By Louise Dewast
To her friends and family, Arlène Agneroh has it all. Well, nearly.She is successful, educated and attractive. They call her a leader – she coaches entrepreneurs and offers personal development training for a living. The only thing she’s missing, they say, is a husband.
Recently, something happened to remind her of just how much social pressure there is for young people in the Democratic Republic of Congo to get married.
On a late summer afternoon, the 33-year-old was invited to yet another friend’s wedding in the capital, Kinshasa – one of 30 invitations she had received in that year alone.
As is common in Congolese weddings, guests invited by the bride wore clothes with matching patterns, while the groom’s party wore a different style.
During the ceremony, Ms Agneroh sat next to her good friend, Jean-Félix Mwema Ngandu.
‘It was completely crazy’
Innocently, a mutual friend took a picture of them sitting side by side at the wedding. He then posted the picture on Facebook.
Five minutes later, his phone was buzzing. He started laughing.
“What’s happening?” Ms Agneroh remembers asking.
“Everyone thinks you two got married!” came the reply.
“It was completely crazy. In a matter of minutes, dozens of people had commented on the picture and sent me messages of congratulations,” Ms Agneroh later told the BBC.
At the time, the two friends found it amusing – so to keep the story going, they decided to pose for a second picture, this time sitting in the “thrones” reserved for the married couple.
This time, they waited a few hours after sharing the photo on another friend’s Facebook page before checking the reaction.
“When I woke up the next morning, I had, without exaggerating, several hundred missed calls, WhatsApp and Facebook messages,” Ms Agneroh said.
“Some were from people I haven’t spoken to in 10, even 15 years. I don’t know how these people even got my number.”
‘People believe anything online’
“Seriously, when I talk about my work projects, I never get this kind of reaction,” Ms Agneroh said.
“This is the reality we live in and I saw it clearly on that day.
“It made me a bit sad because you reach a certain level where you are happy, but society pushes you to think you are incomplete.”
Mr Mwema Ngandu, 32, acknowledges they knew they would “create a buzz”, telling the BBC that “when we took the second picture, it was carefully planned”.
“In these times of fake news, people believe everything they see online,” he said, adding that he wanted to make people think more carefully about what they see and read on social media.
“It’s a cultural thing too. Here [in Kinshasa] everyone knows about your personal life and it’s got worse with social media,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s entertaining but it can also be harmful.”
‘Still on the market’
Once the pair started getting messages from friends abroad saying they were planning to fly back to Kinshasa for the “wedding”, Ms Agneroh decided enough was enough and revealed the truth on her Facebook page.
In a lengthy post she told friends and acquaintances: “These picture show two young people photographed by their friends, with no comment or allusion to marriage but that’s what you all chose to interpret.
“Without even asking any questions, you’ve shared the picture, creating your own little story. Thanks to you, I’ve started compiling a list of guests for my wedding!
“But for now, those who’ve wanted to seduce me and but were always afraid, here’s my message: I’m still on the market but not focused on finding a husband.
“So be patient… The lesson to learn is think before you act and look for context. A picture itself is never the full story.”
In a predominantly Catholic country where many women are still confined to the household, marriage is widely seen as a necessary rite of passage.
Around 40% of girls in the country marry before the age of 18, according to Unicef’s latest figures. The government outlawed child marriage in 2017 but that is not enough to end the practice.
“Here, people think marriage is a blessing,” said Ms Agneroh.
“You can be dating someone for only two months and already he’ll be talking about marriage. And it works with a lot of girls.
“Some people get married simply to get work, because it opens doors.”
National Club for Single People
For fun, Mr Mwema Ngandu went as a far as creating an online club for single people across DR Congo, which now has around 100 members.
While it was done in jest, he says the National Club for Single People makes an important point about unfair expectations.
“Even if it’s a normal part of life to be single, a lot people find it very difficult and suffer from social pressure.”
In many revival churches, according to Mr Mwema Ngandu, preachers talk about the “single spirit” as though people inhabited by an evil spirit of celibacy needed to “see the light” and get married.
Ms Agneroh says she is not against marriage per se, and would like to get married when the time is right.
But she disagrees that marriage equals happiness.
She is convinced that more and more women are starting to think like her, and is already a model for some of the younger girls in Kinshasa.
“I pay school fees for two young girls – friends of friends. Their parents stopped paying for their education because they said they should find a man to pay. So they came to me instead.”
As for Mr Mwema Ngandu, he announced a few weeks ago that he was officially stepping down from his role as president of the National Club for Single People.
He’s met someone. BBC News.