The remarkable journey of Rachel Mwanza, who escaped life as a street child through determination and a major boost from cinema.
Born in 1997 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), this young actress won the Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin International Film Festival for her role in the film War Witch. She was only 15 then. This film, addressing the problem of child soldiers in Africa, exposed her to the public and opened a path for her to another world, far from the one she grew up in.
A fragile childhood
Rachel found herself in the streets after her parents’ divorce. Her mother was departing for Angola, and left her daughter, who was only 10 years old, with her grandmother in Kinshasa. Her grandmother had a difficult time raising her with her six brothers and sisters. So, Rachel spent most of her time in the streets, where she lived by selling water sachets. She sometimes found herself sleeping under the stars, like hundreds of other children in Kinshasa, a capitol of 10 million people. These children are called the “chégué”, and survive through their own resourcefulness each day.
Fortune smiles on a street child: “from the streets to the stars”
On day in a market, a Belgian director noticed Rachel and recruited her for his film Kinshasa Kids about street children (released in 2013). The Canadian director Kim Nguyen noticed the images of this young actress and recruited her for his film War Witch. Then it all happened quickly…
War Witch was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. Rachel Mwanza was at the Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles, where she mingled with Hollywood stars.
She also won two awards for best actress at the Tribeca Film Festival (New York, 2012) and at the Vancouver Film Critics Circle (Vancouver, 2013).
Since then, Rachel has returned to the DRC, and the Canadian team is watching over her to make sure she is benefiting from a more structured lifestyle: she is taking classes in French and is continuing her education. For her, school and learning is important.
The incredible destiny of Rachel is certainly tied to the seventh art and its power to make fairy tales come true, to create celebrities out of thin air: “it’s kind of a miracle that I was chosen for this role” admits Rachel Mwanza. But Rachel also owes this success to her personality and what it conveys. Director Kim Nguyen admires her courage. Rachel Mwanza embodies the image of child success coming nothing, which could inspire other children.
However, Rachel hasn’t forgotten where she came from, and she thinks about the children still living a hard life on the streets. She created the Rachel Mwanza Foundation which aids these children (in french only: Fondation Rachel Mwanza).
Written by: Henintsoa Ravoala
Translated by: Peter SUCHOWACKY
Proofread by : Liza Powderly