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Republic of the Congo: using theatre to promote humanitarian values

19-02-2008 Feature

The ICRC has been raising awareness of humanitarian values among people in the Pool region, including ex-combatants, with the help of an entertaining medium adapted for the local context. Report by Ariane Tombet, head of delegation in the Republic of the Congo.

On that particular day back in November, the rain, which had seemed to dog our field activities that season, had finally stopped. This meant we could set off for Yokama, a small village seven kilometres from Kinkala, capital of the Pool region. Its residents were sitting waiting for us in the village square, under the mango trees, although the ripe fruit above them seemed likely to fall at any moment. A party atmosphere pervaded the village.

More attuned to local customs, my colleagues from the ICRC sub-delegation in Kinkala had chosen a Wednesday to put on the play. People prefer not to go out into the fields on Wednesdays because it is traditionally an unlucky day of the week for farmers. So everyone was there: the women and children on one side and the men, including former weapon bearers, on the other. The officials of the village sat opposite them, on chairs that had been set out for the occasion.

 War or peace: universal messages  


A situation some members of the audience were familiar with. 

The arrival of the ICRC was eagerly awaited. Everyone had put on their best clothes to meet the head of delegation, and she was invited to take a seat on the village chief’s right. The chief began to speak, highlighting first of all that the ICRC was well-known among them for its work in the Pool region. Addressing the villagers, he explained to them that the play they were about to watch dealt with a subject that they were unfortunately familiar with, and that some messages were still relevant today even though the hostilities had ceased. He finished by thanking the ICRC for this initiative.

And with that, the play, A Kidnapping in Mulunga , got under way. Written in 2005, it tells the story of a villager whose family is caught up in the horror of the conflict. It is a story many Congolese people have experienced first hand. Respect for the civilian population, the ICRC’s mandate, and the work of a Red Cross first-aider are the play’s central themes. All of the 13 actors were from Pool, and they managed to get across these key ideas with great professionalism and humour. No set was required: they were able to engage the audience with just make-up and costumes. A young teenager played music, danced and sang between each scene so the actors could get changed.

As the action unfolded, the audience learned about the basics of international humanitarian law, the ICRC’s mandate, and respect for certain universal values. I, on the other hand, learned just as much about local customs: for example, how a marriage proposal is made by tying a piece of string around the prospective fiancée’s finger; how th e dowry is determined through a series of specific songs, which indicate whether or not her family is satisfied with the sum offered; and how the two families polish each others’ shoes. All these rites are still observed today in marriage ceremonies in the villages.

The “ICRC delegate” emerged from his hut in front-pleated trousers, a shirt, tie and polished shoes: his appearance contrasted sharply with the other actors’ clothes. His cardboard name tag was huge and he was carrying a small briefcase. Is this how people see a Mundele (white) delegate? The parody put a big smile on my face.

 Translation interludes  

I enjoyed hearing the actors speaking in Lari, the melodious local language. Every now and then, however, the rhythm was interrupted by a French word that could not be translated, such as neutrality, impartiality or confidentiality, accompanied by a long explanation in Lari. Are these principles really so far-removed from the cultural reality here that it is impossible to translate them? And then I noticed that the chief of the village had tears in his eyes from laughing so much at the tragedy of what they have been through. It seems this is an outlet for him. Some of the scenes must have struck very close to home, but humour prevailed.

The play was already over. All’s well that ends well, and the actors received a warm round of applause for their services. Everyone was delighted. It had provided a welcome distraction from the daily grind, and would without a doubt be a topic of conversation in the huts.

To round things off, a village official said a few words: “We are so grateful to the ICRC. As you know, we have been through this, but our feeling is that peace is around the corner and we are hopeful. To bring our families back together we must lay down our arms. We want our sons to come home. Today, we have heard about the virtues of peace, love and understanding, and we must embrace them in order to move on.”