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.
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.
Split into zonal auditions across the settlement’s five different zones, Bidibidi Got Talent allows refugees and members of the host community to showcase their skills in four different categories; dance, drama, music, and art and design while winning prizes ranging from laptops, phones, and portable speakers.
For Burn dem squad, this category was dance. Although unable to make it to the finals in 2017, the group tried again in 2018 first at the zonal auditions and then at the finals in which they emerged as overall dance champions in the settlement — a win they all admit did a lot to validate their practice.
“I felt so happy because it meant my talent was coming up,” discloses Wani, a stance Tumuhimbise echoes as central to the point of the contest.
“Why can’t we ensure that these children that have skills improve their skills?” he says.
Despite the wins, the group acknowledges that they face a number of challenges. They lack a good sound system, uniforms, and their biggest challenge so far; not having a definite space to practice.
While the group’s earliest training happened under trees and within the settlement, they soon found a home in Kimba Child-Friendly Space (CFS) but this relief was short-lived.
When the center decided to introduce an Early Childhood Development (ECD) program, it meant Burn dem squad could not use the space anymore. Lomude says this was inspired by parents who believed that dance could be a distraction to their children enrolled in the program.
He nevertheless insists that the group has continued to train anyway.
“Since these parents chased us away from the CFS, we haven’t found another space,” he says, “But we have tried our level best and we are still training.”
What Lomude means by “still training” and what the group now does is to train by a river a few kilometers from the center. Sobi though convinced that this present model is inconvenient however adds that it will suffice for the time being.
His resolve in a sense does exemplify everything Burn dem squad stands for; resilience, a need to press on regardless of how grueling, a need to give peace even if one has only been handed conflict.
It is this need that keeps them by the river, that lends sprints to their steps and leaps to their arms.
It is this need that motivates, that provides a higher understanding, that no matter what circumstances say otherwise, to this group of 15, this need reassures them that the odds will forever be in their favor.