reason is linked to our engagement in development cooperation. The state of literature in Congo is difficult today. Few Congolese get published, and if they do it’s outside the country. People read little, and I believe that in order to convince people to read, they should be able to be linked up with their own society. You can’t expect anyone to read about Belgian, French, Swiss or Quebecois society and take something away from it. There’s also a second reason. We want to help people to reflect about their own society and the way they want their society to evolve. And literature plays an important role in better understanding your own social, cultural, and economic conditions. For example, if you have a short story that describes how hard it is for a girl to go to school, this can be a way to know better about current social conditions and ideally to reflect on what needs to be done in order to improve girls’ access to education.
The EU Delegation has chosen to work with EUNIC. Why is EUNIC the right partner?
Carmen Garcia: EUNIC is a natural choice for the EU Delegation as they are EU partners.EU cultural institutes in DRC are very strong, and they have different but complimentary approaches in our context. Also, there are very few other actors in the DRC that could potentially implement such activities, with the means, resources and expertise – actually no one else. There is an added value in what we do to sum up these assets and work together complimentarily.
If I were the devil’s advocate, I could ask why more money is given to European partners when the idea is to support Congolese culture. How is the local art scene involved?
Carmen Garcia: There are several local partners involved, notably the two academic cultural institutions, Institut National des Arts and the Fine Arts Academy. And we are partnering with a network of independent cultural centres all over the country. Yes, the activities are mainly organised by Europeans, but all that is done through listening to the demands and needs of our local partners. There is nothing but a Congolese focus in all our activities and our‘Leitmotiv’ is to work with and for Congolese people.
How does the partnership between the EU Delegation and EUNIC look like in practical terms?
Carmen Garcia: There is a contract that binds both parties, which splits up into four activities in the sectors of film, literature, music, and photography. There are regular meetings with EUNIC and the EU Delegation, which allow to exchange on operational and planning issues. The activities serve also as a pretext to reflect jointly on more structural and comprehensive issues such as how to support culture in the DRC.
After having worked with EUNIC for more than two years now, what advice would you give to the network?
Bart Ouvry: The good thing we’ve done is to supply additional means and a platform to work together for our partners to strengthen activities already taking place and to spread them all over DR Congo. The main improvement we would look for is to strengthen EUNIC’s capacity and agility to implement larger and more ambitious projects. At some stage our partners would need to organise themselves better in structural way. We could do much more in terms of culture in the DRC, but we would do well to find a formula to strengthen the institutional capacities of our partners, both Europeans and Congolese.
Carmen Garcia: I couldn’t agree more with this analysis. What I would add is to ensure the triangle with Member States. The objective would be to further underpin our principle of doing things together, which is the mission of the EU.
How would you describe the results of your engagement in culture?
Bart Ouvry: I personally find that what we’ve achieved here in DR Congo is extremely encouraging. I am impressed by the level of cooperation between EU Member States we’ve reached. Because let’s be frank. Whether it is the Centre Wallonie Bruxelles or the Institut Français or the Goethe-Institut, their mission is to contribute to the visibility and image of the Members Stats which fund them. I have found the degree of willingness to work on common projects promoting Congolese culture very impressive – and through pooling resources and have every cultural institute play their strengths, we’ve achieved much more than if all of them acted individually. That is the essence of our common European project. We want to improve; but the effort and enthusiasm put into this partnership so far has been beyond my wildest dreams.
Carmen: It has been a very enriching experience of having built something together. We have not only implemented activities, but we have created a common space.Creating something from zero and seeing in a short time what we have achieved in those four sectors is a very positive thing to take away from it.
And any advice to EU Delegations?
Bart Ouvry: It’s important to have someone devoted to follow up on the activities, to reflect and connect and create new opportunities. Culture is not just a once off event. All our teams share their enthusiasm and willingness to build up.
To come back to the actually activities and the Prix Makomi, what is coming up next?
Bart Ouvry: When looking at the programme of the literature festival that the Prix Makomiis a part of, there are more than 100 activities spread out over two weeks in libraries,schools, and cultural centres in two cities of the country. The next event thatI will be attending is the actual presentation of the book that we published of all the selected short stories.