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Drama helps Burundian refugee cope with challenges

Democratic Republic of the Congo. A Burundian grandmother adapts to life in a new country

Drama helps Burundian refugee cope with challenges

Starting over in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a Burundian mother draws strength from her roles with an amateur theatre group.
27 January 2017
Rehema Kankindi (right) performs with a street theatre group in Uvira, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Eyes wide in panic, the two young men seek cover at one end of the courtyard in the blinding sun. Behind them, a wall of iron sheets blocks their way: there is no escape. They scream in terror. 

All of a sudden, it's over. The men stand, shake the dust off their trousers. Next scene.

Hard at work rehearsing, the men are part of a troupe of actors drawn from both refugees and locals living in Uvira, a town in the volatile east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Among the actors in the drama group, known as The Kings of Peace, is 56-year-old widow Rehema Kankindi, who fled deadly political unrest in neighbouring Burundi in 2015. The rehearsals are taking place in the small yard of the modest house where she rents two rooms for herself, two of her children, and two grandchildren.

"A monster was after these two young men," Rehema explains in a soft voice. "These are tales that people tell here."

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, helps to protect urban refugees like Rehema across the world who do not live in camps, and promotes their peaceful coexistence with their host communities.

Short of funds for its programmes in DRC, however, UNHCR cannot do all that it would like to in providing psycho-social support to refugees. UNHCR therefore encourages groups like The Kings as part of its goal of helping refugees overcome painful experiences and live in dignity wherever they are.

As the actors continue rehearsing, the small yard slowly fills with an impromptu audience from the neighbourhood. Kids in flip flops sit on the ground beside women in colourful dresses, and a few men. Today, entry is free, but when The Kings play one of Uvira's popular restaurants, tickets earn them much-needed income.

But the theatre means more than a little pocket money for Rehema. "I saw that I had to join this group,” says Rehema, who has diabetes, a condition aggravated by physical and mental stress. “When we play theatre, we laugh, we cry, we are together outside. It helps me against stress, and that helps me to survive."

“When we play theatre, we laugh, we cry, we are together outside. It helps ... me to survive."

Some of the scenes deal with violence and refuge, and force Rehema to face the most difficult episodes of her life. Two of her grown-up sons disappeared during civil unrest in Burundi a year earlier. She has heard rumours they were murdered. Rehema’s husband died years before, leaving her to care for the family, and to arrange their hurried journey to Congo when Burundi became too unsafe for them.

"We don't know why they were killed. Nobody gave us a motive. At that time, some people kidnapped and killed others, just like that," she says.

Outside of the drama group life is difficult for Rehema. She works hard every day to put food on the family's table, selling vegetables for meagre earnings at a rudimentary table outside her home. Tomatoes are arranged in pyramids of four, next to green peppers, and a tin can with some palm oil that is sold by the spoonful.

Rehema is particularly vulnerable. She is a widow in charge of a family, and also suffers from chronic illnesses. UNHCR recently supplied her with medicine for her diabetes and other conditions, and the agency's staff look in on her and the children from time to time. It makes her feel safer, she says: "I feel also like I am not abandoned".

“She is in need of protection,” says Esther Kashira, a UNHCR protection associate in Uvira. “We follow up on her case, as we undertake field visits. Our presence helps to protect the refugees and reassures them.”

In the dusty courtyard, rehearsals for the next scene begin. Rehema plays the mother of a boy who dropped out of school and fell into bad company. She delivers her lines with deep and genuine emotion.

Her performance is so compelling because she is drawing on personal experience: her youngest son, Swedi, 16, has not been in class since they fled Burundi. Her daughter Shebaby, 18, dreams of going to university. But, so far, there is not enough money to pay for the fees.

Despite the challenges, Rehema will never give up. "I have illnesses that cannot be cured," she says, matter of fact. "If the kids study, they can fend for themselves in life. "

And with that, she turns back to her rehearsals, drawing from the theatre and the crowds the energy she needs to keep going, for herself, and for her children.