By Vianney Dong
A former sponsored child becomes a celebrated artist.
When 22-year-old art student Benjamin Yumba in the Democratic Republic of Congo spied a small advertisement pinned to an art academy bulletin board, he recognized an opportunity.
The ad invited entries for a journalism and cartoon competition organized by French humanitarian organizations. Drawings were to have the theme “World Views on Europe,” and the competition was open to any artist living outside the European Union.
Benjamin, a former World Vision sponsored child, set to work producing three pieces of art that not only give a young African’s perspective on Europe, but also help the viewer appreciate the circumstances that shaped his vision.
In one painting, Africans waving different flags come together under a blue sky filled with yellow stars, representing the flag of the European Union. The atmosphere is one of hope and celebration. In the foreground, an African baby attempts to join in, waving a Congolese flag. “It shows how the baby also searches for hope,” Benjamin says, adding that war and poverty in Congo often mean that hope is in short supply.
“Children are abducted, raped, and abused. They cannot go to school. They are not protected, and no one seems to solve this problem,” he says.
Growing up in a desperately poor neighborhood of Kimilolo on the outskirts of Congo’s second-largest city, Lubumbashi, Benjamin recalls when he could not go to school because he had no shoes and the many times he went hungry. “I do not want to remember those times,” he says. “It was very tough.”
But one thing Benjamin does want to remember is his early passion for art. Whenever he could lay his hands on paper and pencils, he started sketching—often portraits of movie stars such as Sylvester Stallone or Jean-Claude Van Damme. Unable to afford expensive materials, he would sometimes paint with mud or charcoal, using embers from a burnt-out fire.
His talent might well have gone undeveloped in a community where school dropout rates are high. But at age 6, World Vision workers visited Benjamin’s home and persuaded his parents to enroll him in the Kimilolo child sponsorship program. Benjamin says it was just the encouragement he needed.
“When my parents were late buying me notebooks, pens, and pencils, I would receive these for free from World Vision, and that allowed me to study without being expelled from school,” he says.
At first, Benjamin’s teachers could not believe the youngster could produce such brilliant drawings unaided. Then one teacher watched him reproduce a picture of a hippopotamus, and ever since, his artwork has received top marks.
His reputation spread. Benjamin began to make a little money selling his paintings and drawings. In 2006, a delegation of Taiwanese donors who had funded World Vision’s work in Kimilolo visited his family and made the startling proposition to support Benjamin at the Fine Art Academy in Kinshasa. Although friends had urged him to study art, he had always believed such an education was beyond his reach.
On arrival in Kinshasa, Benjamin’s work continued to impress. He also dazzled judges of the French art competition, who selected him as one of the four winners. Benjamin was flown to France to receive his award from the mayor of Paris. He also met members of the European Parliament and visited art galleries in Paris and Belgium. His work went on to be exhibited in three cities in France, including at Memorial de Caen—France’s foremost peace museum.
Benjamin is grateful to his sponsor: “He sowed the seed. Today, he can see the fruit.”
Now Benjamin hopes to help others with a passion for art. “The fact that someone who I do not know [was] taking care of me—it has influenced my attitude. I have learned a lot and am ready to share with others what I have.”
Vianney Dong is the communications manager for World Vision in the Democratic Republic of Congo.