The Art of Resilience in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

October 6th, 2017.

It was the forth night during my most recent assignment to Bukavu, in the South Kivu province of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Still jet lagged, I jumped when my phone lit up. Texts and calls from partners in the US and Europe, alerted me: “Darcy, they are shooting near Panzi. Are you okay? Have you heard from anyone else?”

I immediately called my security team. They are seasoned experts, and were patrolling the area near Panzi. I sent out messages to our staff and colleagues.

The following morning, when police and military forces arrived in an attempt to free their comrades, tensions manifested into a daylong battle. In the DRC, there is deep distrust of police and military personnel. Often, they are protectors by day and perpetrators by night. And, like previous skirmishes, the cocktail of bullets, heavy stones and makeshift weaponry wrought devastation. In the end, four people were killed, including two children. Fourteen others were wounded.

It now seemed as though all sides of the equation and the very ground itself were infused with the mark of Cain, where any action was predestined to be swiftly met with escalating reaction. The cycle continued.

Local youth, suspicious of a temporary police station erected across from Panzi Hospital decided to torch it with a police officer inside. An act of desperate violence, they were subsequently met by more gunfire.

A few days after that, local police and military kidnapped four youth they deemed as suspects. They have not been heard from since. What has been the impetus for this recent escalation of violence in this already impoverished, but beloved neighborhood in Bukavu that is also home to renowned champion for civil rights, Dr. Denis Mukwege?

This trip was different. The slow-rolling political crisis in the DRC is beginning to accelerate, and violence is on the uptick.

As I watched a formation of five UN helicopters fly overhead from my office balcony on its way to suppress the civil war raging approximately 120 kilometers from me, near Uvira, I weighed the factors contributing to a breakdown in the social fabric of the community where Make Music Matter’s Healing in Harmony music therapy program operates with Dr. Denis Mukwege, clinicians and staff from Panzi Hospital and our partners at Panzi Foundation DRC and USA.

President Kabila’s constitutional mandate officially ended in December of 2016. The DRC’s electoral commission, known widely by their acronym CENI, announced that elections could not take place until at least April 2019 due to lack of funds and increasing insecurity.

During recent appearances, including a speech at the opening of the UN General Assembly, Kabila has been seen growing out his hair and moustache to look like a Maquisard, or bush warrior to the larger Congolese populace according to some of the locals I spent time with on this trip. I checked in with our local staff, who noted it could be perceived as a subtle, but useful signal to the Congolese people that he is ready for war and will only be ousted by force.

As the world takes increasing notice of the warnings and political advocacy of Dr. Mukwege - my mentor, partner and friend, the fear in President Kabila’s camp rises palpably. There are real concerns that the increasing instability in the Panzi neighborhood where we operate has been directly perpetrated by Kabila loyalists to intimidate and threaten Dr. Mukwege – trying to force him into exile, or cause extreme fear of another assassination attempt.

The economic crisis in DRC is extreme. The vast majority of Congolese citizens subsist on less than $2 a day. The Kabila regime’s manifest corruption is unrepentant. While elections are being pushed back, and the DRC Constitution disregarded, inflation continues to increase. The police officers and local army often go without their meager salary of $60 USD per month.

This social pressure has transformed an already impoverished neighborhood near Panzi Hospital into a tinderbox, where the men assigned to protect the local civilians can no longer subsist on their wages but have the guns to do something about it.

Despite these factors, the work of Panzi, Dr Mukwege and Make Music Matter continues. Our unique brand of music therapy is centered upon the belief that music can be an integral part of a community-driven, patient and artist-centered, holistic healing model. Participants primarily include survivors of sexual violence and other traumatized populations. In every session, we treat our participants as artists, not patients. Working in tandem with a trained psychologist and music producer, participants write, record and professionally produce songs about their emotions and experiences. They own their experience – and the art they create.

The process has a profound effect on both the psychosocial healing and the restoration of a supportive, healing community, according to early clinical results. Our artists are advocates as well, publicly disseminating their music through local radio broadcasts to over 4.3 million active listeners, and through social media, community concerts, and CD distribution, reducing stigma that they experience and hopefully – lessening the impact of stigma going forward. To date, approximately 1700 women have participated our program situated at Panzi’s aftercare facility, Maison Dorcas.

Music and art reveal the truth. At our new site in Mulamba, situated in rural DRC, a woman confided in me that she never disclosed to her husband that she had been raped, but that she would through the song she was writing in our program. What was once a fitful struggle was now embodied in a lyric and melody that will be validated and celebrated. I have also witnessed women at the end of our sessions, who came in as individuals, catatonic from trauma, leaving as a part of a unified group smiling and engaged with their fellow artists. We witness this coming together frequently - in that short space and time, through the holistic use of music, empathy, laughing and chatting with each other with a sense of purpose – they come together, and find resilience

If the DRC continues to fracture from conflict and civil society implodes - we risk losing the benefit of the resilience our work helps develop.

In the West, the notion of resilience can at times seem like a cliché, and we are not entirely sure of its place or meaning. What I continually witness here as our work expands to new sites and regions, is the embodiment of what resilience should mean- the ability to acknowledge our trauma and move to be a stronger person and a changemaker.

With Dr. Mukwege, we will not rest until all survivors are able to integrate back into society and continue to be valued as mothers, sisters, daughters, wives and role models to others, including myself.

“Only those who still have hope can benefit from tears.”

― Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust

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