A close up of a map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, focusing on the regions of Goma, Kigali (in bold), Lubutu and Bukoba. The word RWANDA can be partially seen.

Education, hope and a safe space for Goma’s children

At the time of writing, if you put ‘Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo’ into Google, the news results are bleak: ‘Shooting leaves two dead and six injured’, ‘volcano displaced lament bad camp conditions’, ‘Goma rallies to demand end to killing of journalists’. It almost tells you everything you need to know about this city. Almost. It is one of the poorest places on the planet, a region scarred by political instability, war, conflict, natural disasters and disease. 600,000 people call Goma their home, a significant proportion of whom are children.

As you might expect in such conditions, education of any kind is hard to come by, severely limiting the life opportunities for the young people of Goma. Computer literacy is practically zero, as are the kind of vocational skills that spark entrepreneurship and grow ambition. This and an invitation to see for themselves led brothers Sam and Jack Powers to CAMME RDC, a grassroots organisation in Goma that exists to “To help the youth of Congo live a future free of exploitation, maximize their potential, and help themselves.” Sam takes up the story:

“Our late mother was a well-known photography dealer in New York and in her last days she wanted to give back to the community. She began inviting some students I was working with to the gallery she ran to experience first-hand some of what she was able to put on the walls and show to the world. After her passing, Jack and I began to think of how we could use our expertise in youth development to take a little bit of what our mother had grown and bring it to the wider world.”

“I was studying International Relations and reached out to some organisations in Iraq, Jordan and Africa. An organisation in the Congo responded and invited us over for a ten-day workshop. Everyone loved it and we had a great time, but when we got back to the US, we decided that just leading a ten-day workshop was relatively unsustainable and while the feedback was fantastic, we didn’t just want to pop in, do something and then pack away. So, we started a non-profit organisation, got registered in the state of New York and were able to fundraise enough to build our first school with our partner in Goma.”

A man stands points at a projector screen, as he teaches a class of young people.
The youngsters who participate in the Lens on Life project learn in three-month cycles, starting with theory and the basics, before moving on to practical lessons and assignments.

And so, Sam and Jack’s Lens on Life Project was born, partnering with CAMME RDC and in-country teachers to provide photography and computer literacy education in a region where few had even touched a camera or computer. “There’s such a high demand for this kind of skillset – most kids have to drop out of school because they can’t afford it,” explains Sam. “Because we’re able to make it free, there’s usually a line out the door.” However, places are limited and the admissions procedure is similar to those at a college or university, the only difference being that it’s less focused on any current level of educational attainment and more on the background, drive and determination of the applicant. And it’s not just a few days of upskilling – these students learn in three-month cycles, beginning from literally nothing. “From nothing to something,” says Sam. “They are given a point and shoot camera, and they start playing around with the idea of what it’s like to be a photographer. What it’s like to see the world through a lens.”

The first part of the curriculum is theoretical, less about the technology and more about actually composing a shot, approaching people in the street to take their picture (“which is a little tougher in a place like Goma than, say, New York City”). The students are given an opportunity to think about career development, to understand the role of the photographer in the world and what that means for their future should they continue. “The second part is what we’ve been doing with Canon’s Young People Programme. The students get a DSLR camera and learn the more intimate nuances of how to operate it. They also learn things like Photoshop and start working on putting together a portfolio. They get out in the field and shoot and have their work critiqued.” Students are expected to give a solid rationale for each piece of work and their project as a whole. For example, one student was interested in the way the elderly in the region continue to work to feed themselves in the absence of any kind of state support and stood before the review board of teachers, partners and the brothers themselves, to “defend their portfolio”.

Left: A head and shoulders portrait of Lens on Life founder, Sam Powers. Right: A quote that reads. “Suddenly, you have a camera and someone teaching you. You have a skillset that you can use. And then you start making money from it. It changes someone’s life.”

Of course, none of this is particularly ground-breaking when viewed from a western perspective, but Sam cannot stress enough that this is nothing like the kind of school setting with which most readers will be familiar. “The joblessness and lack of resources in Goma and in the Congo really stuck with me. There is such an engineered feeling of hopelessness – students having to stop their education simply because they didn’t have enough money to continue,” he explains. “The level of attention we received in our first class was so different. These students were really participating in the class because they felt that this could be a way out of what they’re dealing with.” At this stage, a few years down the line, Sam and Jack are seeing the impact of the programme and regularly receive messages saying ‘I now have a business’ or ‘I got hired by the local UN agency that takes photos’. “Look at it this way,” says Sam. “You’re 16 to 25 years old, you dropped out of school when you were ten because your parents couldn’t afford to get you to the next stage. Or your parents are dead. Or you’ve fled conflict. Suddenly, you have a camera and someone teaching you. You have a skillset that you can use. And then you start making money from it. It changes someone’s life.”

Vocational skills, computer literacy and work experience are the key parts of their educational programme in Goma (Lens on Life and CAMME RDC are now able to place students on internships with NGOs such as AVSI Foundation and the Eastern Congo Initiative), but Sam is also proud of the “safe space” that the teachers and partners have created. “Every time I go back, I can observe how important the classroom is. It’s become a nucleus in the community for discussing issues through photography. Domestic violence, as an example. Girls feel that the classroom is in essence a safe space in which they can bring images that they think draw attention to the issue to their male counterparts.” It’s a place where open discussion on the myriad of issues facing the students can take place. “Hunger, disease, sanitation, domestic violence, war, conflict, volcanoes, earthquakes – all of these things. Not everywhere can people get in a room at a young age and feel safe to raise these issues. What we’ve created with our partner is a way to do that.”

Canon’s Young People Programme in Goma kicked off on 16th August and Sam discusses this partnership, working in the Congo and the programme itself in a round table discussion during the United Nations Global Week to #Act4SDGs.

Written by Adam Pensotti