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At Musicians Without Borders we work within the framework that it is possible for people to break free from the cycle of war when they are empowered to do so. Drawing on the experience and evaluation of our work, we developed a Theory of Change that illustrates the key transformative role our programs can have in that process. Rwanda Youth Music program manager, Chris Nicholson, takes an in-depth look at one area of change (resilience) and how it relates to our work on the ground.

by Chris Nicholson

“I had so much anger and everyone knew about it! Now it’s different. You cannot hear me having troubles with people due to my anger, when I feel like I am angry I go to music and start playing or singing. Thanks to music I know how to deal with people by solving my anger with the help of music.”

Rwanda Youth Music participant

At the first meeting of our first Therapeutic Music Group, we explained that whatever we did would be guided by the members. Then we sat in silence for a bit. 

“We’ve got guitars, pianos, drums, we can write songs together, we can listen to music, whatever is interesting for you. Anyone have any ideas about what they’d like to do?” I asked.

Then we sat in silence a bit more. 

Make music together

We had invited youth, aged 19-26, from the HIV clinic with which we partner for the Rwanda Youth Music program. We wanted to offer something to young people as they grew out of the clinic’s children’s support programs. I had worked with some of the members in the past in music therapy groups, and I felt we had met our aims in those groups. But still, somehow I felt there was work to be done. These young people were still benefiting from making music together, even if not in the way that I had initially envisaged. These new groups would take place away from the clinic, in people’s own communities. For the first weeks, I co-led with one of the Musicians Without Borders’ Rwanda trainers, a professional performing musician, who soon took over running the group on his own. Our aim was to support the group members to make music together in a way that felt right to them. 

One thing that I learned in four years working as a music therapist and program manager with Rwanda Youth Music was that I was not in control of what benefit or experience people took away from making music. With a group of five people, there could be five different experiences. What I did have some control of was taking care that the group felt safe and that everyone had the chance to participate and was valued for their participation. 

“If am sad or I feel like I am not happy, I turn to music and give all my sadness to music. All I do is sit and start playing and singing and then immediately I feel happy and I change in a good way.”

Rwanda Youth Music participant

Rwanda Youth Music began in 2012, at the invitation of our inspirational partner WE-ACTx for Hope, who provide free clinical care to people living with HIV, and their families. Psychosocial support is provided, educating people to live well with HIV, preventing contraction of HIV, building support networks, developing life skills for a healthy future, and addressing the real and everyday impacts that stigma has on people’s lives.

Around the world, central to the experience of living with HIV is the stigmatizing attitude of other people, which remains “pervasive and negatively impacts the quality of life of people living with HIV” (UNAIDS, 2009). ART (antiretroviral) medications and current HIV healthcare mean that someone living with HIV can live without symptoms, without infecting others (sexual partners or offspring), and without impact on life expectancy.

However, this is often not the case, due to non-adherence to medication linked to fear, mental health issues, poverty, or inadequate education. All of these challenges are linked to stigma. If a complete lack of stigma would be people publicly taking ARTs without any fear or self-consciousness, then we are far from that point.

The experience of music

Three years later, Therapeutic Music Groups continue to run in Kigali. The group members don’t sit in silence much anymore. They have written and recorded songs, performed live, and they have spent many hours playing music together. What I learned was correct, we are not in control of what benefit or experience people take away from making music. But we see people taking benefit, and carrying it into their lives beyond the group.

One change that we see from this group, we term ‘resilience’. For Musicians Without Borders, this means people incorporating music within healthy coping strategies for the stresses that affect their lives. The experience of music within the safety and inclusion of Rwanda Youth Music changes the way people live.

“I don’t feel depressed any more because always I have something to do! And that’s because of music. When I am alone I just get a guitar or piano and start playing and that makes me feel like I am not lonely.”

Rwanda Youth Music participant

The approaches to music-making built by the Rwanda Youth Music team have led to invitations for extensive outreach work, running music workshops and training community music leaders across Rwanda, and into Uganda, DRC and Tanzania. We have offered support through music in refugee camps, with former street children, in conflict areas, and with young people living with HIV. Among the impacts that we have witnessed, is the role that music comes to have as a source of resilience in the lives of people who are facing danger, prejudice, and profound challenges every day of their lives.

“Whenever I feel stressed, I just grab my guitar.”

Rwanda Youth Music participant