When the M23 militia took control of Goma, the capital of North Kivu in Eastern Congo, in late 2012, the premises of Yole Africa were quickly occupied by a large crowd of youngsters. Some of them were looking for refuge after their homes had been bombed; some others were there to make sure that the cultural centre was not attacked, recalls Congolese filmmaker and cultural activist Petna Ndaliko while he supervises the preparations for the closing ceremony of the 9th edition of the Salaam Kivu International Film Festival (Skiff). “Even the police jumped the fence and broke into Yole! They were also seeking safety for themselves. They knew that the community would never allow an attack to this place”, he adds, pointing to the ground littered with volcanic rock. “This is a magical place, a place for the people, respected by everyone. Every year Skiff summarizes our work and brings everyone in Goma together.”
The 9th edition of Skiff closed last Sunday by the shores of Lake Kivu with a fashion show showcasing the work of Congolese-American designer Eric Ndelo and a group of young Yole members, a concert by songwriter Fonkodji and with the awards for best film of the Goma Focus category for local directors, and for the winning troupe of the dance competition, a festival highlight that gathered several thousands the previous day at a downtown sports ground. Other guests for Skiff’s 2014 edition included Canadian filmmaker Mathieu Roy (director of Surviving Progress), Howard University scholar Chioma Oruh, Ugandan hip hop archivist Gilbert Daniels of Bavubuka Foundation, British filmmaker Jeremy Gilley, and local community leaders such as Samuel Yagase of GOVA Organisation, among others.
Petna Ndaliko founded Yole Africa in Kampala in year 2000. He had gone into exile in Uganda shortly after he was briefly kidnapped, twice, while he was a radio presenter and community leader during the armed rebellion that erupted against President Laurent Kabila in the late nineties. “At that time in Kampala you had rebels and refugees from DRC, Rwanda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea. Within a year our centre became the place where all these people from different backgrounds would come to work in artistic projects, make movies and create dance pieces. That’s when I first witnessed the power of art, transforming hatred and frustrations into a creative force”, he says.
But in 2002 the Nyirigongo volcano erupted and buried Ndaliko’s family house, and large parts of Goma, under lava. Ndaliko helped his family resettle in Uganda, but realized that many of his old acquaintances were going through desperate times. “Their choices were either to join a militia or be killed by one”, he says. “But I had already experienced the way in which art can transform a community in this kind of situation. This was the time for me to come back, when all the NGOs were running away from this place. And all those people of different groups who had threatened me in the past were gone too because of the volcano’s eruption. In those days the joke here was that the true Commander in Chief of all these armies was that volcano –he says waving a finger to a point behind the hills and the clouds of dust– under whose command they all had to run”.
That is how Yole Africa started in Congo, under what Ndaliko calls the basic premise to ‘decolonize the mind’, encouraging the youth to express themselves through art in order to achieve social change. “The education system here, even up to now, is the one that was drafted by Belgium, during the time when they were comparing Congolese to monkeys. We still don’t know our true history, and Yole offers an alternative to that, through filmmaking and alternative TV, music and computer literacy programmes, and through community discussions and creative workshops with guests from different parts of the world when we have the opportunity”.
An assiduous follower of Frantz Fanon (whose face has been painted next to Angela Davis’ on the wall outside his office at Yole), Ndaliko argues that his cultural and social project fits into his global view of progressive Pan Africanism. “We need to start thinking of Africa as a matrix, and whose people and history are scattered all over the world. The general connotation, when Fanon speaks of nationalism, is to consider a nation, not as a piece of territory that has been carved by colonialists, but as an entity which has traditional and cultural values that go beyond the borders we have now. This is the kind of notion on which Yole Africa wants to start building on, reconnecting all these branches of our history and our people”.
Some of Yole’s young members have also been members of armed groups operating in the region, and many others are at risk of joining one, but in Ndaliko’s view Yole Africa provides an alternative space in which the youth can be exposed to different aspirations through artistic expressions in a context in which many people are struggling to survive. After decades of armed conflict, he believes in long-term healing strategies and local empowerment more than in foreign aid with strings attached or Western celebrity campaigns for peace, of which he is openly critical.
Paradoxically, or perhaps provokingly, Skiff 2014’s programme included the film The Day After Peace, which documents the quest of British filmmaker Jeremy Gilley to convince world leaders of establishing a global ‘Peace Day’, and which ends with a successful one-day ceasefire in Afghanistan in 2007. However, the film (featuring Jude Law and Angelina Jolie) was received with certain scepticism from the audience. Through his organisation Peace One Day, Gilley plans to repeat the experience of a day of no-violence (including a free concert of American rapper Akon at the Goma airport) in Eastern Congo next September.
But Petna Ndaliko highlights the lack of local input in this kind of initiatives. “Everybody talks about peace in the DRC”, he says, “but who has ever asked for the opinion of the local people? As long as the international organizations don’t listen to the local agenda these projects are going to fail and the state of chaos here will continue.” His criticism extends to the numerous NGOs working in Goma and that often approach Yole Africa to promote their campaigns. “They want to use us because we draw a lot of people. But we can’t buy into that”, he says, “that’s how you start corrupting the creativity of artists, who stop representing their community and start representing what those organisations want.”