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Together We Are Strong

2011 August 5

The audience lobbies to see that performers at the Intamenwa Festival (photos: Grégoire Baribeau)

By Elise Webb

The youth of Burundi are a force to be reckoned with and everyone in Bujumbura seems to know it.

Too many Westerners only know Africa through the negative lens the media tends to show. So the story of politicians manipulating the young minds of their largest pool of voters can seem tired. It’s the sort of thing that gets a sigh of “It’s Africa.” For years the politicians of this small nation have been doing much more reach the youth than the old Clinton-on-MTV gig. Youth here, young men in particular are inspired to violence by politicians, who dangle promises of employment before them. They convince the youth that certain areas should be political party strongholds and all other parties should be forced to leave, this often translates to violent turf skirmishes reminiscent of Tammany Hall strong-arming.

Yet everyone seems to forget that ‘the youth’ are made of up individuals. Young men and women with their own dreams and desires, with their own way of seeing things, and they choose to come together however they like. Last Friday nearly 5,000 youth and other residents of Bujumbura filled a once empty recreation field to see Search for Common Ground’s Peace Music Festival.

When I arrived, jostling on to the grass in the SFCG Jimmy with a few of the other team members about a half an hour before the main show, the place was already filling up. The sole tree at the edge of the field had 15 kids setting up camp in its branches to get a better view of the stage. A metal frame of a football goal, stripped of its net, was now the temporary home to six or seven boys. While a rope barrier had been set up around the stage and spectator tents the individuals ringing the area were easily four people deep, with the farthest layer composed of bicycle taxi drivers precariously standing on their bikes with only a kickstand between them and falling into a heap on the ground.

Our headliner was a hometown hero: native son turned international rapper recently returned from Belgium, Lolilo. Our posters were a great success with the simple addition of ‘avec Lolilo.’ Suddenly the Bujumbura gossip buzzed with his name: “He’s back? I have to go see him!”

Later when he started performing, it was easy to see why he was so beloved, he has a charisma that draws people in. His gestures are passionate and imploring. A song particularly stuck with me (in part because it had an English chorus) was One Nation, One Love. The hook for it is “together we are strong” and each time he sang the chorus he thrust his arm to the sky, fingers spread, with intensity shooting from each tip. Then he would pull his hand back to his chest as if the need for peace was so penetrating it physically hurt. This motion showed he was desperate for the crowd to join him.

How often has that phrase, “together we are strong,” been used to divide people? Whole wars have started because of the conviction in strength of numbers. Yet there is usually a twinge of exclusivity to it. We are strong only when we are ‘pure;’ when we are the only ones. The phrase can be frightening in its power. Yet on this afternoon with a crowd of thousands of different people Lolilo was presenting it as a rallying cry for peace.

Lolilo’s Facebook fan page about section simply says, “Support this young warrior!! ADD FRIENDS!!” Which sounds a bit like a recipe for Shake ‘n’ Bake: step one- open box and pour out ‘warrior for peace’, step two- add friends, step three- shake to the music, step four- bake for three hours in the afternoon sun. Follow the instructions correctly and you get a fired up peace movement. It’s pretty remarkable.

The whole afternoon followed a similar pattern as more ingredients to this peace movement were added. Acrobats built high pyramids of young men proving, quite literally, that together they were strong. Young musicians from other provinces who had competed in earlier festivals and won were brought to this one for a final show down. Each group used their own musical style to rouse the crowd, from acoustic rock, to rap, to traditional Burundian music with a modern message. The sinewy limbed performers passionately used music to stir up peace.

It sounds a bit antithetical to ‘stir up peace’ but in its active form, the type that SFCG tries to cultivate every day in small communities around the world, peace needs a little prodding. Young people need to be excited by peace, to get the same visceral reaction they get when pulled together for more nefarious actions.

Music is one of the most effective ways to build that visceral reaction. Live concerts and sporting events are some of the few places where we can feel that reassuring connection to strangers. At those times you and thousands of others are moving together, thinking the same thing, hoping for the same outcome and that feeling is powerful. Individuals can come together to build whatever they want with the camaraderie that comes out of a music festival you hope that everyone will work together inclusively rather than divisively. When people are focused on active amity then we have, together created the strongest sort of peace.

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