Born in Madrid in 1987, I did all my studies at the French Lyceum of Madrid and got my degree in Journalism at the San Pablo Ceu University. Graduated in the MA Photojournalism and Documentary photography at the London College of Communication. As a journalist I always try to approach issues from different perspectives and provide a truthful insight. I´m currently based in Madrid working as a freelance for local agencies. My stories are born out of curiosity and a never ending pursue of understanding human being. I want to raise questions and show the world we live in, its virtues and mistakes.
On March 24th, Dennis Sassou Nguesso won the presidential election in the Republic of Congo, making him one the oldest rulers in the continent after winning a referendum last September that changed the constitution, allowing candidates aged over 70 and scrapping the two-term limit. But this small Central African country has a cultural movement that transcends politics and aims to become a national symbol.
Yves François Ngatsongo, also known locally by the nickname Yves Saint Laurent, after the world famous fashion designer, is president of “France Libre”, the first association of Sapeur in the Republic of Congo. “La Sape” (Societé des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes) was born during the colonial years.
What started as a resistance movement toward French ruling quickly became one of Brazzaville´s most characteristic symbols, to the point that Irish beer Guinness used them in one of their commercials as a symbol of authenticity. Taxi drivers, teachers or artisans spend their little wages in expensive clothes from Europe to be part of these African dandies.
Rosine Assemekang never understood the Western ideal of beauty. For this Congolese woman, those tall, thin girls’ did not represent African women.
“Our women have curves, ample bottoms. African men like la femme forte (a strong woman),” she said.
While Europe is struggling against anorexia - France, following the steps of Israel in 2013, recently passed a law banning excessively thin fashion models, exposing modelling agents and fashion houses that hire them to possible fines and even jail - Africa praises curvy women. Seven years ago Rosine started a beauty pageant with the idea of showing how these "femmes fortes" were completely capable of modelling and catwalking. The Miss Mama Kilo pageant was born. Seven years later it's become one of Brazzaville's most exclusive events. Tickets ranged from 80 to 160 Euros for the ceremony held at the Continental Palace, one of Brazzaville's best hotels, where this year 18 contestants ranging from 100 to 170 kg represented five countries - Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Benin and Central African Republic - participated in the contest. Shopkeepers, hairdressers, teachers, cooks and even a comedian walked down the runway and stood for their ideals towards beauty.
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There is a saying among Venezuelans: “Venezuela’s main exports are petrol and beautiful women.” Known primarily for its natural wonders, its ex-president Hugo Chavez and its crime rates, Venezuela is a country where beauty is taken to the next level. Miss Venezuela transcends any other national beauty contest and over the decades it has become a trademark for the country, transforming a TV show into a national pride seen by millions of people.
Families around the country gather in front of the screen to watch the show. In a place where people have found in satellite TV a way to avoid state-controlled media, this beauty pageants is the most seen show of the year with an audience’s share never below 60%. The day after the pageant, the new ‘queen’ is all over the newspapers, and the results creates a debate worthy of a presidential campaign. Venezuelans elect their queen, which symbolizes more than a woman. She becomes an icon, a symbol of beauty and nationhood.
For many women, modeling offers a chance to leave one of most dangerous countries in the world - where unemployment and a strict currency control make it difficult to look for opportunities abroad. According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, 24.980 people were killed in 2014 – ex-Miss Venezuela Monica Spear was among those victims. With constant class tension and when and bloody confrontation is part of daily life, the election of a Venezuelan “goddess” is a rare source of common ground in the society.
"I've been modeling since I was 5," said Josbey Arcia. "I believe this industry pushes you to your limits. You need to have personality. Being a model is fantastic, being on a catwalk while people look at you, knowing that some girls hope to be you some day. It's incredible."
Venezuela holds the record for the most “Miss Universe” titles in the world (7) and is Guinness World Record holder for winning two years in a row (2008, 2009). Gabriela Isler, Miss Venezuela 2013 and current Miss Universe, will pass the crown next January 25th in Miami.
Migbelis Lynette, a 19-year-old from Cabimas will represent Venezuela in the most important beauty pageant of the year. However, Venezuelans do not choose the most natural girl. The country is a paradise for plastic surgery in terms of price and quality. 35,000 to 40,000 breast enlargements take place every year, and Miss Venezuela contestants are no exception.
Advertisements can be found everywhere, acting as a reminder that you can always look better. Women are aware of the influence of commercial media, but that does not diminish a perpetual competition of the prettiest. The definition of beauty gets lost between scalpel and silicone, and perfection is the ultimate goal.
These beauty queens have set a standard that many young girls hope to achieve one day. Modeling school becomes another extracurricular activity, just like ballet or theatre, making experience crucial to success in the business.
Five-year-old girls learn how to walk with heeled shoes and learn basic modeling movements and photo-shoot skills, so that when they reach fifteen they are ready for the big catwalks.
After more than a decade of violence and political unrest, Ivory Coast is experiencing important investments from foreign nations in an attempt to encourage economic growth in the country. But while government projects will allegedly benefit the population, some people suffer from evictions that are pushing many Ivoirians from their homes to make room for high-visibility infrastructure projects.
In October, the country announced a $114 million loan from the Export-Import Bank of China at two-percent interest over 20 years to finance a six-lane motorway construction linking Abidjan to the historical city of Grand-Bassam, 30 km to the east.
Gonzagueville belongs to the Port Bouet commune, in the outskirts of the capital. All of the buildings in the suburb of Abidjan have been demolished to make way for the construction of the Abidjan-Grand Bassam motorway.
According to witnesses, police officers arrived early in the morning in the southern coastal suburb of Gonzagueville and burned down several tents, threatening residents and telling them to leave the premises immediately. “Some of us were woken up at 5 A.M,” they say, “and told we had one hour to leave.”
Residents say the government didn't set an official date for them to leave by. They proposed to start next summer to avoid disrupting the school year, but the government refused.
Several miles of houses in Gonzagueville, among other areas, were taken down as part of a $114 million project aimed at developing the tourist sector along Ivory Coast's south coast and help ease congestion in the capital Abidjan.
The Ivoirian government has planned to pay $6.5 million in compensations to relocate the people living in these areas. However many say they haven’t received the money they were promised and are living among the debris of what used to be their homes.
Isaac is a traditional healer. He has no place to go and is staying with a friend. He hasn't been able to work ever since he was evicted due to the lack of space at his friend’s place.
Another resident evicted, Viviane is moving back to her home country, Ghana. She says she hasn't received any compensation. “And even if I did, it would not be enough to buy a new home.”
People claim that residents living in shanties and tents across the coastline in Gonzagueville are constantly threatened by local authorities to leave the area. Those lucky enough move in with friends, but most of those displaced by the demolitions have no place to go and are forgotten by local authorities.
Assouan Carine says that she and her mother were living in a tent with six more families until local authorities burned it down.
Before being evicted, residents remove literally everything from their homes, including the roof, to use it in their future houses. However, several families have no place to go and are surviving among debris in unhealthy environments. Improvised camps can be found across the coastline in Gonzagueville, often hosting multiple families, who struggle to have access to the most basic needs, like clean water.
Most children can't go back to school and have to stay home in the rubble of their former township with their families and help search for steel and re-sellable metal in abandoned houses.
Hotels, churches and gas stations were also taken down. Some crosses are set by residents in the sand across the coastline to mark the former emplacement of churches.
Many other projects are being undertaken by the government – including roads, housing and infrastructure upgrades - to boost the already high production of rubber and cocoa. Ivory Coast is the largest economy in the West African Economic and Monetary Union, and its economic capital Abidjan is known as Western Africa's Paris.
Prayer houses have become a public health concern for the Congolese Government. The misconception many Congolese have about physical and mental illness makes them avoid hospitals and go to their nearest prayer house.
The “Galilaya” Church has many of these prayer houses across the Congo. It belongs to the 8th Community of the Pentecostal Churches of Central Africa (8th CEPAC) and is one of the many movements that shape the religious landscape in North Kivu´s capital, Goma, a city with 1 million inhabitants in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In a nation that has witnessed so much horror and violence many turn to religion in the search for answers and solutions.
The DRC has a strong Christian tradition born out of colonialism. It is estimated that around 90% of the 70 million inhabitants are of Christian faith. However religious schisms have created an increasing number of religious movements within Christianity. Pentecostalism is one of these movements. This renewal movement within Christianity is based on four fundamental beliefs: Salvation, Baptism with the Holy Spirit, divine healing and the Second Coming of Christ. It is the notion of divine healing that has given the movement such strength in a region punished by war and misery for the last 20 years. Pastors like Moise Munyuabumba, head of the Galilaya Church, promise divine healing to every Congolese who embraces the faith. The pastor has apparently cured patients of sterility, mental traumas, sexual impotence, and even cancer, along with other ailments. The church comes together a few times a week in the prayer house to seek salvation. The prayer houses are people’s homes that have been turned into churches. The healing sessions are intense. The faithful usually go into a trance-like state and sometimes end up having prophecies or speak in tongues.
The misconception many Congolese have about modern medicine makes them avoid hospitals and go to their nearest prayer house. This misconception stems from the idea of witchcraft and old beliefs in which the source of evil emanates from sorcery or spells. Easy treatable diseases can become lethal because of late diagnosis. People with a burn would rather go to a prayer house than a hospital. Those who go to hospitals might not find the answers they were looking for and will try their luck with people like Pastor Moise Munyuabumba. Desperation and fear make many Congolese seek spiritual shelter in “Galilaya” where their physical and mental traumas can be healed through praying. In the third largest country in Africa where life expectancy is 48, modern medicine has to combat Churches like “Galilaya” who promise divine healing. The DRC also has the lowest rank in the Human Development Report along with Niger.
Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo
After experiencing the deadliest war since World War 2, healthcare in the Democratic Republic of Congo is in disarray and millions of people are relying on shamans and spiritual healers to treat their physical and psychological disorders. The absence of infrastructure and health care facilities, combined with a lack of faith in western-style medical treatment, means that most patients go to local shamans or radical Christian ‘houses of prayer’ instead of hospitals. Many of these ‘traditional’ health practitioners believe that mental and physical disorders are the result of witchcraft or demonic possession, and thus condone the use of highly unorthodox methods to ‘extract’ the illness or 'demon'. In the DRC, western-style health institutions are regarded only as a last-ditch solution. This attitude has only exacerbated the endemic and led to many deaths from treatable diseases.
Fulizioni from Paris surrounded by supporters.
Ahmed Yalla is a wealthy business man that a few years ago decided to promote “La Sape”. Known as “crocodile man” and widely acclaimed as President of all sapeurs, he organised this international festival.
Whereas “Sape” from Republic of Congo has a more classic style, DRC is more extravagant.
“L´Hotel de Préfecture” in Brazzaville became the scenario for this international gathering where Sapeurs from different countries walked the red carpet.
Yves François Ngatsongo and “La France Libre” did not miss the opportunity to witness this unique event.
Republic of Congo and DRC have a never ending battle on where “La Sape” was invented. Despite past tensions, this international festival aimed to put aside those differences and bring the two countries closer.
On March 8th, sapeurs from different countries took part in a festival to help promote women sapeurs as part of the International Women´s Day.
Yves François Ngatsongo at Maya Maya international Aeroport waiting for the arrival of Paris diaspora.
Sapeurs from France, DRC and Ivory Coast came to Brazzaville to be part of the festival that took place on the International Women´s Day.
Master Kif has been a tailor for more than 20 years. He runs a small shop in Brazzaville.
As the world capital of “La Sape”, Brazzaville has dozens of clothing stores like “Paris luxe” where almost any imported item can be found.
He lives in the outskirts of Brazzaville selling pots for up to $50 a piece.
Most Sapeurs keep a family tradition that sometimes can be traced back to their grand-fathers. Chameleon´s daughter Reine wants to follow the footstep of his father.
Chameleon (right) with his family. He´s a respected member within “La France Libre”.
Thibaud is a taxi driver. He makes around $25 per day after paying the owner of the taxi.
He´s a clear example of what being a Sapeur means to some Congolese who make barely enough to provide for their families. Thibaud´s been saving more than a year to buy a pair of shoes. “It´s a way of life, makes you stand out”.
Disagreements are very common when money is distributed. Thibaud argues with other members of “La France Libre”.
Whoever hires them agrees on a fee and covers for transportation and drinks.
Sape is becoming increasingly popular among women. They adopt all the “man” attitude that goes with “La Sape”, including the dress code.
Sapeurs can also be hired by anyone to promote personal events. “Tapise” during the opening of a night club in Ouenze, Brazzaville.
Pelagie was one of the first women to embrace “La Sape”. She wants to create the first women association, “La Déese”. This will give her legitimacy and the opportunity to be hired by the Ministry of Culture.
“La France Libre” can be hired to promote any kind of activities. In this case, The Ministry of Culture hired its members to go to Brazzaville´s only university, Marien Ngouab, and promote a conference by Beninese speaker Innocent Peya.
From left to right Yolande, Blandine and “First Lady” Pelagie, Yves François Ngatsongos wife.
Yves François Ngatsongo founded “La France Libre” in 1996, becoming the first association of Sapeurs in the Republic of Congo.
Nelly Okombi from Congo took home the title of Miss Mama Kilo 2015.
Nelly Okombi, from Republic of Congo, won the 7th edition of Miss Mama Kilo. As the new Miss Mama Kilo, she gets a weekend trip to Paris offered by one of the sponsors. This is Congo's third crown in seven years, but all of the contestants received cash prizes regardless of the their result.
The "native" performance is the last act contestants have to perform alone in front judges and a packed crowd.
Soudi Fatou dances during the native performance. This year's jury came from Mali, Ivory Coast and Benin.
The view from backstage as participants in Miss Mama Kilo 2015 enter the stage.
One of the many wardrobe changes that take place during the event.
Stella gets her make up done for the “native” part of the event, where music from all 5 countries is played.
DRC contestants Soudi Fatou (left) and Thethe Ntumba talk backstage between acts.
Stella waits with the other contestants in anticipation, just moments before going on stage.
All 18 contestants carry their countries' flags. Republic of Congo was the most represented with five contestants.
Make up artists work all night on the day of Miss Mama Kilo. The event has 6 wardrobe changes, and contestants' makeup has to match each style.
Two contestants help each other prepare their hair in the backstage area of Miss Mama Kilo 2015.
The event starts at 19H00, however contestants arrive early in the morning to get their hair and make up done.
Rosine surveys the runway during the last rehearsal at the Continental Palace Hotel. She directs contestants with a firm hand at all times.
Preparations continue until the day of the event at the Olympic Palace Hotel.
Magalie Opangot from Republic of Congo (left) and Jenny Elongo from Central African Republic share a moment together during rehearsal. It´s the third time they participate side by side in Miss Mama Kilo.