Music keeps hope alive for a trio of urban refugees in Luanda

Telling the Human Story, 6 February 2014

© UNHCR/T.Ghelli
Freeboy Gbaryeel and Mania Mulongwa play music together in Luanda, attracting music-loving neighbours.

LUANDA, Angola, February 6 (UNHCR) Music helps Freeboy Gbaryeel cope with the drudgery of his daily life and the uncertainty of his future. The Liberian refugee has always loved singing, but it has become more important since he learned to play guitar five years ago.

And, with the help of the refugee agency's representative in Angola, he has more of a chance to make money from his hobby and escape with his family from the poverty trap in the Angolan capital, Luanda.

"Music is something that is always in my thoughts," says the 38-year-old Liberian refugee. "When I play, I feel happy," he says with a smile, adding that it helps him to forget his many problems. Yet, even though Liberia has been at peace for a decade, he does not see repatriation as a solution and wishes to stay in Angola.

Freeboy fled to neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire in 1990, to escape the vicious civil war in Liberia. In 2002, he moved to Angola after hearing that there were better opportunities there, but like many other urban refugees he has struggled to provide for his Angolan wife and their three children.

He scrapes together a living as a freelance electrician and handyman and lives in a tiny two room home in a low-income neighbourhood of Luanda with his growing family his wife is pregnant with their fourth child.

But it pains him that his name is not on their birth certificate they were registered under their maternal grandfather's name so that they could take Angolan nationality. He hopes that this means they will have a better future and an easier life than he has had.

Freeboy never thought of music as a way out of his situation, and he became a musician quite by chance. On returning home in the evenings after a job, he would often hear the melodic sounds of an acoustic guitar floating through the narrow alleyways in his overcrowded neighbourhood. One night in 2009, he decided to investigate with his friend and fellow Liberian, Samuel Saah Yneykor.

Their search brought them to Mania Mulongwa, a 40-year-old asylum-seeker from Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the three struck up a friendship. Listening to Mania playing, Freeboy soon caught the bug. "I thought I wanted to learn how to play guitar, so I asked him to teach me," he recalls.

"Music helped to release our stress," he says, adding that soon he was not only playing the guitar, but also writing his own music. He mostly wrote anti-war songs, including one about his flight from Liberia.

"When we write songs, we try to include messages about what happens in our daily life," notes Freeboy, before launching into one of his haunting compositions for his UNHCR guests in the small dark room. "Do away with the hatred; we all have to ask for forgiveness. I don't take sides but we need to educate ourselves so we don't repeat the mistakes of the past," he sings.

Last June, UNHCR asked the group to play at a World Refugee Day event in Luanda. Luísa dos Santos, wife of UNHCR Representative to Angola Hans Lunshof, noticed that their instruments were old and was told that the band members had to rent the amplifiers and other sound equipment. She was impressed by their performance and suggested to her husband that they make a private donation of some new instruments, amplifiers and microphones.

"Not only do they make beautiful music, but now they can have the basic equipment necessary to perform at other events and can turn their music into a real source of income," says Lunshof. "We need to support this entrepreneurial spirit of the refugees so that they can be more self-reliant."

Meanwhile, Freeboy wants above all to share the gift of music with others. He and his friends still play every evening in their small shack, attracting music-loving neighbours. One teenage boy has asked Freeboy to teach him to play guitar. "I am happy to pass it on. Mania taught me and now I can teach this lad."

UNHCR's office in Angola helps urban refugees by providing free legal assistance, ensuring access to public health care and education, and organizing vocational training to help people become self-sufficient. It also works with the government to provide social assistance to the most vulnerable.

Angola hosts more than 43,000 refugees, including Freeboy, Sam and almost 500 other Liberians. Most refugees and asylum-seekers in Angola are from neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

By Tina Ghelli in Luanda, Angola