War-Torn Congolese City Sings and Dances for Lasting Peace

A music festival in Democratic Republic of the Congo drew neighbors and sometime enemies to a celebration.

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The Amani Festival in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, February 2014

Courtesy of Rebecca Rattner   

For a few peaceful days in February, the city of Goma, in Democratic Republic of the Congo, was filled with the sounds of music rather than the cries of war. Despite ongoing problems between their respective countries, thousands of people from neighboring Rwanda and Burundi descended on the DRC for the region’s first multinational music and dance festival. The theme of the Amani Festival was peace—amani’s literal meaning in Swahili. Significantly, the festival was held in Goma, a city that’s better-known as a violence-torn epicenter of Congolese conflict than for its vibrant music scene.

Bright-blue Amani Festival banners, proudly advertising the slogan “Playing for change—singing for peace,” hung across the various booths and in front of the stage. A giant blue-and-white arch made of balloons marked the entrance to the concert area, which contained an enormous stage featuring performers ranging from rappers to dancers to Burundian drummers. Five thousand people from across the region attended on the first day, and that number continued to rise during the three-day-long festival.

Only six months earlier, the Amani Festival had seemed doomed. It was originally scheduled for last August, but organizers were forced to cancel the festival just days before opening night, after a rocket attack incited renewed violence in Goma. A subsequent peace treaty, brokered last December between the DRC and the Rwandan-backed M23 rebels, has quelled regional violence. However, for Goma, which sits on the Rwandan border, recent incidents are part of a nearly two-decade-long regional struggle marked by a cycle of peace deals and renewed conflict.

“What we can say about the future of Goma—not only Goma but the whole of DRC and the whole region—is that we have to be united and we are stronger together,” said Jean Claude “J.C.” Wenga, one of the festival’s primary organizers. “If we keep working for unity and speaking the same language, we will build a peaceful society and write a new history together.”

The festival amplified the voice and vision of a rising new generation, with a new approach to fighting for their future. For the young performers, organizers and supporters of the Amani Festival, achieving “peace” meant achieving unity and reconciliation between the people of the Great Lakes region.

Maraben, one of the Congolese performers, advocated forgiveness and focus on the future. “It’s a matter of changing mentalities,” he explained. “Let’s drop all those old opinions and ways of thinking and let’s turn towards the light in front of us. We’ve been in the dark for too long. It’s a new day now with its sunrise. We only need to come together and work hand in hand for a change.”

But achieving unity and peace in this region is often nebulous, complicated and impersonal. Peace processes in Africa most often begin with conferences of opposing leaders who meet in major cities to negotiate a settlement (pdf) brokered by prominent third-party individuals. In some cases, a justice or reconciliation process follows these agreements. Very often, these negotiated settlements fail to last, and as has happened time and again in the DRC, before long conflict re-emerges.

Young people—often displaced, recruited to fight or orphaned—suffer greatly in these conflicts, but rarely, if ever, do they figure significantly in the peace. They are disempowered and sidelined. The Amani Festival indicates the coming together and rise of a new generation, not content to sit quietly in the background, but willing to fight with a new energy for peace on their terms and according to their vision.

Maraben spoke passionately of his commitment to a new future for the DRC. “A lot of people think that to succeed, you have to go to Europe or the United States because they think that’s where life is more beautiful, more easy. But for me, I will not leave. To succeed is to succeed here, at home.”

The enthusiasm surrounding the festival was contagious, the sentiments inspiring. But after the final act had finished, the setup was dismantled and all of the people had left, United Nations peacekeepers, who provided security at Amani, still patrolled Goma in force, and the white Land Cruisers of the conflict-related nongovernmental organizations were ubiquitous.

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