The South Sudanese Refugee Dance Group with a Mission

By Caleb Okereke

How a teenage dance group is using dance for peacebuilding and to heal from trauma.

In the beginning, Joel Lasu’s, 19 idea to create a dance group in the Bidibidi refugee settlement was primarily because he wanted to make new friends. Lasu, a Ugandan refugee from South Sudan admits that he had not just left his country in 2016 but had also left most of his friends behind.

“Since we came here really, we lost our friends and to get a friend whereby you stay with him at that time in 2016 became a problem,” he says, “So we came up with an idea to look for new friends.”

Lasu is one of the over 227,000 estimated refugees in the Bidibidi refugee settlement located in the northern region of Uganda.

Joel Lasu (19) started Burn Dem Squad because he had lost most of his friends in South Sudan. Yumbe, Uganda, 20th July 2019. Photo: Caleb Okereke.

The settlement which houses majorly refugees from South Sudan driven to the border by the civil war in the country has a youth population of 20%, (youths are classified as people between the ages of 15–24 years) which equals slightly over 45, 000 persons.

Not long after he arrived in 2016, Lasu joined forces with Joseph Sobi, 19, Moses Wani 17, and Thomas Lomude, 19 and began practicing dance moves under a tree.

Although Lasu and Lomude had previously been in a dance group called Swagger Boys in South Sudan, it was Sobi and Wani who spurred by the number of issues they faced as new refugees gave Burn dem squad another meaning besides making friends.

Sobi decided that the group will through dance help fellow refugees deal with trauma from the war, raise awareness about social ills and promote peacebuilding between the diverse ethnic groups in the settlement and the host community.

“The time we reached here, we were lacking peace,” says Wani who walked two weeks from South Sudan to get to Uganda, “That is the reason why we had to promote peace in the refugee settlement.”

Today, Burn dem squad has a total number of 15 members and is led by Sobi. The group performs various routines from traditional South Sudanese dances, to hip-hop, and Afrobeat for absolutely free, usually infused with drama to communicate certain themes and is relatively famous within the settlement.

“The dancing I am in has made to be so famous,” says Lasu, “We have that interest to be known all over the world.”

For Lasu and other group members, this desire to be known around the world is not merely a wish.

In 2017, Burn dem squad participated in Bidibidi Got Talent, a talent hunt competition designed for refugees in the settlement and members of the host community, and largely inspired by other shows of its ilk worldwide.

The contest organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) first began in 2017 and was instituted to give refugees a platform to express diverse talents while fostering harmony and healing trauma.

“If you don’t do that, these children are going to go into bad habits,” says Anthony Tumuhimbise who serves as Senior Protection Assistant with the UNHCR and the primary coordinator of the competition, “Unless we have this initiative to bring these youths together and showcase their talents.”

Emmanuel Mawa (18), Moses Wani, (17) and James Ngota (18) are all part of Burn dem squad which uses dance as a tool for social and mental transformation. Yumbe, Uganda, 20th July 2019. Photo: Israel Dennis and Caleb Okereke.

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