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Photo Essay Congo

The Amani Festival united more than 34,000 people for three days of music, dance, and culture to promote and demand peace in the still wounded North Kivu region in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

For more than two decades, the eastern DRC has suffered from war, mass atrocities, poverty, and destruction. Its well-known wealth in minerals and natural resources along with national and regional hostilities have created years of suffering for the Congolese people.

It is in this context of instability that the meaning of “Amani”, peace in the Swahili language, gains importance in a land tired of conflict. The festival seeks to change the image of Goma and the Great Lakes region and show the world that the Congolese youth is motivated to demand a change in their lives.

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The Amani festival started and has grown as a family that brings together people and culture. It represents a space of celebration where citizens of the Great Lakes region can meet, think and commit themselves to a better common future.

Over three days, people from across East Africa congregated to send a message against violence using music and art as their only ammunition. This year’s edition enjoyed a record attendance and consolidated its reputation as one of Africa’s most acclaimed festivals.

The performance led by the Burundian band, Alfred and Bernard, was a definite highlight. The band combined traditional instruments known as umuduri with drums, bass, keyboards and electric guitars in what was a show “made in the hills” of Burundi.

“It is thanks to the Burundian people that our leaders are where they are now. This is the reason why they must respect us without any discrimination, we want reconciliation and solidarity for our country”, the band said to the press after the concert.

[4 ways in which the Burundi crisis is far from over]

According to the organisers, 34,000 attendees, more than 100 NGOs, over 600 athletes, and 27 bands of Africa’s most esteemed musicians and artists took part in the 4th edition of the festival.

Music, art, spectacle, caravans, tents, and one-dollar tickets have been the instruments chosen for this edition to leave behind daily problems and after-effects of the war in an event of solidarity.

Festival-goers witnessed a big African party, a spirited festival of music where children, youth, families and foreigners danced non-stop.

Artists such as Jean Goubald, Boddhi Satva, Fabregas, DJ Amaroula, Mani Martin delighted the public and sent a message of peace for the future of eastern Congo.

Musical comedy group, The Invisibles, also captured and wowed the crowds with their explosive performance.

A group of young dancers and actors aged between 5 and 20 years old interpreted the brutality and consequences of the recruitment of children soldiers through powerful choreography and metaphoric theatre.

The DRC is well-known for the passion and intensity of its dances. The fearless artists of Amani were aware of this and transmitted great doses of stamina to the crowd.

But the night before the festival started, the idiosyncrasy of the unrest in the area was made present in what it was supposed to be a celebration for peace. During an unprovoked altercation a policeman shot and killed one of the Amani festival volunteers.

The volunteer was called Norbert Paluku, nicknamed “Djoo”, a 30-year-old dancer, who leaves behind a widow and two children, aged 3 years and a few months.

In an event that promoted peace and solidarity, the dark truths of a tumultuous country cannot be forgotten, and the name of Djoo will remain present in the memories of all the Amani family.

Despite the tragic turn of events the festival went on, and will continue to run next year. There is no way the region can move forward without peace and non-violent solutions. It is because of this that young volunteers and organisers are fully committed to land again in Goma for the 5th edition of Amani Festival.

Juan Haro Simarro is a photojournalist currently working for UNICEF Burundi where he focuses on digital media and photography with particular interest in the current socio-political situation and the advocacy for children’s rights. 

Margery Nicolson doesn’t walk so well anymore. She has spent a lifetime traveling and trekking; decades of backpacking, rock-climbing, and the slow march of time have all taken their toll. She’s had two hip replacements, plus there’s the battered knee (after an accident in China) and the wonky ankle (from a fracture in Alaska).

Despite all this, it was a more mundane injury that kept Nicolson from hiking into Cameroon’s Dja Biosphere Reserve: a knee-to-rolling-suitcase collision in the Paris airport. So when Nicolson arrived in the Dja, swooping down into the rainforest via helicopter, she had to be carried on a makeshift litter. It offered a unique vantage point, eye-level with the lush green forest of one of Central Africa’s largest protected areas. “I probably noticed more, because I didn’t have to watch my feet,” she says. “It was kind of calming, in a way, being carried through the bush. But if I had my druthers, I would have walked.”

Nicolson (seen here receiving a welcome bouquet) was in the Dja to visit the Bouamir Research Station; the remote field site, operated by the Congo Basin Institute (CBI), recently reopened after more than a decade of inactivity. Nicolson is a biochemist by training, and she spent most of her career teaching biochemistry and working in the biotech industry. She has long been a supporter of environmental causes and organizations, including the National Audubon Society and the Cheetah Conservation Fund. Her interest in biodiversity, however, came later in life, as did her interest in Bouamir – Nicolson’s financial support helped CBI rebuild the station after it shuttered in the 90s.

A view of Bouamir roche, a natural rock formation affording sweeping views of the Dja. The park encompasses more than half a million hectares, making it the largest nature reserve in Cameroon. “You look out and see miles and miles of total green,” Nicolson said of her journey to the Dja. “You could see a few villages, and a few little houses. Just looking at the endless jungle, from above it looks impenetrable.”

Members of the local Baka tribe play traditional music. The Baka are world-renowned for their music; they also serve as guides through the forest. They serenaded Nicolson before she left the Dja, singing and strumming on the hike through the rainforest. “This wasn’t planned,” she says. “They just decided they wanted to do it. So they did.”

The Dja itself also makes music, of sorts. It is this forest chorus, a blend of diverse birdsong punctuated by the occasional monkey hoot, that Nicolson remembers most vividly. Waking up in a tent at first light, “you are just surrounded by sound,” she says.

A reception for Nicolson and the group at Somalomo, a village right outside the Dja.

When Nicolson landed in Somalomo, residents – plus visitors from nearby, smaller villages – “greeted me as if I had provided the whole thing!” she says. “You never feel like a stranger.”

Bouamir is part of a pretty pristine jungle, Nicolson says. But the research station is also “such a small little piece of the [Congo rainforest].” And that rainforest, as a whole, is threatened by deforestation, poaching and more. Thus far, research at Bouamir has focused on better understanding the complex biodiversity of the park – how different components of the ecosystem are interconnected – and Nicolson has high hopes that this work will lead to insights that help conserve the broader Congo rainforest. “I hope that what people learn there will be able to transform to other parts of the jungle.”

Nicolson with Baka guides and Eco-guards (from Cameroon’s Ministry of Forests and Wildlife) on top of Bouamir roche.

Photos courtesy Thomas Smith

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