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Teen mums sing out to quiet pain of rape

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Congo_republic_sm04The chanting begins quietly but quickly swells, the sound echoing depths of suffering that the music might heal. “Help me, each day is difficult, help me overcome this suffering.”

The teenage girls singing in a state-of-the-art music studio near the Panzi hospital outside the city of Bukavu are young enough to be in school, but some are already mothers after being raped in the atrocities sweeping eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The hospital founded and run by eminent Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege calls them “survivors” to help them avoid the stigma of being victims of sexual atrocities.

For more than 15 years Mukwege has been battling to restore dignity to the tens of thousands of women damaged by often barbaric instances of rape during the country’s wars.

The 60-year-old surgeon specialises in repairing internal damage done to women gang-raped in Congo’s ongoing trouble, but also aims to help them overcome the shame and stigma that are often an obstacle to returning home.

Mukwege’s ground-breaking work with women last year won him the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov Prize.

Music is part of that therapy, the chanting the result of a three-year project by Canadian Darcy Ataman, who runs it with the help of the Panzi Foundation that coordinates aid projects for the rape victims.

The project’s inaugural session takes place in a sound studio in a recently-built Foundation building fitted out with a synthesizer, computer, microphones, recording equipment and a row of neatly-hung headsets.

The girls first try their voices, but Jojo the “producer” tells one youngster she’s “too loud”.

– ‘Thank you Dr Mukwege’ –

Then, to music the choir sing “Thank you Dr Mukwege, thank you”. The surgeon has shown up for the first-ever music session.

“Can’t you sing something else?” he says quizzically.

The singers, some of whom take part with enthusiasm in morning prayer songs, are between 13 and 18 years old though it’s hard to put an age to the faces of girls whose eyes often glaze over, seemingly lost.

When the recording is over Ataman, of the Make Music Matter NGO which works in countries that have been deeply scarred by conflict, promises to give each of them a CD once the mixing is complete.

“This is just a quick example of what we can do,” he said of the first test run for the workshop that will take place three times a week.

Ataman said he drew inspiration for it in another African nation where he saw a group of youngsters improvise music about “very heavy topics, AIDS of course, the right to sell their bodies” to survive.

Studies show “music is a very good means to break taboos. Talking about things face to face can be too hard but become acceptable through music.”

As the girls left, one recounted her own story, how men brutalised her and her mother, how she wandered about before arriving at the Panzi hospital.

“It’ll help me because instead of living in the past all the time, I’ll find consolation.”

Another teenager, Baraka, said she hoped for a career in music and “I’m certain this activity will help me make a name for myself.”

That was a possibility, said Ataman, as the music-therapy budget provides for funds enabling the girl “survivors” to release their songs on local radio



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