Once a political prison housing 6,000 inmates, Dzaleka is now a refugee camp, home to over 40,000 refugees from the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Somalia, fleeing genocide, violence and conflict. In the face of adversity, comes creativity; the community of Dzaleka are using dance as a vehicle for change, redrawing the parameters of what it means to be a refugee.
Dance is the oldest form of storytelling, it gives expression to thoughts, ideas and emotions, and has long been used in African societies to express the nuances of cultural identity. During the period of enslavement, families were separated to prevent communication and different nationalities were often mixed in an attempt to disassociate the enslaved from their homeland. Despite language barriers, music and dance prevailed as the uniting force that bonded communities together. Congolese born brothers Toussaint and Fredy Farini recognised the power of dance to incite hope, and established Salma Africa in 2014, a dance group and intercultural youth centre that set in motion a new vision for the future. In their native Congo, dance culture is rooted in ancestral community spirit, an act of solidarity that enables tribes to tell their unique story, creating a language of their own through movement. This same sense of solidarity ripples through the community at Dzaleka, redrawing the parameters of what is possible for young refugees.
In Toussaint’s words, ‘This is not a prison, it’s a waiting room. These people are not here to waste their future, they are here to think about their next step’.
Having spent years amidst the cruel, cyclical patterns of Dzaleka, Toussaint Farini and his collaborators founded Salama Africa to bring hope and incite change, empowering young refugees to take charge of their future through creative means. The dance community encourages movement as a vehicle for rehabilitation, allowing the dancers and their audiences to reconnect with their surroundings in a positive way. What started as one dance group has grown to inspire an entire generation at Dzaleka and beyond, leading to the emergence of more groups that share the same premise and enable young individuals to use dance as a tool to share their language and recultivate their identity. The interconnected nature of conflict within the Horn of Africa often means that different groups residing in the camp were once at war with each other prior to their arrival. Hutu and Tutsi, the opposing tribes at the centre of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, both exist within the camp; and the involvement of Rwandans in the political unrest in Congo add another layer to he tangled politics of the region, contributing to a history of tension at Dzaleka. Salama Africa and the community of dancers at Dzaleka represent an alternative vision for the future, advocating creativity over conflict, celebrating identity, diversity and difference in order to dissolve tension along ethnic lines.
Overcrowded and underfunded, the lack of employment opportunities and absence of education in Dzaleka makes refugees susceptible to the cyclical patterns that prevent upward mobility. Many of the dancers were born in the camp, which often means no formal education and fewer work opportunities as a result; eclipsing an entire generation into a poverty trap. As one of the least developed countries in the world with more than half of the population living on less than one dollar per day, Malawians are often forced to compete for a finite amount of food, land, and jobs, and as a result the country has adopted strict encampment policies aimed at curbing the competition. For the refugees at Dzaleka, this means little freedom of movement without permission, and limited work opportunities beyond the camp boundaries. Many become reliant on UNHCR rations for food and other external assistance for survival; unable to earn a living and build the pillars that constitute a stable life, refugees often turn to drugs and alcohol, which serves to perpetuate the negative cycles of encampment. The dance scene of Dzaleka represents a new direction; a source of ambition, dedication, and positivity for dancers and the wider refugee community.
Having travelled to Malawi to experience first-hand the power of dance to change lives, Director Lily Colfox and her team are raising funds to finish their film, ‘Dance For Change’, to help the dance community of Dzaleka gain global recognition for their talent, and achieve their long term goal to inspire the growth of similar organisations worldwide, breaking the cycle of poverty. The funds will be allocated to developing the cultural centre for the different dance groups to grow, offering essential tools for rehearsal and equipment to further their careers. Your donations will offer hope for the future, at Dzaleka and beyond.