In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the prevalence of sexual violence has been described as the worst in the world. The use of rape as a weapon of war terrorizes individuals and destabilizes entire communities. At Maison Dorcas, Panzi Hospital’s aftercare facility, our Healing in Harmony program offers survivors a unique combination of psychotherapy and music therapy. It has helped women like ‘Joy’ to take charge of their healing journey, to make meaning of their experiences, and help build a healthier future for all.
Joy (not her real name) is a fifteen year old girl who found her way to Panzi Hospital following a vicious attack and abduction that left her with deep physical and psychological wounds.
She has lost almost her entire family in an attack on Beni, in North Kivu province. She was taken and held captive by a known militia group at a camp where she was sexually abused daily. Joy estimates that she became pregnant when she was raped by three men at the same time.
Three months later, the camp was attacked the camp and Joy was left waiting for her liberators to transport her to Goma. In the month that she waited, she was once again raped. Her attacker tried to coerce her into staying quiet about his crime by supplying her with extra food and water.
Joy finally travelled to Goma, but without any way to earn money, she was initiated into sex work and eventually moved to Bukavu to work in a brothel, hoping to make more money.
In Bukavu, Joy told her story to a friend who informed her of the services offered at Panzi Hospital. She immediately sought treatment and was welcomed by the staff and other women there.
She says, “Now I have food and a place to stay, but sometimes I feel as though I am in a movie. Images and thoughts of war go through my mind at all times of the day and night. I am fearful and think more about my parents, my pregnancy, and my sisters and brothers. I don’t sleep and I am having dreams where I am having sex with soldiers and I suddenly wake and start trembling and feeling scared. I try to avoid these thoughts, but I have not succeeded…”
“Images and thoughts of war go through my mind at all times of the day and night. I am fearful and think more about my parents, my pregnancy, and my sisters and brothers.”
After receiving medical treatment at Panzi for her pregnancy and injuries sustained from sexual violence, Joy had a prolonged stay at the aftercare facility so the staff could engage in more psychosocial care and more directly address her mental health.
Joy was diagnosed with PTSD and depression. She stayed at Panzi and eventually gave birth to a baby boy. She was later invited to join the Healing in Harmony program as an outlet for expression and to regain emotional strength.
Make Music Matter Lead Therapist Justin Cikuru who led Joy in the Healing in Harmony program explains, “It was clear that Joy was traumatized and experiencing depression. As she shared her story, she began to cry, and so I took her into a private session to stabilize her. Within the first month of participating in Healing in Harmony, we noted that Joy’s mood had stabilized. She no longer appeared sad and tired and reported that her sleep was improving continually. Joy had wished to tell the story of her trauma but felt that doing so was too overwhelming.”
“Within the first month of participating in Healing in Harmony, we noted that Joy’s mood had stabilized. She no longer appeared sad and tired and reported that her sleep was improving continually. Joy had wished to tell the story of her trauma but felt that doing so was too overwhelming.”
Together, Justin and Make Music Matter Lead Music Producer Georges Mupemba were able to gently guide her through the process of expressing herself, at first focusing on her emotions and thoughts associated with her experiences.
Georges worked with Joy to figure out what kind of music would best express those feelings and found chord progressions and beats that matched. The instrumental music began to give shape to her emotions. Eventually, she opened up and was able to articulate the details of her trauma through the songwriting process.
Once rehearsals and recording began, Joy bonded with the other artists in her cohort and was able to forge close relationships with several of the other women.
During the first Healing in Harmony community concert, Joy had the opportunity to perform her song in front of over 300 members of the community, Panzi staff, journalists, and other NGO guests. The beautiful performance was a success, and the crowd sang and danced along, demanding an encore. After the concert, Joy was witnessed holding her baby and kissing it affectionately for the very first time.
By taking ownership of her traumatic story and finding empowerment leading up to the performance, Joy was able to lovingly accept her child for the first time. Negative generational cycles and associations she held towards her baby were broken.
Subsequent follow up with the psychologist team at Panzi has confirmed that this new behaviour has continued. Joy continues to make strides: her positive, uplifted mood is stable, her improved self-esteem and positive perception of her future continue to trend upwards, and the affection and loving bond with her child remains.
The story above is a composite narrative based on multiple interviews; anonymity has been maintained. It reflects common experiences of survivors who have taken part in the Healing in Harmony program together with Panzi Hospital and Foundation.
Show your support for survivors like Joy and donate today to the Healing in Harmony program to help ensure that we can continue to offer these life-transforming experiences with the power of music.
Did you know… Artists from the Healing in Harmony program at Maison Dorcas have emerged as the musical collective Cohorte Femmes Fortes. Have a listen to their track Sirudi Nyuma featured on ‘Healing in Harmony: Greatest Hits Vol. 2’, released December 18 on A4A Records.