Music Therapy for Peace and Reconciliation in the Kivus

by Sibomana Semajambi Ndayi Joseph

The Democratic Republic of Congo, our country, is a very vast territory (the second largest in Africa) of 2,345,000 km², located in Central Africa, and has about 80 millions of citizens. If it wasn’t for the deadly conflict that has been devastating the country for decades it could be one of the richest countries, full of many natural wealth and resources. After a long period under Belgian colonial rule, the DRC gained its independence in 1960 which was followed by a quasi-dictatorship under Mobutu period that begins in 1965 and ends with the African World War in which more than 9 national armies were involved and that have caused millions of deaths and continue to ravage the whole eastern territory of the country, including many civilian casualties as well as indirect negative consequences for the locals, their families, communities, and the whole society. 

In order to reduce the pain and sorrow that has also significantly contributed to re-emergence of the conflict, many efforts were undertaken by the central government, the civil society, NGOs, UN agencies as well as the international community to overcome the conflict and its consequences, to relieve the hardship of the Congolese people. The process of healing is long and challenging not only because the wounds are deep but also due to lack of resources. Despite the severe psychological consequences the conflict has had on the population, mental health facilities and professionals are extremely scarce and mostly found only in the capital. As a subject of study psychology remains to be more theoretical than practical and some of its Westernized concepts are deemed unsuitable for the local context. This is why in the DRC there is a need for innovative strategies for finding relief, one of which might be the use of music as a therapy. 

The town of Bukavu, South Kivu, DRC

Artistic forms of expression have the potential to rehabilitate some of those who took a part in the fighting directly as well as help the suffering civilians, namely the internally displaced population and other survivors to accept, deal with and overcome their trauma. Indeed, for many centuries, musical expression through singing and drumming has been one of the means of meditation and developing mindfulness to help reunite and heal communities in attempts to re-establish peace in extreme situations of conflict, violence and resulting displacement in different parts of south Kivu province. For instance, in ending the conflict between the Banyamulenge and the Bafuliiru people, peace pacts were established to cement reconciliation through feasts which included specific songs.

This is not in any way a unique cultural feature. All over the world music has always played a major role in forming human relationships, as a medium of communication and therapy as well as entertainment and celebration of various life events. Accounts of music being used to relieve pain and to heal go far back in human history. Music therapy was practiced in biblical times, when David played the harp to rid King Saul of a bad spirit. Aristotle taught that music affects the soul and described music as a force that purified the emotions. As early as 400 B.C., Hippocrates played music for mental patients. In the thirteenth century, Arab hospitals contained music-rooms for the benefit of the patients. In the 17th century Robert Burton wrote in his classic work, The Anatomy of Melancholy, that music and dance were critical in treating mental illness, especially melancholia. Music therapy as we know it began in the aftermath of World Wars I and II, when, particularly in the United Kingdom, musicians would travel to hospitals and play music for soldiers suffering from war-related emotional and physical trauma.

King Saul and David by Rembrandt

King Saul and David by Rembrandt

Music therapy today is widely used to treat patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] to help them get in contact and give space to their actual emotions that are not dominated by the trauma. This process can involve listening to relaxation music, learning to play an instrument, producing own music or expression through an improvisation. In doing this patients can reduce their stress and anxiety levels and channel their emotions. Deep breathing necessary for singing has been shown to slow heart rate and calm nervous system. As the emotional and energy blockages begin to be released the patient is enabled to start the process of making existential choices and regain the control over their life. In African context this form of therapy can have important implications as music is viewed differently here as compared to the Western countries where it is traditionally seen as a form of entertainment. In many African cultures, music is used in recounting stories, celebrating life events, or sending messages and is an important part of everyday life.

Within this scope, in recent years there has been an increase in the use of the arts by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in local and international mediation efforts. For the Democratic Republic of Congo, especially, musicians from every level, storytellers, comedians and organizations, teachers are called to contribute to peace building, through art, music, sport, drama… Indeed, DRC is worldwide known as the country where music takes a central place in the lifestyle of many people, and the country of the Rumba dance. This is why musical therapy is suitable for the local environment- it is natural part of culture and not something foreign and artificially introduced. Research has shown that compared to Western patients the participants from Africa find it easier to express and release their feelings through producing of music, singing or dancing. This form of therapy does not require too much resources, it is cheap, relatively easy to teach and to learn and can be used by lay members of the community to help others, break down social barriers and to re-establish community cohesion through something that the Congolese people have been sharing for centuries.

These two areas (music or art in action and conflicts transformation, peace building) have often been joined up and have received increased interest from musicians, practitioners and even academics. Their junction could be an area where we can learn a lot about how music and art is used (positively and negatively) in extreme situations, thus expanding our understanding of how the arts and their use affect us.

Sibomana Semajambi Ndayi Joseph is a Chairman of CCPDD (Campagne Citoyenne pour la Paix et le Développement Durable), a Congolese NGO based in Bukavu, South-Kivu.



Successful implementation of music therapy in Rwanda by Musicians Without Borders



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