Spotlight on Congolese Women: Portrait of the Young Actress, Author & Activist Rachel Mwanza

From the streets of Kinshasa to the red carpets of Paris, Quebec, Berlin and New York, the young star, Rachel Mwanza, is the modern Cinderella of DRC. She escaped the streets of Kinshasa, where she had been living for 4 years, when the Canadian director and screenwriter Kim Nguyen recognised her talent and cast her for the lead role in his award winning movie War Witch (Rebelle).
Her outstanding performance as Komona, a young girl kidnapped by rebels and turned into a child soldier, has won her several awards including a Silver bear in Berlin last year. Despite all, she has used her fame to speak about the conditions of the “shegés” (street children) in Kinshasa. On the sets of the various TV shows she is invited to, she conquers people’s hearts with her genuine character, her bubbly personality, her tenacity and her message of hope. Today Rachel has told her story in her autobiography Survivre pour voir ce jour (translation: Surviving to see this day) co-written with Dedy Mbepongo Bilamba and is actively fighting for the children of the streets in DRC.

The young and brilliant Rachel Mwanza with her award for performance as a leading role at the Canadian Screen Awards

The young and brilliant Rachel Mwanza at the Canadian Screen Awards

Rachel was born in the Kasaï province of DRC and had a happy childhood with her parents and her five siblings. She mentions in her biography, Survivre pour voir ce jour, that her life was pleasant and consisted of family, school, friends, church and walks in the countryside. When her father remarried, she along with her mum, and siblings  were forced to move to Kinshasa with the grandmother.

The “ndoki” 

In an interview with “28 minutes” on French arts channel, ARTE, Rachel explained how she was accused of witchcraft and kicked out of the family house. They were very poor in Kinshasa and sometimes did not have enough to eat. Rachel’s mum sent Rachel to a friend’s house to get some food and she spent the night over. That night, Rachel spoke in her sleep  and the next morning the mother’s friend took her to get exorcised –  a traumatising experience for the young girl. She talks about the pastors from local churches manipulating her mother into thinking she was a “ndoki”, a witch responsible for all the mischances, and about her grandmother who told everyone she was a witch. She was blamed for all misfortunes, diseases and poverty in the family. As a young teenager, Rachel ended up on the streets of Kinshasa.

Rachel in Kinshasa Kids, her first acting experience

Rachel in Kinshasa Kids, her first acting experience

The “shegé

To survive as a “shegé” (children of the streets) Rachel did small jobs such as washing clothes, cleaning up and even selling illegal substances. In the street this young teenager was exposed to hunger, diseases, pain, violence and rape. She was a shegé for 4 years. Rachel had her first acting experience in Kinshasa Kids while she was still a street kid. She played one of the musicians and her performance impressed the crew members and the producer of the movie who promised her that there would be a Canadian movie crew coming to Kinshasa and that she could get a role. When Kim Nguyen, the script writer and producer of War Witch, started his casting in Kinshasa, Rachel’s name comes up. Rachel explained that she was also on the look out for the Canadian movie she had heard would be coming to town.

Rachel in her outstanding performance as Komona in War Witch

Rachel in her outstanding performance as Komona in War Witch

Kim said that she had performed the best at the casting, which landed her the leading role as Komona. The protagonist, Komona, is a young pregnant teenager telling her story to her unborn child of how as a child soldier she survived because she was believed to be a witch who could foresee the enemies coming. Rachel saw a lot of herself in that character. Both her and Komona are the image of human resilience. She never read the script, as she was not able to, Kim gave her (and the other amateur actors) much space for improvisation and she delivered.

The star

Kim Nguyen, the producer, has stated that what makes the difference in War Witch is Rachel. Her performance is not only realistic, her energy and her charisma gave the dimension to the movie that made it an award winning movie. He referred to her as a big star eager to take her first step. “Without Rachel they wouldn’t have been a movie” he said.

Rachel in Berlin after she received a Silver Bear for best actress with Kim Nguyen

Rachel in Berlin after she received a Silver Bear for best actress with Kim Nguyen

Her brilliant performance has won her:

  • The Canadian screen award 2013 for  performance by a leading role
  • The Silver Bear for best actress 2013
  • Best Actress at the Tribeca Film Festival 2013
  • Best Actress at the Vancouver Film Critics Circles 2013
  • Trophée Francophone de l’ interpretation feminine (translation: Francophone Award for a performance by a female actress)
  • and a special invitation to the Oscar 2013.

After the shooting of the movie, Rachel stayed with Kim who ensured she was enrolled into a school so she could learn how to read and write. While in Canada she met  Dedy Mbepongo Bilamba, also originally from DRC who had invited her to a event organised by the Congolese diaspora. Rachel and Dedy collaborated in the writing of an autobiography telling the incredible story of Rachel : Survivre pour voir ce jour (translation: Surviving to see this day).

“I do not want your pity, this is a book about hope”

Since the publication of the book, Rachel has appeared in several famous Francophone TV Show, mainly in Canada and France. Her touching story has moved the readers. When she introduces her book on set she is genuine in the telling of her story. She repeated to the different show hosts that she did not want pity, her book was about hope.

“As long as the heart beats, a person’s life can change.”

Cover of Rachel's autobiography, co-written with Dedy Bilamba

Rachele’s autobiography, co-written by Dedy Bilamba

The activist

Rachel has decided not to content herself with the fame from her movie and her book. The talented young lady  has not forgotten the other children of the streets and has decided to take action. After a 6-months wait for the accord of the DRC embassy in France, and with the support of the French First Lady and the Minister of Francophonie, Yamina Banguigui, Rachel became a Goodwill Ambassador of UNESCO. She is now the spokesperson of the children of the streets. She has founded her own organisation, The Rachel Mwanza FoundationShe has committed herself with the help of the UN and some local catholic churches to the development of education and employment through professional trainings and job creation. Her initiative targets primarily children in the streets. According to the organisation’s page, 50 children from disadvantaged backgrounds will receive professional training to assist them with getting jobs.

Rachel on France 2 talking about her book and her organisation

Rachel on France 2 talking about her experience, her book and her organisation

Recently she joined Yamina Banguigui at the occasion of the International Summit for Francophone Women in Kinshasa. She met with the Prime Minister of DRC to discuss the condition of the shegés in DRC. She asked the government to find a solution to the problem of children who, accused of witchcraft, end up on the streets.