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Local songs with a global voice

The Healing in Harmony music therapy program improves upon traditional techniques, respecting each participant’s agency over their own experiences and creative processes to support the recovery of GBV victims.

Local songs with a global voice: Resilience through Music Therapy in Eastern Congo

By Frances Hill, Effective Partnerships Manager, Elrha, and mentor to the Healing in Harmony project through Elrha’s Journey to Scale initiative.

Few of us reading this blog will have any idea of the scale of violence in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). According to USAID 27% of all women have experience sexual violence in DRC. Much of this violence is sexual in nature but has ‘nothing to do with sex’, to quote Dr Denis Mukwege, Founder of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, with whom the HIF is working. At the Panzi Hospital women are physically reconstructed by the incredibly talented surgeons of which Dr Mukwege is a pioneer, and then psychotherapeutically ‘reconstructed’ at Maison Dorcas. The Healing in Harmony programme (HiH) the HIF is supporting, is a part of this process. It works with survivors of sexualised violence, through adapting expressive music therapy models where girls and women share their experiences and work through their trauma by writing songs and creating music. This is the only humanitarian programme known of globally that currently provides this enhanced music therapy.

Late last year I visited the DRC where I witnessed the extraordinary resilience of girls and women who had been subjected to the most horrific attacks. I spent time in many of the sessions that Make Music Matter and the Maison Dorcas team had worked on to enable these survivors to work through their experiences.

Having visited the same country 32 years ago – then known as Zaïre – I had been struck by the music – it was everywhere, rhythms falling out of every place we visited, and it was incredibly infectious. Discos with eggboxes plastered to the walls covered in tinfoil and women swaying in the most hypnotic way. I was therefore primed that music could work some way to heal the pain these women had experienced.

In the first session I sat in on the women were coming to the end of their therapy. They were vibrant, energetic and so musical. They were singing and dancing and appeared to embody resilience. What really struck me was how the Healing in Harmony model worked. After the end-of-therapy session, I observed a two hour session for those at the start of their journey. The girls and women walked uncertainly into the studio and sat down. Some tended to their babies, others were uncomfortably pregnant in the heat, some were still in pain from surgery, and others appeared disengaged.

Credit: Platon. Singers participating in the Healing in Harmony programme

After the warm up, Lead Psychotherapist, Justin, was asking the women to speak of their experiences. There were many silences but gradually they started to speak and as they did, others in the group appeared to identify with these experiences. This brought them together as a new group. More music was introduced, different rhythms – and the stories kept coming. Note books were handed out to encourage them to write down their feelings if they were not able to vocalise them.

As the session progressed and more of the women started to vocalise their experiences, several that appeared strong at the start, bowed their heads and wiped their tears; those that appeared disengaged started to talk. All the time the music was playing in the background. Music Producer, Jojo, measuring the appropriate level, Justin listening to their experiences. It was extraordinary to watch.

It was a very different level of energy to that which I saw at the start of the session 2 hours previously. Most women were engaging with their neighbours. They had all come together in that short space of time, and through the use of music, empathy and collaboration the majority left smiling or laughing, with a more confident demeanour.

Credit: Platon. Women holding hands who’ve participated in the Healing in Harmony music therapy programme.

This project has demonstrated it is making a real difference to real people in a relatively short space of time, thanks to the talent, skills and commitment of those at Panzi, Maison Dorcas and Make Music Matter. Based on preliminary data from the pilot study, as of May 2018, over 1700 women have participated in the Healing in Harmony music therapy programme at Maison Dorcas and the aftercare facility at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, DRC with partners Panzi Foundation. After Healing in Harmony’s three month cycle, participants have been found to be twice as likely to have an improvement in their anxiety scores, with 80% more likely to have an improvement in their PTSD scores than women who did not participate in the programme. The programme is thoroughly committed to an evidence based approach to ensure the best possible care for the women it aims to help.

Further evidence of the programme’s success is also clear from the demand – there has been a threefold increase in those wishing to participate in the programme. This is remarkable, because to participate in psychotherapy programmes usually carries a stigma, however these women appear proud to participate and sing in front of hundreds of people which is having the beneficial effect of more women changing their health-seeking behaviour to undergo this element of their healing process.

Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund (the HIF), with support from the Dutch MFA, has funded the Healing in Harmony project from its inception. The programme is now being scaled out; It is working in Mulamba very successfully, a hospital 2.5 hours out of Bukavu, reached by difficult roads and located in a highly volatile area. The programme has secured partnerships with World Vision DRC and IMA Health to bring the Healing in Harmony model out to other programmes working on psychotherapeutic healing elsewhere in the DRC.

The HiH model will be working in Beni, North Kivu with World Vision and in Katana, South Kivu with IMA Health as well as two other, yet to be identified, centres in South Kivu.

The appetite for this kind of therapy is gaining real traction and is testament not just to the Healing in Harmony model, but the Congolese/Zaïreois desire to let music work to build resilience for its people.

Thanks to a unique partnership with Warner Brothers Canada and Make Music Matter, that brings the women’s voices and their songs to the world, these songs are now available for download, with more due for release in August 2018:

https://va.lnk.to/kesho

https://va.lnk.to/MonEP

Elrha is a registered charity in England and Wales (1177110).

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