DRC: Drumming for deliverance

Slapped into submission by a child soldier, a man thanks the gunmen who have just raped his wife and daughter, now bedraggled and whimpering. Dozens of women in a large circle observe the harrowing scene. But this is theatre – as therapy.

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The “stage” is the grounds of the General Referral Hospital of Panzi, in Bukavu, capital of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s South Kivu province, a facility that specializes in treating survivors of sexual violence, of whom there are a very large number in eastern DRC, where rape is widely used as a weapon by warring groups.

The performance brings together both survivors and perpetrators of extreme violence.

One Panzi patient, Celeste*, 48, recalled her traumatic experience: “I was tilling the field when four fighters approached me and told me they were going to kill me. I said, ‘Please don’t kill me, I’m like your mother, I have children like you,’ but they didn’t listen and they raped me.”

The “actors” include Joseph, who at the age of six joined the Mai-Mai, the collective name for numerous eastern Congolese militia groups. “When you are in an armed group, you are forced to do horrible things,” he told IRIN.

“You’re forced, even though you’re a child, to do bad things because of orders from your commander. You’re told to find young girls for your commander … and you see how they treat people, how they kill them, torture them and these things I wouldn’t want other children to do,” he said.

“I took part in a massacre, where a lot of children were killed. I had to participate because I was under orders from my commander. I was ordered to participate, so I did. When I think about it I become very upset,” he added.

When he was demobilized five years ago, Joseph joined the Association de soutien pour les opprimmés (ASO), a group of musicians, actors, singers, dancers and drummers comprising former child soldiers, survivors of violence, witchcraft suspects and street children.

The aim, according to ASO coordinator Juvenal Muderhwa, is to help people move on from violence and trauma.

“When I started psychosocial activities, we found that the cultural activities such as music and theatre could help the youth start over, forget what they lived through and rediscover their culture,” he explained.

Drumming, dancing, singing and performing are Joseph’s therapy. “Now that I’ve become an artist, I use art to calm my emotions and deal with the past,” he said.


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects many of the children who have lived among armed groups, according to Anna Maedl, a clinical psychologist with the University of Konstanz in Germany, who has conducted research with ex-child soldiers in DRC and throughout Africa.

Maedl says the simple act of drumming can play a crucial role in recovering from PTSD because it is not a language-based activity and therefore is a relatively non-threatening way of interacting with other people. Many children who have lived through traumatic experiences often avoid discussing them as it could trigger difficult memories or feelings of shame, guilt, sadness and fear.

These sentiments are very similar to those experienced by rape survivors, according to Esther Munyerekana Nakashunjwe, a psychosocial nurse at the Panzi Hospital.

“The women that come here are traumatized, they feel rejected, as if they have no value, they are ashamed, embarrassed and often will isolate themselves.”

Through drumming, singing and dancing with the members of ASO, the women are slowly rediscovering their worth, says Yvet Bunvania, another psychosocial nurse at the hospital.

“The songs, games and theatre, all of the activities, help the women, especially women who feel isolated and alone, they help them reintegrate,” she said.

According to Maedl, by performing for Panzi’s patients, the youths demonstrate they are well on the road to recovery.

“Someone who wants to help and wants to contribute to healing is someone who is already quite far himself in the healing process. For those that are in the full symptoms of PTSD, they will withdraw from others and basically don’t care if they contribute to society,” she told IRIN.

Assessing recovery

Bunvania and her colleagues at the Panzi Hospital use the performances by ASO to help them diagnose patients’ stage of psychological recovery.

“We watch women in the audience to see how they react and then afterwards we will speak with them.”

Women who withdraw, go silent, cry, or scream are given special attention, as these are strong symptoms of PTSD.

However, cultural activities alone will not heal PTSD, says Maedl.

“What can of course always help is being close to one’s community and if one participates in cultural practices that again generate social support, that generate the feeling of being appreciated.”

Celeste enthusiastically applauds and cheers when the performance ends. According to Munyerekana Nakashunjwe, she is well on her way to a healthy psychological recovery.

* Not her real name



Theme (s): Conflict, Gender Issues, Health & Nutrition, Human Rights,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]