AIII #22: Do the arts have a role to play in peacebuilding in Eastern Congo?

Do the arts have a role to play in peacebuilding in Eastern Congo?

(picture by the author)

Nadia Fazal

In Goma, the slogan ‘art for peace’ has become mainstream in almost all arts-based activities (music festivals, theatre productions, dance competitions, film projections), including well-attended festivals such as Peace One Day and the Amani Festival. What does this slogan mean, and what truth does it hold? In this article, I will shed light on some unique features of the arts, with the goal of stimulating thought and discussion about how these features may relate to peacebuilding in Eastern Congo. I will not differentiate between specific art forms, but will instead generalize ‘the arts’ as all forms with the common mission of “achieving expressiveness through the ways in which form has been crafted or shaped” (Eisner, 2008, p. 8).

The features that I will highlight below include the role of the arts in: communicating and understanding new perspectives; knowledge-sharing with diverse audiences; relationship-building; holistic healing; and communicating and evoking of solidarity. In this article, I will not elaborate on the links between these features and peacebuilding theories and/or practices, but instead encourage the reader to apply their own thoughts, ideas, experience, and knowledge about peacebuilding in Eastern Congo to these unique features of the arts.

Unique Features of the Arts

Communicating and Understanding New Perspectives: In Eisner’s chapter entitled “Art and Knowledge” in the Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research (2008), he questions the traditional positivist assumptions about the arts, by asking: “Are the arts merely ornamental aspects of human production and experience, or do they have a more significant role to play in enlarging human understanding?” (p. 3). In response to this question, he and others argue that the arts can facilitate communication of new perspectives, new understandings, and new ways of seeing the world (Weber, 2008). One example of this type of communication is Banksy’s well-known street art piece ‘Balloon Girl’, painted on the Palestinian side of the Wall that separates Jerusalem and Ramallah, depicting an innocent young girl floating up over the Wall. This example illustrates Eisner’s idea of ‘reading’ in the arts, which can allow for individuals and communities to digest and communicate information differently, and to experience their world in ways that they had not known how to experience previously.

Knowledge-Sharing with Diverse Audiences: Communication through the arts has the ability to transcend language and cultural barriers, and can be more accessible to audiences from a broad range of educational backgrounds, age groups, cultures, geographic regions, and roles in society (Wheeler, 2012). The arts can provoke thought and discussion in a way that traditional knowledge-sharing cannot (Weber, 2008); indeed, some scholars have attested that particularly when the sharing takes place outside of the conventional discipline or sector within which it is typically understood, arts-based knowledge-sharing can be more impactful than academic discourse (Barone, 1995). In Goma, a good example of this are the art-based strategies used by organizations such as ‘Search for Common Ground’, who use film and theatre to stimulate dialogue and communicate specific messages to local community groups across Eastern Congo.

Relationship-building: The arts can facilitate the building of social connections and relationships. Specifically, the act of participating in art-making, working collaboratively with a shared focus, and working together in neutral spaces have been shown to positively impact relationship-building (Barndt, 2008). Cooley (2003) differentiates between the acts of ‘doing’ and ‘viewing’ art, suggesting that both can in fact play an important role in relationship-building. He argues that even when one is not directly involved in art-making, a sense of social connection can be strengthened. In Goma, a controversial example of this are the relationship-building processes that may or may not be facilitated/strengthened by an event like ‘Peace One Day’. This music festival engages attendees as audience members and not as artists, which according to Cooley could still facilitate relationship-building.

Holistic Healing: Engagement in the arts has been shown to have a number of positive effects on mental, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual health (MacNaughton, White, & Stacy, 200). Indeed, art itself has been argued as a determinant of health, and has been recognized to be involved in direct healing via processes such as: visual art therapy, drama therapy, movement therapy, and music therapy (Lander & Graham-Pole, 2008). This perspective of healing through the arts has been applied in programs in Goma such as Healing Arts at HEAL Africa, with the goal of initiating mental, physical, social, and emotional healing for Congolese women through engagement and training in the arts.

Communicating and evoking solidarity: Expression through the arts has an ability to generate solidarity in a way that is distinct from any other form of communication (Weber, 2008). This ability does not relate exclusively to the personal level; indeed, the arts can effectively blur lines between the personal and political. For example, the photograph of Kim Phuc that was taken while she was running naked down the street in order to escape a napalm fire balm during the Vietnam War was able to evoke personal solidarity, while also stimulating international political action. In this case, the audience was prompted to weigh the information presented against their own situation, worldview, and context. Interestingly, the related literature suggests that the more contextual information provided (i.e. information about the social, political, economic and cultural environment), the more effective the arts can be in evoking solidarity (Eisner, 2008)

So, what do these features of the arts have to do with peacebuilding in Eastern Congo? Can we link these features to peacebuilding practice, theory, and education in a context like Goma? What are the factors that influence peace through art in Goma, and how can we positively influence these factors in order to build peace in Eastern Congo? With these ideas in mind, I encourage you to think critically and to engage in further discussion about the ways in which the arts-based culture in Goma can be leveraged to play a positive and concrete role in local peacebuilding.


Nadia Fazal is a PhD Candidate in Social and Behavioural Health Sciences and Global Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. Her doctoral research is based in Eastern Congo, and explores how/if community resilience expressed through community arts among youth in Goma can serve to promote and sustain positive health and peace. In line with her research interests, Nadia takes a community-based participatory research approach in her work, integrating arts-based methods such as ‘photovoice’ and ‘participatory video’. Nadia is currently based in Goma and is working with ‘Yole!Africa’ to create a short documentary film about the development of the arts sector in Goma since 1996, with the objective of showing the unique role of community arts within the complexities of the urban political, social, economic, and cultural context of Goma.




Barndt, D. (2008). Touching minds and hearts: Community arts as collaborative research. In Knowles, G. J., & Cole, A. L. (Eds.). (pp. 351-362). Handbook of the Art in Qualitative Research. California: Sage Publications.

Barone, T. (1995). The purposes of arts-based educational research. International Journal of Education Research, 23(2), pp. 169-180.

Cooley, N. (2003). Arts and culture in medicine and health: A survey research paper.

de Quadros, C. A., & Epstein, D. (2002). Health as a bridge for peace: PAHO’s experience. The Lancet, 360, pp. 25-26.

Eisner, E. (2008). Art a Knowledge. In Knowles, G. J., & Cole, A. L. (Eds.). Handbook of the Art in Qualitative Research. (pp. 3-12). California: Sage Publications.

Lander, D. A., & Graham-Pole, J. R. (2008). Art as a Determinant of Health. Antigonish, Nova Scotia: National Collaborating Centre, Determinants of Health.

MacNaughton, J., White, M., & Stacy, R. (2005). Researching the benefits of arts in health. Health Education, 105(5), 332-339.

Weber, S. (2008). Visual images in research. In Knowles, G. J., & Cole, A. L. (Eds.). Handbook  of the Art in Qualitative Research. (pp. 41-54). California: Sage Publications.

Wheeler, J. (2012). Using participatory video to engage in policy processes: Representation, power, and knowledge in public screenings. In Milne, E. J., Mitchell, C., & De Lange, N. (Eds.) Handbook of Participatory Video (pp. 350-382). Plymouth: AltaMira Press.



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