For the past twenty years, an ongoing conflict has torn apart the lives of civilians living in the provinces of North and South Kivu, located in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this conflict, as in many others across the world, women are especially vulnerable to violence, as rape is commonly used as a weapon of war. Kivu is full of female survivors of these attacks. Recently, a French-Congolese dancer has started organizing dance workshops for these survivors, which he says is a way to help them to reconnect with their bodies and the healing process.
There are numerous armed groups involved in the conflict that has ravaged the eastern part of the DRC. However, in South Kivu, the most frequent clashes are between the Congolese army and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a rebel group. These opposing forces are waging bloody war for control of the region’s coltan mines. Coltan is an extremely valuable mineral used as a component in cell phones.
The armed groups in Kivu want full, uninterrupted control of these mines — which means clearing out civilians. They’ve embarked on a chilling campaign of terror to force local people to flee, including large-scale rape of civilian women.
One man who has become well-known for his work to support victims is Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynaecologist and human rights activist, who co-founded Panzi Hospital in 1999. This hospital, specialised in medical care for victims of sexual violence, is located in Bukavu, the capital city of South Kivu. The Panzi Foundation, which is also located in South Kivu, provides counselling and psychological support for survivors and works on facilitating their reintegration into their communities.
"I'm trying to prepare them for therapy"
I met Dr Mukwege on March 8, 2016, in Paris during a conference held at the town hall in honour of International Women’s Day. During the conference, Dr Mukwege said that he had received a lot of support from Europeans, especially psychiatrists and doctors, yet his work in the DRC remains extremely difficult.
It’s important to understand that most people in the DRC keep their troubles to themselves — it’s not part of our culture to open up about your own suffering, especially in the midst of this war without end. Many people here have witnessed death firsthand and they’ve lost loved ones, so these women sometimes don’t believe that they deserve to be cared for as victims.
During his speech, Dr. Mukwege said that he thought the women he works with could be helped through the arts — through activities like singing and dancing. That’s when I thought to myself, “I’m a dancer… I can do something to help!”
Dance also helped me through difficult times; it was like therapy for me. My father was a Congolese dancer and my mother, who is French, was his student. They separated when I was only a year old and I went and lived in Congo for the next five years. After that, I started travelling with my father. Dance gave me a foundation to cling to during all of those unstable years.
"I help them to feel like their bodies are theirs again after everything they've gone through"
I went to Bukavu for the first time last spring. I stayed there for two weeks and, during that time, I was able to get a better understanding of the reality of the situation on the ground. I also organised my first dance workshop at the foundation.
At first, I was a little nervous. I knew that, in order to succeed, I would need the women to accept me — after all, I am a man, which makes me harder to trust. After we introduced ourselves, I didn’t say a word, I just started dancing and they immediately followed suit!
My goal is to help these women feel like their bodies are theirs again after everything that they’ve gone through. We aren’t just talking about rape here. Some of them were mutilated, cut open with machetes from their vaginas to their breasts as if they were a cow being slaughtered. Others were raped with Kalashnikovs.
Their bodies were violated and raped and, then, to add to their suffering, most of these women were then rejected. Their husbands, their families and their communities didn’t want anything more to do with them. Most of these women were practically girls when they were attacked: the average age of a victim is 16. Some of them became pregnant from their rapists even though their bodies were not even done growing yet.
Faced with all of that, dance can be a path to changing their self-perception. Learning to move and being admired for your skill can make you feel wanted — to feel desirable even. Dance gets them moving, having fun. They watch themselves dancing. That’s why we decided to call our project "re-création", because it is a kind of coming back to life. Dance is a way to show off their pride and dignity and to leave shame behind.
I don’t pretend to teach them how to dance, because they all dance well already. But I want to teach them to dance in a more structured way by counting their steps and following a choreography.
The trauma that they underwent means that, often, they have trouble organising their ideas, so I help them by establishing a structure. I don’t claim to heal them through dance, but I do sincerely believe that it helps the psychologists with their work.
We started to notice little changes in the women’s behaviour after they did the dance classes. They started to smile more and they seemed like they were starting to learn how to appreciate life’s small joys again.
According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2011, an estimated 1,152 Congolese women become victims of sexual violence every day. Faced with the reality that huge numbers of women in the community are survivors of such violence, Bolewa and his friends wanted to set up a project that could provide survivors with long term help and support.
We’ve raised enough money to return to Bukavu in September. Our aim, however, is to pull together the funding to support the project over a five-year period, which would mean we could really work with these women on a long-term basis.
I know that some people might criticise our project because of what they perceive as a warped power dynamic. Some criticise the fact that we are men seeking to run a programme to “free” women or, worse, that I am a biracial kid coming from Europe to “save” these African women. But, honestly, I think that making these kind of arguments is a luxury afforded to people in better situations. These criticisms are meaningless when you consider how dire the situation actually is in Kivu. Anything helps. Now isn’t the time to criticise, it’s the time to act.
Our aim is to give these women back their power because nothing will get done without them. Dr. Mukwege “repairs” them because that’s his job, he’s a doctor. As for me, I just give them the tools to help them rebuild. And if all people do is criticise, who will actually get up and do anything about the problem?