“Playing for Change, Singing for Peace” – A music festival in eastern Congo

Guest post by Timo Mueller, a Goma-based researcher, photos and videos courtesy Amani Festival

In a region beset by violence, a music festival is a rare feat. This past weekend, more than 35,000 visitors from the Great Lakes Region of Africa and beyond visited the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo to celebrate music and art. For a short stint, people had a chance to forget about the daily grind and come together as one community.

More than 28 national and international music stars, dancers, and acrobats came to Goma once dubbed the “rape capital of the world” to energize the audience during the three-day Amani Festival.

“Everybody thinks we are in a country at war, where there’s dying and suffering. But there is more,” said Mapendo Sumuni, a female entrepreneur in the city.

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Among the main acts was guitarist and singer Habib Koité. Coming from the desert of Mali to the shores of Lake Kivu, Koité enchanted the audience with his intimate and calm music that has earned him international acclaim and made him one of the most successful musicians in Mali. Aminata, a Guinean-French expatriate, beamed with joy. “This music is from my homeland.”

Hailing from the Ivory Coast, the highlight of the festival was reggae superstar Tiken Jah Fakoly known for his eloquent lyrics against injustice and oppression. But nobody evoked such joy and thunderous applause than Congolese Hip Hop star Bill Clinton. Throughout the weekend, he repeatedly took to the stage to fire up the crowd. Other local artists such as Busara Dance Company from Goma or Batimbo Percussion Magique from Bujumbura joined the party.

“Africans seldom play in Africa,” Francesco Mascini, First Secretary of the Dutch government and sponsor of the festival, remarked standing joyful among the festive crowd.

Guellord Duron, a Congolese dancer, reflected that “many soldiers in Congo today are young, very young. Music can help to change their mentality.” Deo, a 30-year old coffee shop owner, added “it’s not only music that gives joy. It’s working together towards one goal. It can unite people.”

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And unlike the organization Peace One Day that had organized a concert in September with such well-known superstars as Akon and Jude Law, Amani Festival collaborated from the beginning with Congolese youth centers such as Maison des Jeunes and Yole!Africa, tapping into the city’s rich cultural landscape. Goma’s resilient and creative youth abounds with energy, opening up an art boutique or recording its own version of Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy”.

Fal-J Ujumbe, one of the city’s creative voices and participant in last year’s festival, noted with glee the peaceful encounter of people from across the region. “Many that fought just a year ago, are now together. Today, we share like brothers and sisters.” And the festival did not only bring together Congolese but helped bridge some of the divide that exists between expatriate workers and the local population, argued expatriate José from El Salvador.

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“We even see tourists coming to this festival. Who would have imagined this two years ago when the city was under a strict curfew?!,” said police commander Jérôme holding his five-year old daughter in his arms. In September 2013, the organizers had to cancel the first edition of the festival after rebels shelled the city with mortars.

Head organizer Eric de Lamotte shared people’s optimism but was well-aware of the surrounding challenges: “Today, people came to show change. I think we achieved our objective. But right as I speak the people of Beni are suffering.” Over the short span of just three months last year, unidentified men have killed at least 184 civilians and wounded many others, according to Human Rights Watch. Shortly thereafter, protestors took to the street across the country – including in Goma – protesting against changes to the electoral law fearing an abuse of power by incumbent President Joseph Kabila. The police used excessive force during the demonstrations during which at least 36 people got killed. Meanwhile, mooted military operations against the FDLR rebel group might plunge the province – home to more than 800,000 internally displaced persons – into further violence.

But amidst this deplorable violence and uncertainty, Amani Festival allowed tens of thousands of people – including entire families – to take a reprieve this weekend to enjoy a sense of normality after two decades of war. And it is refreshing to see the other side of Goma feature prominently in the news that all too often only delivers Congo’s doom and gloom into people’s living rooms across the world.

“Go, Go, Goma.”

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