Musicians without Borders brings hope and healing through music

  • By By Lydia Hsu
  • May 30, 2012
Youth leaders attend the WE-ACTx programme. The New times / Danny Felsteiner.

Nadine Umutoni smiles as she talks about the change music has brought about in her life.

“Music has helped me to forget about the bad things I have to go through and to be happy,” says Umutoni, 18.

“It’s important for me because I want to know it and I want to teach other kids.”

Umutoni is a “peer parent” at Women’s Equity and Access to Care and Treatment (WE-ACTx), a medical organisation in Rwanda that provides medical treatment, psycho-social care, legal and work counselling to over 3,500 patients, of whom 500 are youth and children.

WE-ACTx also trains peer parents, 18 to 24 year old patients, to mentor younger patients, ages 6 -18.

This past weekend, WE-ACTx partnered with Musicians without Borders (MwB), an NGO that uses the power of music to bridge divides and heal communities in areas torn by war. Director of MwB, Laura Hassler, came to Rwanda for the first time to witness and participate in the music training workshops. She was encouraged and deeply moved by what she saw.

“In Rwanda, we’ve partnered with WE-ACTx because we’ve discovered that music can bring a lot of added value to those who have difficult medical conditions,” says Hassler.

“We offer musical tools that [peer parents] take and turn into what they use themselves. They are creative and have personal power within their group to create the tools they need to mentor the young people.”

In 1999, Hassler and a number of other musicians founded MwB with the idea of using music to contribute to reconciliation and healing in areas of conflict and post-conflict.

“We knew how powerful music could be to connect people across divides – economic divides, political divides, social divides,” she asserts. 

“The idea is to reach out to local musicians, to work together with them, and also with other organizations who would like to add music to their programmes.”

In addition to partnering with local musicians, MwB brought a familiar face back to Rwanda: Joey Blake, Associate Professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Three months ago, Blake travelled to Rwanda and Africa for the first time, and has now returned as an MwB ambassador to follow-up on the music workshops he led in February.

“The experience has been really strong,” Blake observes.

“It’s been really good to watch [students] start to own some of the techniques that we’ve given them.”

Henriette Mukanyonga, the Youth Programme coordinator at WE-ACTx, thanks MwB for bringing artists and using music to facilitate happiness and enthusiasm for youth.

“Music is significant and meaningful because it helps us to not think about some things that are wrong for us, some bad issues that happen to us every day,” notes peer parent, Aime Ndorimana, adding, “I have confidence that I can teach others what I have gained here.”

Sustainability of the music training, however, is a key focus of the programme.

“One of our main goals is to create a strong network of local musicians and organisations, and to train youth leaders not only to do music, but also to coordinate and manage parts of the programme,” states Danny Felsteiner, project manager of MwB.

“Based on our experience in other countries, we’ve learned that without building local capacity that can support durability and sustainability, projects cannot succeed.”

To that aim, MwB has formed partnerships with local musicians and institutions. In addition to the connection with WE-ACTx, MwB has also gained support from the Kigali Music School and three local musicians – Aline Gahongayire, Moise Mutangana, and Kim Thuita – who will continue the work in between the training weeks when the MwB team is not in Rwanda.

Hassler says she has learned a lot from local artists who use their art to support one another and the rebuilding of their communities.

“To me, the biggest impression has been the power and spirit of these young people. Their enthusiasm, the way they work so well with each other, support each other, their real presence and leadership qualities.”

In the future, Hassler hopes that MwB would be able to unite programmes around the world to work toward peaceful societies and facilitate “a positive kind of globalisation.”

“The idea is to have musicians around the world linked to each other, to work together on a change of consciousness with how humanity can be connected through arts.”

The MwB music workshops were sponsored by the Dutch Embassy in Kigali, which will also support a three-week training involving the women drummers group Ingoma-Nshya from Butare.

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