Music Therapy Hitting The Right Note With Child Soldiers and Cancer Patients in Africa

6 mins

Three Berklee College of Music graduates are on a mission to promote song and dance as a form of  therapy in underserved communities across Africa. Britt Ashley reports

Her name was Aisha and she was a patient at Fajara Cancer Centre in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. She had barely spoken all week while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

‘The whole process had left her in such pain and distress,’ says Cara Smith. ‘Her hair had fallen out and her confidence had disappeared. Her family were saying she’d become a complete shell of her former self. She’d pretty much stopped talking.’

Staff at the hospital suggested Cara might be able to help.

The then 23-year-old, from New Jersey in the US, was working towards a degree in music therapy and was in East Africa researching how music might be used as an inexpensive tool for improving the health and social well-being of people in under-developed communities. Part of that research meant working in the centre.

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Cara teaching children the power of music. Image: supplied

‘I sat with Aisha,’ she recalls. ‘I had my guitar and we just started writing a song together. We were singing about the future and her family. She got completely lost in the sound and ended up opening up in a way which hadn’t seemed possible before. She told me afterwards it was the first time all week that the pain had seemed bearable.’

The music, it seems, had given Aisha a means of expressing feelings and ideas which had become too difficult via verbal communication. It had opened a door which speech alone had left closed.

The music, it seems, had given Aisha a means of expressing feelings which had become too difficult via verbal communication. It had opened a door which speech alone had left closed

It was this moment that inspired Cara to create Umoja Community Music Therapy.

She went back to the US; completed her studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston; and set up the charitable foundation as a means of funding, providing and supporting music therapy for impoverished communities across Kenya and neighbouring Uganda.

That was three years ago. Since then, Umoja – which means unity in Swahili – has worked with more than 50 schools, hospitals and community centres in the two countries, and held sessions with more than 5,000 adults and children, including cancer patients, abused women and former child soldiers. It has launched a training programme so staff at these places can learn how they too can use music as a healer. And it has provided guitars, drums, rattles and shakers to a host of different institutions.

‘Some people are still sceptical about music therapy,’ says Cara, 26, who now runs the foundation with fellow Berklee graduates and full-time therapy clinicians Brooke Hatfield and Kristina Casale. ‘It has associations with being a bit hippy-ish.

‘But this is a clinical use of music to reach social, emotional, physical and cognitive goals, and the evidence of its value is vast and undeniable. It can play an absolutely key role in health management, whether that’s in relieving pain, easing anxiety and depression, improving memory in dementia sufferers or helping children with autism. And in under-served communities, like those we deal with in Kenya and Uganda, it is an especially effective tool because it is inexpensive and because music is already such a dominant part of the culture.’

Other places in which Umoja has worked include Kawangare Children’s Garden Home and Kenyatta National Hospital, both in Nairobi, and Hope North orphanage in the Ugandan town of Masindi.

That orphanage was especially moving, says 27-year-old Brooke.

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Brook playing with one of the children at the community centre. Image: supplied

‘A lot of the children were former child soldiers,’ she recalls. ‘They had seen things you can’t even imagine. They have been through so much trauma but they don’t talk about it: they’ve been taught to be strong and silent. They have become adults before their time.

‘But, then, you get playing music and there’s laughter and joy. It gives them the freedom to be children again, even for just an hour. And they start communicating with each other in ways they maybe didn’t before. You can see it breaking down barriers. It helps these kids to process and cope with emotions that might otherwise be too painful. In some small way, it helps heal.’

‘A lot of the children were former child soldiers. They had seen things you can’t even imagine. They have been through so much trauma but they don’t talk about it: they’ve been taught to be strong and silent. But, then, you play music and there’s laughter and joy. It gives them the freedom to be children again, even for just an hour’

On a practical level the foundation works with Cara, Brooke and Kristina taking trained volunteers to the two countries a couple of times a year. While there, they connect with partner organisations, train up music therapy ambassadors, and hold sessions themselves.

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The trio work training music therapy ambassadors a few times a year. Image: Supplied

For the rest of the year, they run things from New York by raising money, providing remote support, partnering ambassadors with relevant organisations and generating publicity. They are currently putting together a music therapy training certificate programme to be taught at colleges and universities in Kenya and Uganda.

‘The idea is that interested institutions – whether that’s hospitals, schools, community centres or refuge homes – would send their staff to learn the required skills so music therapy becomes a sustainable and integral part of their service,’ explains Kristina, 26. ‘In an ideal world, we would start to implement the course in 2018.’

They especially focus on training and empowering women with all three of the team passionate about advocating female equality.

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They focus on training and empowering women in rural communities. Image: facebook

And for the future?

They see no reason why Umoja Community Music Therapy shouldn’t increase its presence into other countries in the region including Tanzania and Burundi.

‘Music is already such a key part of East African culture that introducing this kind of therapy as a way of health and social care is like pushing at an open door,’ says Cara. ‘The biggest challenge is making Umoja sustainable but, we’re confident, as the benefits are shown, more and more partner organisations will want to work with us. Music genuinely has the power to heal, and we want to use that power to help as many people as possible.’

  • Learn more about Umoja – including how you can help – at umojaglobal.org

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