CONGO, AFRICA—"It used to be just a form of recreation for us,” Chiku Lwambo says, “but now with contemporary dance we have found a way to express ourselves and take a stand."
Chiku was taking a rehearsal break at Yolé!Africa, an arts center in Goma, the largest city in eastern Congo. Chiku, 26, and his twin Chito are co-directors of Busara, a dance company they formed in 2009.
The two brothers grew up dancing. From the age of eight they were performing on the street with different groups—Congolese traditional dance, hip-hop, and break dance. In 2005, they took a contemporary dance class at Yolé. “We were hypnotized by it,” Chiku says. “We began to travel and we saw what others were doing with dance. Dance changed our perceptions and our way of looking at the world.” Chiku and Chito went on to create their own company to express themselves the best way they knew how.
The Lwambo brothers choreograph pieces with themes that speak to the harsh realities of everyday life in their country. “How I Met Your Mother” tells of a young girl who has been raped by a rebel chief and becomes pregnant. Haunted by what he has done, the man finds the girl and takes responsibility for their newborn child. Another piece on the recruitment of child soldiers, “C’est Quoi Ton Histoire?” (“What’s Your Story?”), was inspired by Human Rights Watch testimony.
Although Busara has featured men and women, in 2014 its eight permanent members are all young men in their twenties. They rehearse three days a week for three hours and are encouraged to use improvisational movement. “We are giving the performers freedom in a place where art has been neglected,” Chiku says. The company has performed in Goma and on the road, in Kigali, Kampala, and Nairobi. Chiku and Chito have also toured in Brussels and Germany as well as in Ivory Coast.
“We share everything, ideas, clothes,” Chiku says about his twin. “He is more than a friend, more than a brother–he is ‘half of me.’” When Chiku developed “The President’s Vest,” a piece about hypocrisy–the vest symbolizing a way to hide who you really are–it was Chito who gave him the feedback he needed to make it even better. And when Chito wanted to create a dance about modern-day slavery, the twins exchanged ideas. Chito did the choreography and Chiku gave him notes.
Just as important as performing is the work they do to help survivors of sexual violence as well as former child soldiers recover from trauma. Few places in the world have a greater need. In and around Goma, rape has become a weapon of war. Both rebel groups and army soldiers are culpable.
While working with women who were residing at HEAL Africa, a hospital in Goma that specializes in long-term care for sexually traumatized women, Chiku found a way to use movement and dance to break down barriers. He helped the women there to feel part of a community. “They became more open speaking to their counselors,” Chiku says. “They no longer felt shame. They became more contented.”
Chiku also recognizes the challenges ex-child soldiers face when they return home. Many no longer feel they belong to their old communities—they are outcasts. He worked in Kigali with youth who had fought in Congo and were returning to their native Rwanda, developing a dance-therapy program to encourage these boys “to take negative emotions and transform them into something positive. I wanted to give them self-confidence and a reason to live,” he says.
Finding them to be uneasy, withdrawn, and humorless, he tried to make them laugh. He marched and saluted just like a soldier and got the young men to copy his movements. Then he tried to be funny. He did a plié and they all started to laugh. Once that happened, the ice was broken, and they could finally begin to let go.
He also worked with them on an improvisation, asking them to pretend to shoot each other. In the middle of the exercise he told them to become the person who was shot so that they could identify with their victims. Quite soon, their supervisors began to notice a difference in their young charges–they’d become less withdrawn and more trusting. They joked, they smiled. The older ones started looking out for the younger ones as if it were their job to protect them.
“To change anything you have to first change yourself,” says Biencon Hangi, 22, a member of the Busara Dance Company. “I dance to change myself.”
Kem Knapp Sawyer is a contributing editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
(This article was also published by Truth Atlas on February 7, 2014.)