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Slam poems and dance shows: How Congolese creatives are responding to the M23 conflict

‘When we sang and danced with others, I felt free from these thoughts.’

AFTER a renewed M23 rebel offensive saw an artillery shell fall in February on her house in the village of Shasha in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, 54-year-old Beatrice Riziki Musabya was unable to stop thinking negative thoughts.

But that changed, at least momentarily, when a group of Congolese artists turned up at her displacement camp in Goma – the main city in eastern DRC – a few weeks ago, offering therapy sessions for communities to turn their experiences of war into spoken-word poetry.

“This morning, when I came here, my heart was withdrawn,” said Musabya, who is living in a displacement camp in the grounds of a church. “But with these exercises that we have just done, I feel that blood is circulating better in my body.”

Congolese civil society and ordinary citizens have played a leading role in responding to the humanitarian fallout of the M23 insurgencyhosting the majority of the 1.5 million displaced people, and running soup kitchens in camps.

Likewise, Congolese artists have been organising various cultural initiatives and events for affected people, from spoken word poetry sessions to dance spectacles and music concerts blasting Afrobeats and Ndombolo hits through the camps.

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In April and May, The New Humanitarian asked Congolese photographer Arlette Bashizi – who has been documenting the humanitarian upheaval created by the ongoing conflict – to visit the camps in Goma and profile some of the initiatives.

“We wanted to use our art of dance as therapy to heal souls… and to share good times with people who are not used to taking part in this type of activity on a daily basis,” Stéphanie Mwamba, president of the Kivu Dancers Collective, told Bashizi.

Mwamba, who organised a recent performance at a stadium next to the Kanyraruchinya displacement camp, said her group’s dance routines are designed to provide a message of hope and to “put a smile on the faces of displaced people”.

The M23 began its rebellion in late 2021 with support from neighbouring Rwanda. The insurgency has inflamed regional tensions, polarised communities, and created massive humanitarian needs, especially in Goma, which has received 700,000 displaced people.

Scroll through Bashizi’s pictures and interviews below to learn more about the initiatives that are flourishing in Goma – which is struggling under an M23-imposed blockade – and check out our wider DRC coverage for more background on the M23 conflict.

Slam therapy: ‘Our main objective is to help people better manage their stress’

Slam, a form of spoken-word poetry, is popular in Goma, and has been used by artists and activist groups to articulate political grievances and raise awareness around important social issues. Slammers from an organisation called Elikya have recently been using the art form as a therapy tool to help displaced people. Elikya’s group sessions start with stretching and breathing exercises before bringing in song and dance. People are then asked to share their experiences and turn them into slam poems.

Rita Feza Zaburi: Slam poet and Elikya founder, pictured in the middle

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I have been a slam artist since 2018. I released my first slam in 2019 and delivered solo shows as well as performances with the Goma Slam Session Collective at the Amani festival. Afterwards, when I learnt about the existence of slam therapy, I found that it was more interesting because I was able to help many more people than with my slams. I find that slam therapy is much more human because we help many more people to manage their stress through art.

Several organisations that go to the camps provide assistance, but they forget the mental and psychological health part. While the displaced can have food and shelter, if they cannot manage negative emotions, then they will continue to suffer from the inside and develop diseases. We don’t have water, food, or tarpaulins to give them, but with the psychological help we can offer, it brings something more to their lives. Our main objective is to help people better manage their stress because it is said that poorly managed stress can become trauma.

With Elikya, we would like to reach a level where we do sessions every day because there are millions of displaced people who need therapy, given the level of stress and trauma in which they live on a daily basis. We are hoping to find financial means to do it regularly and build our own art therapy centre, but due to lack of funds we hold art therapy sessions just twice a week for the moment.

As a young artist and Congolese mother born in the war [in Beni] and now living in Goma, although we all live in fear, I try to give hope to the displaced through slam therapy sessions so that they continue to believe in a better future.

Brigitte Nabami: Slam therapy participant from Kirotshe, pictured in the middle

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I am 50 years old and from Kirotshe. We fled our city in February because of war, and I now live here with my 12 children. This little moment that I have just spent here made me very happy. I came here this morning thinking about the poor conditions we live in and how we lived well before this war. But when we sang and danced with others, I felt free from these thoughts. I would like to see such sessions regularly because they have brought us a lot of comfort and joy, and it has been a long time since I felt those things.

Beatrice Riziki Musabya: Slam therapy participant from Shasha, pictured in the black top

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I am 54 years old and from Shasha. This morning, when I came here, my heart was withdrawn, but with these exercises that we have just done, I feel that the blood is circulating better in my body. This session allowed me to forget my worries. Before taking refuge in this camp, a bomb had fallen in my house in Shasha, and it took everything from me. I fled the war with nothing and, since then, this incident has never left my mind. But when we started to stretch and dance I felt myself gradually forgetting this incident and now I feel much better. Life is very hard in this camp, we eat and live with difficulty. But I think that if we continue with these sessions regularly, it will help us let go of our negative thoughts. There are certain old men that I have always seen in this camp, withdrawn into themselves, but today I saw them laughing and dancing. That had never happened before.

Music with a message: ‘Our artists use their voices for more than just singing’ 

At a displacement camp called Bassin du Congo, artists from a campaign group called DAI were performing a music show with a political message in late April. Fed up with politicians making promises they don’t keep – like building health centres or restoring peace – the artists used song to call for displaced people to hold elected officials to account on issues that matter to them. After the show, the musicians also ran a word play game, asking spectators to construct sentences from letters on post-it sticky notes.

Etienne Kasereka: DAI campaign coordinator, pictured in the middle

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I was born in Rutshuru in 1997 and I’m an activist artist. I’m a singer, performer, composer, and guitarist playing in the city of Goma. I specialise in African funk fusion and R’n’B. I am the initiator and coordinator of the “DAI” campaign, which launched in February. DAI, which means “to claim” in Swahili, is an artistic co-creation campaign for citizen mobilisation for peace, justice, health, and the environment.

We fight against the non-involvement of communities in demands for rights and common well-being. Our volunteer artists use their voices for more than just singing. They engage the population in discussions on the importance of civic demands beyond the electoral cycle. We want the population to join us in the fight, to be active and demanding of elected officials so that they fulfil the needs of the population. “DAI” is the commitment both in music and in conversations with the community to finally encourage them to act.

We organise shows in the streets and camps for displaced people because we want to reach a wider audience… and also to restore hope to this weakened community. We target the camps in particular to relax this often-stressed population, to bring them a smile, and to make them forget the difficult times they have had to go through.

Beatrice Riziki Kamete: Concert spectator from Shasha, pictured by the wall

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I am 32 years old, and I am a mother of four. This concert in which we have just participated made us very happy. If only the message they gave us through music also reached our leaders. The fact that we danced and sang made us relaxed and happy too. The words that I constructed during the game were, “we want peace”, because during the two years that we have just spent here in this camp, we have seen a lot of suffering. At home, we cultivated and we had things to eat, but here in the camp we don’t have anything to eat and we sleep in bad conditions. The only bad thing is that when we have a problem and someone comforts us, we forget our worries. But when they leave, we dive back into our thoughts again. But the important thing today is that, by singing and dancing, I relaxed. If peace is restored, everyone could return home and resume their previous lives.

Aime Bonsenibamwe: Concert participant from Kibumba, not pictured

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I am 27 years old and I have two children. I come from Kibumba, and we have been living in this camp since 2022. This concert made me very happy, because the key message was to get us to stand up and ask questions to the deputies we elected about our rights, because they represent us in parliament. I am so happy to have danced but also to have learned. The songs contain messages that concern us as voters and displaced people. My message during the play on words was, “peace and development, that’s what we want”. The deputies we elected must defend us so that peace is restored and we can return home.

Using dance ‘to heal souls, thoughts, and emotions’

Hundreds of residents of the Kanyaruchinya displacement camp turned up at the nearby Kibati stadium recently to watch a local dance collective perform. For the older generation, there were traditional songs and dancing, and, for the younger crowd, there was Afrobeats, Amapiano, and Ndombolo. “It was a short moment when the displaced people could feel like they were in another life,” Bashizi said after photographing the show.

Stéphanie Mwamba, dancer and president of the Kivu Dancer’s Collective, not pictured

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Yesterday was International Dance Day, which we celebrated with the war-displaced from the Kanyraruchinya camp. For us, it was quite an experience because it is the first time we have relocated this activity from Goma to the displaced persons camps. The aim, as a collective of dancers, was to help all of these people who live today in conditions that they would never have imagined. 

We wanted to use our art of dance as therapy to heal souls, thoughts, and emotions; to share good times with people who are not used to taking part in this type of activity on a daily basis. Through the dance and all the choreographies, we wanted to send a message of hope and put a smile on the faces of displaced people. 

Michael Habumugisha: Spectator from Rutshuru, pictured with the phone 

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Seeing this spectacle today makes me very happy: it proves that certain organisations care about us displaced people. We find ourselves happy and joyful, as if we were at home. Coming to dance with us allows us to forget our worries and celebrate. During this time, we were overflowing with joy as if we were at a house party.

Ange Salongo: Spectator from Kibumba, not pictured

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I’m so happy, because this dance show allowed me to forget my problems. I came here thinking about what we’re going to eat today, because it’s been a long time since we had any food. But seeing the people dancing, I forgot all about that and I was so happy. I will return to the tent where I stay with my family today in a good mood. I hope that these dancers will come back to the camp regularly to make us dance.

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

The New Humanitarian puts quality, independent journalism at the service of the millions of people affected by humanitarian crises around the world. Find out more at www.thenewhumanitarian.org.


Documentary photographer based in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo