Democratic Republic of Congo

Forced to Flee Violence, Potter Takes Refuge in Clay

More than 1,100 people have registered as displaced in Kayna since early 2022. Many arrive with nothing, but the area’s sandy clay soil gives them the opportunity to build a new life.

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Forced to Flee Violence, Potter Takes Refuge in Clay

Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC

Foibe Kahindo Mbeke mixes clay to make a pitcher in Kayna, Lubero territory.

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KAYNA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Foibe Kahindo Mbeke sits on a wooden plank perched on two large stones outside a cluttered wooden building, which relies on several props to remain upright. Surrounded by discarded window frames, pieces of wood and rubble, set against an expanse of overgrown green land, her attention is fixed on her latest clay creation — an oversized jug for storing water, which she hopes to sell.

Each day, the mother of four walks a few steps from her home in the town of Kayna to her makeshift studio to mold functional household items to sell. It’s a new way of life for Mbeke, who arrived in Kayna in April 2022 with nothing but a few personal belongings and a determination to return to the house left to her by her aunt and uncle. The house, where she spent much of her childhood, was a safe place, away from the violence of her previous home in Idou, a village in the eastern Ituri province. She was forced to flee Idou, traveling 389 kilometers (242 miles) by truck to reach Kayna, in Lubero territory.

With nothing but a roof over her head, she asked her neighbor if she could borrow his cooking utensils. He instead showed her how to make her own with clay, an important skill that got her back on her feet in more ways than one.

“It took me only two days to learn the craft,” Mbeke says. “Since then, I’ve been working as a pottery-maker, and I sell ceramic objects. I like this job because the clay doesn’t cost me a thing — you just need to put some effort into it.” Every day Mbeke collects clay from a nearby valley; the area is rich in sandy clay soil.

Mbeke is one of more than 1,100 people who have registered as a displaced person in Kayna since early 2022. This figure is nowhere near the total number of internally displaced people who have fled insecure zones in eastern parts of the country. With humanitarian aid in short supply, many of the displaced people who now live in Lubero territory are struggling to get by. Mbeke, however, is able to support herself thanks to pottery, a skill that is now being encouraged by local artisans.

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Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC

Foibe Kahindo Mbeke sculpts a ceramic pitcher. Pottery is rooted in local tradition in Lubero territory and is also a source of income for some residents.

Dominique Hyde, head of external relations at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, reports a spike in violence in Ituri province since April 2022. Around 120 armed groups have forced more than 160,000 people, including Mbeke, to flee the mineral-rich province. Across the central African country, there are at least 5.6 million displaced people, the largest number of any African country, Hyde said in an interview published on U.N. News in August, after returning from a visit there.

Kayna’s mayor, Clovis Katembo Kanyaghuru, says the government has provided help for displaced people, with substantial aid from national and international organizations such as UNHCR. But as Hyde pointed out, only a fraction of the $225 million needed to respond to this crisis had been raised since the start of 2022.

In Lubero territory, where aid is in short supply, traditional pottery has become a vital source of income for those arriving in the area.

“Anyone who puts their heart into pottery can make a living out of it,” says Mbeke’s neighbor, Pascal Kasereka Vinahera, a potter for 20 years, whose sales support his four children and wife.

Jean Nguba Mulinda, who oversees Kayna’s culture and arts department, says pottery is a valued skill in the town, but only 6% of Kayna’s almost 55,000 inhabitants practice this ancient art. He wants to change that.

“I value this art form that allows us to perpetuate the work of our ancestors, so I encourage the work of pottery-makers by exempting them from paying the annual $10 tax,” Mulinda says, referring to income tax, which varies depending on profession.

Mbeke sculpts jars, jugs, tobacco pipes and water troughs, which she sells for between 500 and 20,000 Congolese francs (25 cents and $10). Her customers, she says, are generally collectors, priests, farmers and school principals. But the war-displaced woman hopes that peace will be restored so she can go back to the life she had in Idou.

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Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC

Foibe Kahindo Mbeke works outside her makeshift workshop, near the home she inherited from her aunt and uncle in Kayna.

“I’ve spent two years in Idou, where I used to sell clothes and shoes,” Mbeke says. “Life was good there. But I was forced to leave this area because of multiple deadly attacks on civilians. I left everything behind to save my life.”

Those arriving in Kayna are coming from areas occupied by M23. Formed in 2012 and largely made up of Congolese Tutsis, the armed group has had a resurgence recently, gaining ground in eastern DRC.

“These people have very little,” Kanyaghuru says of the displaced people arriving in his town. “We encourage local residents to facilitate their integration into the community and help them with things like food.” Those arriving are also connected with host families and job opportunities, says Alphonse Kahembe, vice president of the Internally Displaced Persons Committee in Kayna, responsible for registering displaced people who arrive in the town.

Kanyaghuru says they received financial assistance for displaced people and host families from the International Committee of the Red Cross at the end of 2022.

For Mbeke, who says she has received no aid since arriving in Kayna, her solitary existence is a far cry from her earlier life with her husband and four children in the northeastern town of Kasindi, before violence separated them and she left for Idou. She hasn’t seen her husband since. Her grown children have their own families. She has grandchildren, but she doesn’t like to talk about her family.

Mbeke has found a peaceful enclave — for now. But she lives in limbo, always on her guard, ready to abandon yet another life she has built for herself, for her own safety.

Merveille Kavira Luneghe is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kirumba, Democratic Republic of Congo.


Emeline Berg, GPJ, translated this story from French.