Gikondo Transit Center in Kigali, Rwanda serves as an unofficial prison. Human Rights Watch has documented the civil and human rights abuses committed against petty thieves, street workers, orphaned children, and other marginalized people.
This poorly kept secret prison is a consequence of the country’s obsession with image and progress, wishing to shed the reputation of violence and instability that lingered after the 1994 genocide.
Rwanda is welcoming and beautiful, busting with entrepreneurs and tourists. But at Gikondo, this veneer of civility dissolves into the suffering of vulnerable citizens.
In 2009, I was attempting to secure the release of imprisoned street children. Their only crime was poverty that drove them to beg on the streets and sell their bodies - just to survive.
After offering to pay for the children’s school fees if they were released, I was detained and held at gunpoint. Ultimately, the guards were not persuaded, and my efforts were unsuccessful. I was released but their screams, their cries and exhaustion, remain a haunting testament to human fragility.
The cries I heard while locked in that room were in direct, dizzying contrast to the joyful sounds in a rural school a few days before.
Dozens of young women and men gathered, some even scrambling through the windows, eager to sing on an album I was recording at the time.
They performed songs that symbolized our resilience and ability to transcend our past. It was within that sharp contrast the Healing in Harmony music therapy program was born.
When people are deprived of justice, they create their own language of resilience. The best way to express this is through art and music. Every note and lyric those adolescent women and men performed exploded with the power of telling the truth. Their rights not to sell their body, to be free, to be loved. I realized on that trip how dignity resides in all of us.
Dignity can be never taken away, only suppressed.
At its core, Healing in Harmony develops the potential for transformative change in traumatized populations and their communities. Participants include survivors of sexual violence, abandoned children, children of child-headed households, and other vulnerable populations.
We recognize participants as artists, not patients.
We see this when we read the lyrics of the songs like My Body is Not a Weapon written by one of our artists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sandra.
An orphan, she was raped at age 15, became pregnant, miscarried her child, and discovered she was HIV positive upon arriving at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. She endured years of surgery to physically heal before entering into our program to heal psychologically and emotionally.
No, No, My Body is not a Weapon
I also have a dream, I want to move on
I also have a dream, I want to change everything
Within me a small president is hidden
Who would change all inequalities
Within me a small lawyer is hidden
Who would defend all the oppressed
We can’t take away another person’s suffering, but we can ease it.
Where you suffer is geography, how we heal is universal.
Whether it is women in the DRC, our disenfranchised Indigenous populations here, women in college campuses, children in Rwanda or Syrian refugees – many of whom have found sanctuary here in Canada - what connects us is our shared humanity.
Results matter. We have worked with more than 1200 women, young men, and children in our program at the aftercare facility of Panzi Foundation DRC with partners Panzi Foundation USA and Nobel Peace Prize Nominee Dr. Denis Mukwege.
Working in tandem with a trained psychologist and music producer, participants write, record, and professionally produce songs about their emotions and experiences.
Current trends in our research reveal groundbreaking results with improvement across all three primary mental health dimensions. Women in our program are twice as likely to have an improvement in their anxiety scores and 80% were more likely to have an improvement in their PTSD scores than women who did not participate.
Our artists are also advocates, publicly disseminating their music to over 5 million active listeners on the radio, social media, cd distribution and sold out community concerts.
At a Panzi concert, I witnessed Etoile, a patient and artist, reclaim her humanity and spirit while performing My Body is not a Weapon alongside Sandra. At 16-years-old Etoile has two children born of rape. The eldest lives with her grandmother, the youngest lives with her.
This innocent child served as a constant reminder of the rapes, and Etoile struggled with detachment.
But then, after performing she was so overjoyed by the response of the crowd and their connection to the lyrics that she lovingly picked him up and began kissing her baby. This embrace was the first time that she demonstrated an attachment to her child.
Her body was hers again, reclaimed through the transformative power of music.
I have also seen this spark in young refugee children living in Gaziantep near the Turkish border with Syria - a refugee population Canada has generously welcomed. Soon, we will also serve Syrian children struggling to heal.
Make Music Matter is expanding its programming in the DRC with Panzi Foundation to four sites within the next two years. We are developing a franchise model for our methodology. We are exploring the use of Healing in Harmony as a Common Element Therapy tool to give people their own agency to heal themselves and their communities.
As Canada’s Tower of Song Leonard Cohen wrote, “Your faith was strong but. you needed proof.” With Healing in Harmony we have quantifiable proof that music heals.