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An invaluable responsibility, when working in the international development and human rights sphere, is to ingest overwhelming facts and statistics and transform them into flesh and blood realities. Everyone has a story that deserves to be heard. Often with the intransigent nature of conflict in areas such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), these stories can get lost in the distortion and the collective trauma can get passed down from generation to generation, contributing to a cycle of poverty and hopelessness. Therefore it is important to highlight individual success stories; memoirs of those whose resiliency cuts through the noise and demonstrates that the cycle can indeed be broken.

Sandra, a young survivor, performs the powerful music she and her peers co-wrote during a Healing in Harmony community concert.

During my last field visit to the DRC for Make Music Matter and the lead partner on the project Panzi Foundation USA, one of our beneficiaries helped to pen a song, “My Body is Not a Weapon,” during group sessions in our music therapy program at the Panzi Hospital. It is a sanguine expression of hope, acceptance and empowerment, immortalized in a memorable pop anthem. It validates the emotions and feelings of a survivor of sexual violence by letting her voice be heard, helping to forge new dreams that ripple out to the wider community.

This particular beneficiary of our music therapy program is a 16-year old girl who has already had two children born from rape. At the age of 15 she became a survivor of sexual violence by a neighbouring soldier who invited her out for a soda and subsequently drugged her. Distressed and tortured by the memory, she eventually relented to her anguish and told her parents what had happened. They did not believe her. When she confronted the soldier who perpetrated the crime, he did not accept that she had become pregnant from him and threatened to kill her if she talked about it any further. Four months after giving birth to her first child she was brutally raped again by two men who broke into her home one evening. It was at this point that she was afforded the opportunity to access Panzi Hospital where she currently resides in their aftercare facility, Maison Dorcas, along with her second child, in order to physically, emotionally and psychologically heal. One of the issues from her resulting trauma is that she has not been able to accept her baby. She confessed that every time she sees him, she remembers the fight that occurred between the men who broke into her home to rape her and how it has left her feeling powerless and broken with a dejected future. Because of this she has shown no love for the child, rejecting him completely and neglecting his care, blaming him for the pain and predicament she is in.

However, the alchemising of her pain and suffering to empowerment and joy was a wondrous transformation to witness during my latest 4-week stint on the ground. Near the end of my trip the time came to put on our first community concert in which the first CD of material would be performed by our beneficiaries in front of their peers and general public. During each rehearsal I would monitor and observe her progress, ensuring that she continued to be part of the group that would sing this song live. After each trial run, fragments of joy would increasingly emerge on her face as she received more feedback from each mock performance. When the time came for the actual concert, all of her shame and reticence seemed to melt away. She confidently took to the stage in front of 300 plus concertgoers, who danced, sang along and demanded an encore…an entire community singing along to words and melodies that she had helped craft. The symbiotic exchange of energy between audience and performer, taking ownership in their own healing, was amazing to witness but even more astounding was what happened next. As she walked off the stage post-encore she immediately went to her child, picked him up and lovingly held and kissed him for the very first time. The healing power of music reconnected her disparate parts and gave her the ability to accept and love her baby. I can confirm that this behaviour has continued to normalize, helping to break the cycle of trauma, one voice and song at a time.

Panzi/Make Music Matter Community Concert, Sept 20th 2015, at Maison Dorcas, Bukavu DRC

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