It has long been recognized that the arts hold the power to expose wounds of conflict, soothe tormented spirits and teach lessons about war and peace. Children in refugee camps draw stick figures of men with guns and houses aflame. In countries as vastly different as Uganda and Afghanistan, informal or more professional drama groups give audiences a chance to laugh or cry or just say, Yes, that’s the way it was—or is.
GULU, Northern Uganda — During two decades of conflict, many of the young men and women from this commercial capital were forcibly conscripted by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army. Girls were often abducted to become sex slaves and servants of its leaders and troops. Children witnessed or survived unspeakable acts of violence. Families and communities were decimated.
When the fighting ended in 2008, young survivors bore both physical and psychological scars. The Gulu Youth Centre, a project of Uganda’s Straight Talk Foundation joined forces with other organizations to meet needs of the young by using the icons of their own cultural world. The result was the introduction of breakdance and hip-hop to supplement the six-year-old centre’s existing work in health care and disease prevention for adolescents from 10 to 19 and young adults from 20 to 24.
Using dance and music to express deeply buried feelings
A new movie, Bouncing Cats, tells how it all began, largely through the efforts of a Ugandan AIDS orphan and war victim who wanted to create a better life for the children of Uganda using hip-hop with a focus on ‘b-boy culture’ and breakdance. “I think music and dance can help give peace a chance,” he says in the film. “Breakdance and hip hop are the weapons that youth want to use to tell people what is deep in their hearts.” Often this helps to deal with the trauma young people have suffered.
“We have break dance for therapy every Saturday, and they dance away and forget themselves,” said Faith Lubanga, Outreach Officer of the Straight Talk Foundation, which receives support from UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.
The break dance programme at the Gulu Youth Centre began in cooperation with Breakdance Project Uganda, a non-governmental organization based in Kampala, and its Hip Hop Therapy Project, which has been supported by USAID and mtvU, a university media service that is part of MTV Networks. The programme was an enormous hit with youth from its start in 2009, and has been a big draw for the centre.
The project’s mission is to engage young people in elements of the hip hop culture to build leadership skills and promote social responsibility, according to Josh Jones, the project coordinator in Gulu. “The Project has attracted people from every walk of life and acts as a catalyst for building mutually beneficial relationships between people of different social status across Uganda and the rest of the world,” he said.
Choreographing messages of peace and positive change
Breakdance Uganda’s visiting stars have brought choreographed messages of peace and positive social change with their performances, said Ms Lubanga. That reinforces other messages the centre promotes through sports, parents’ programmes and radio broadcasts as well as the comprehensive health services and counselling for the young as they mature sexually. “A lot of sensitization goes on,” Lubanga said. “The boys we see here are more gentlemanly than the ones I saw growing up.” Gradually, more gender understanding and equality grows. And they have fun.”
The project works hard to involve girls as well as boys, Jones said, adding, “We have seen huge changes in some of our core girl members, showing great increases in confidence and fundamentally being able to challenge and compete together with males.”
In other countries as well, various forms of art – from theatre and music to painting and crafts – are being used to heal wounds, restore hope and teach lessons. In fact, almost everywhere today, creative responses to tragedy go on in many forms. Many of these projects are described in the arts and culture supplement to the State of World Population 2010.