Building a better future for youth away from conflict in eastern DRCongo

Une jeunesse au service de la paix et du développement durable

I am part of a youth social-cultural movement in Eastern DRCongo which is socially named Amani-Institute. « Amani » means peace in the local language. We are young people working with young people and their communities. We try to build peace among communities and to restore the land by planting trees, which also means building peace with nature between people and their environment. We work near Virunga National park and this area is affected by war and ongoing conflict. There are many armed groups in the bush around us and there are active militias, even in the towns and urban areas.

Amani-Institute is a not for profit organization founded in 2016 and managed on a voluntary basis by youth. This initiative is based in North-Kivu, more precisely in Rutshuru Territory, in the North East of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The name « Amani » means peace in the local dialect of Kiswahili. This organization is set up to support the young survivors of war and conflict, to reduce violence and restore peace for sustainable development.

We use art to educate, we use a participatory theater forum combined with psychodrama to educate people and to bring people together through dialogue and reconciliation, to help them live together and shape their future. We plant trees as part of landscape restoration but also to build peace, because trees are essential for the process of reconciliation. People meet each other under a tree. If there are no trees, there is no place for people to meet and to have a dialogue with each other. Trees have this cultural value to local people. My role is more into art. Through art we combine everything to get the message through and to start a dialogue. We begin with art as an essential instrument and we try to address all relevant issues around art.

The problem in our region is the war. People came from Rwanda to DRC. FDLR (Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda) came here and armed groups were formed. There is a history of killing and fighting. Young people like me have never known peace. What pushed us to create this association is that we can change the situation with the power we have. The armed groups use young people to kill, to make war, to destroy. I think we can use these same young people to do good things, to use the energy of youth to build, not to destroy. That is why we use the energy young people have to make peace, to restore the land, to build and to do good things all this through: art.

Art holds a great energy to inspire positive transformation and to educate for positive change, to build a different future through engagement. We can change their future by providing an alternative. We work with youth from all ages, from 3 year old up to 25 and 30 year old. It all depends on the problems we see in the community. We want to resolve a problem by documenting and identifying the underlying causes. Youth are part of this process, because their understanding of the situation determines their mentality which is severely damaged as a result of the violence, trauma and loss they have experienced. We bring together young people in a group dialogue, to have a discussion and brainstorm together, to find their way out and identify what solutions they need for their problems.

We are in a bad environment. Youth are physically and psychologically damaged by the war. They disengage from building a future. They are violent and they are afraid, because they are not in a safe space. We cannot do what we want to do with our lives, because we are affected by the war. As a result young people turn to destroy, rape, kill and take drugs – because that is what they know and what is there. Young people must stand together to understand the problems they face, by talking about their experience. When they can talk about it, it allows them to speak about what happened to them and they can express their emotions about the loss and traumas they suffer from – many have lost their parents and family members, sometimes killed or raped in front of their eyes. They must be able to tell the bad stories and understand this happened because of the war and because of bad governance. This brings a sense of perspective which helps them to grasp how they can change their situation.

With the psychodrama theater we try to bring the kids together to tell their stories. Before the presentation of the show, they must go through physical motivation sessions, speaking groups and rehearsals to be able to tell their own story. In principle, in this theater, we start from the individual problems to solve a collective problem. Therefore, in the end we suggest that everyone plays what they have experienced, victim or perpetrator, and this allows us to direct the questions towards the spectators. Their role is to try and re-frame what happens on stage by embodying the roles of the actors and then change the course of action and change the story. For the actors, it is a testimony to what happened to them and they get to play different roles in the play. The children are enabled to tell their own story and those who sit in as spectator listen to each other’s stories. The audience plays an active role as they can intervene and decide to change the situation. In this theater everybody plays an active part.

This form of theater provides multiple ways of support to help children deal with the traumatic events they have experienced. Some of the children are former child soldiers and the theater directly aims to aid their psycho-social and economic reintegration. By telling their story they can now share what happened to them with others, they can express their emotions and receive support. Also, since many children have suffered similar atrocities, they can connect with each other and know they are not alone in what they have been through. Through this process they also learn about the context of war and conflict that they are victim of, which brings a sense of perspective: what has happened and how could this happen to me? By engaging children to participate and change their story through theater empowers them to shape their own story moving forward.

« Adopt a tree, not a weapon » it’s also our program and it is aims to reconcile or link climate action and peace in eastern DRCongo, a region bruised by the activism of armed groups. Here, it is about planting trees to let off steam and face the climate crisis. That is to say, each child or young person must plant a tree, appropriate it and take care of it instead of going to handle the firearms. This is therefore a new form of resilience and the idea is to bring young people, who were born in war, to forget or abandon violent extremism to make peace and above all, to develop social, emotional, and eco-citizens favorable to the protection of the environment in a region in crisis. So, we plant agroforestry trees to restore the land, fruit trees for food especially in schools, but we also have trees or medicinal plants for health. We base our approach first on education based on artistic performance and then on practice through tree planting sessions in schools, in the community and even in agricultural fields. We are in the Virunga landscape in North Kivu.

Another thing that gives me hope is our work with young girls who became mother at a very young age. There is no sexual education for young people. Young girls are giving birth before their time and are still under age. As a result they are rejected and not considered at school which leaves them without any means to provide for themselves. We can educate them and give them hope for a better future, to be able to build their lives they must also learn how to work and earn some money. We also educate them on tree planting. We do tree planting with all those people. They know the problem of the region and the world. They become members of our program “Mutual Solidarity and Dialogue”. Here they can put money together, like a Village Savings and Loan Scheme, which helps them to be autonomous and take care of each other.

With the support of Amani-Institute young women receive an education to establish an income generating activity and to enable social integration in their community. Without education and because they are victims of early pregnancies, women are worse off, affected by poverty and social exclusion.

I live in a region where all forms of violence are rife and where biodiversity is subjected to a form of human pressure because of the war. So as a young actor of social change, I decided to intervene to positively change this situation by using my energy, my influence and my creative imagination. The situation in which I live is sufficient to learn and the only way to teach me how to change it, together with my colleagues, young people like me. And who am i then ? My name is Joseph Tsongo and i am the coordinator of the local non-profit association Amani-Institute !

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