Chérie Rivers Ndaliko stands behind the music stand she uses for a podium, her hands clasped, and looks out over her class.
“I’m going to stand up here, and I want you to tell me what you see,” she says. While she has completed this exercise with classes in South Africa, Brazil, and across the United States, the answers are always different.
One student tentatively raises his hand. “Woman,” he says.
A few others, slightly less hesitant: Black. Intellectual. Confident.
“This isn’t a game of compliments, guys!” she laughs.
These descriptions say something about her, she says — and they also say something about the students in her class and the subconscious assumptions people make about others. Why do they see her as an intellectual? As confident? She launches into her exposé about human perception and how colonial photographers, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, took advantage of this to portray the Congolese as primitive in the early 1900s.
“What do you think of the framing in this photograph?” she asks the class, gesturing to a sepia-tinted print of three Congolese women on the screen. Three hands shoot up. Ndaliko dances through the discussion with practiced ease.
An assistant professor in the UNC Department of Music, Ndaliko studies the role of film, text, images, and music on social justice in African war zones. Her work focuses on how African nations, particularly Congo, can use creative processes to fight against the disruption of war on a cultural front.
“It’s very important to me that, when we look at situations of conflict and crisis, we also look at creativity,” she says. “There is, institutionally, a history of divorcing one from the other and assigning the research that deals with resolving conflict to a certain set of disciplines. And those that look at creativity are typically not consulted.”
A different path
Ndaliko was born in northern California, but calls many places home. Ghana, Senegal, Denmark, Congo — her family was eclectic, she shares, and wanted her to have connections to places that were important to them. She has been interested in social justice for as long as she can remember.
“I grew up in a world that said that half of my family is not as important as the other half. In a world where, when my parents got married, it was not recognized in a number of states,” she says.
Ndaliko’s mother is white and her father is black, and it became clear to her at an early age that there were structural inequalities in the world that she could not tolerate. A trained composer and pianist, Ndaliko turned to the arts as a way to work toward conflict resolution. She felt they were being overlooked in favor of routes that focused on the hard sciences — routes that she sees as not wholly effective.
“We all know that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results,” she says. “We’re addressing issues of inequity largely with the same strategies. I was curious to see where people are responding differently and what results they’re having.”
“Power in the guise of art”
Ndaliko has conducted research in Senegal, Mali, Kenya, South Africa, and eventually Congo, a place that she became fascinated with while studying organizations that fought institutional inequities. She moved there in 2008 and continues to live in Goma, a city near the Rwandan border, for most of the year.
The city and much of eastern Congo has been a center of social and political upheaval since the first of two civil wars broke out in in 1996. The area is rich in mineral resources such as coltan, an important component of many electronics, and industrial exploitation of the land by other countries such as the United States have fueled and funded the conflict.
Although the second war officially ended in 2003, cycles of violence and power struggles have kept the central African nation in a state of blistering unrest. While estimates vary greatly, Ndaliko says that roughly 8 million people have died as a result of the fighting. Millions more have been displaced and impoverished.
“It is the deadliest humanitarian conflict since the second World War,” Ndaliko says.
The instability that comes from decades of strife has made an indelible mark on the country’s political and social climate. Many young people, for example, lack stable access to education, which limits their opportunities.
Out of this need came Yole!Africa, a Goma-based organization focused on promoting the arts in Congo. Founded in 2000 by acclaimed filmmaker Petna Ndaliko Katondolo, Yole!Africa was a major motivator for why Ndaliko decided to stay in Goma. She eventually married Ndaliko Katondolo.
“I was driven by a deep desire to learn to understand what is going on,” Ndaliko says. “And the more I learned about the unique history on Congo, the more committed I was to partnering with the people who were already doing such an extraordinary thing.”
In many East African languages, the word yolé means “come together.” It is used by cattle drivers, goat herders, and shepherds to call flocks together when danger is afoot. Like those shepherds, Yole!Africa provides a place for Congolese youth to come together away from violence.
Yole!Africa encourages people to tell their stories in their own ways. The processes and skills that come from studying film, music, literature, and other art forms help young Congolese adults find a voice to tell stories about their country in ways that reflect their experiences. The center works to provide them space, skills, and education that may help them thrive in the war-torn region.
Ndaliko is the director of research and education at Yole!Africa for now — the organization is working to move away from hierarchical labels — and helps provide artistic classes, workshops, and public events to 17,000 people of eastern Congo each year.
Through the nonprofit, Ndaliko advocates for a shift in the way the world handles humanitarian and charitable aid in Africa. The organization has struggled to find funding that doesn’t focus on the trauma that people have potentially endured, but rather on their successes.
“We have fought — and continue to fight — against reducing people to experiences of victimhood,” she says. “We don’t ask students to identify in those terms, as rape victims or child soldiers. If they identify as filmmakers, because that’s what they see themselves as, then we want to engage them as filmmakers, not victims.”
People who have completed courses at Yole!Africa have gone on to become politicians, human rights attorneys, and journalists with media companies like BBC and Al Jazeera.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve done and what the students produce there,” Ndaliko says.
Ndaliko has produced two books about her work with Yole!Africa and the importance of cultural engagement in the face of conflict. She wrote “Necessary Noise: Music, Film and Charitable Imperialism in the East of Congo,” which won a Nketia Book Prize and an Alan Meriam Book of the Year Prize. She also co-edited and wrote chapters for “The Art of Emergency: Aesthetics and Aid in African Crises.” She has written almost a dozen articles and book chapters on Yole!Africa, aid, and artistic culture in Congo.
Now, she’s working on a multimedia project, “Commemorating Congo: Unsung Stories of Resource Wars,” which shares the experiences of survivors and participants of the Congolese wars.
“Sometimes creative expression is a matter of survival,” Ndaliko writes in “Necessary Noise.” “But sometimes it is a currency that cloaks the machinery of power in the guise of art.”
From Congo to Carolina
Bringing attention to the conflict in Congo was a large part of Ndaliko’s decision to bring her work to the United States.
Ndaliko returned to the U.S. in 2010 while on tour for her husband’s film, “Jazz Mama,” which focuses on the strength and dignity of Congolese women in the face of violence. As part of the film’s introduction, she asked the crowds how many had heard of the wars in Congo. The responses were disappointing — usually less than three people raised their hands, and of those people, few knew what the conflict was about. The pair visited 33 universities and colleges and the results were the same.
“This is an economic war. It is funded by multinational corporations, most of which are rooted in this country,” Ndaliko says. “Even if we can empower every single Congolese in this generation, they have no influence over American corporate policy. And the people who do have influence over that have no idea that this is even happening.”
In 2012, Ndaliko decided to come teach at Carolina.
“If we think of education as the long-term strategy of change, who needs this information?” Ndaliko asks. Her answer? Young Americans.
As a way to forge a connection with Congo, Ndaliko has her Carolina students work on a collaborative art project with their peers at Yole!Africa. Over Skype and Facebook, they produce music videos, songs, and photo essays.
“They get really excited,” Ndaliko says. “And they make fast friends. There are plenty of folks I can think of who have maintained relationships with the people they’ve collaborated with.”
Forging connections with Congolese students, Ndaliko believes, is a powerful way to learn about the conflict and advocate for change.
“You’re not thinking about some abstract place, you’re thinking about the family of the friends who you’re producing a thing with, who you become close with on social media,” she says. “In my experience of the world, that kind of human connection will be a far bigger motivating factor.”
Grace Garcia sits in the Stone & Leaf Cafe and scrolls through a series of artfully designed slides on her laptop. This is the draft of her “look book,” a document that outlines the thoughts and discussions that she and her classmates developed in Ndaliko’s class last semester. She and Ndaliko are working on this project together.
“So, this is kind of what I’m working on,” she says as she flicks through the earth-toned graphics, photographs, and lists. “I focused on incorporating the idea of film, specifically historical representations through film, through the actual design details of the look book.”
Garcia is a first-year student studying journalism and art history at Carolina. Last semester, she took Ndaliko’s first-year seminar, “Arts, Activism, Africa,” and is now in her class focused on media and social change in Africa. She says that she has learned a lot about Congo from these courses.
“The fact that I wasn’t hearing these stories, the fact that a lot if it remains in the shadows, was very eye-opening for me,” Garcia says. “Something that I had never consciously thought of is now something that I participate in daily. I read news articles about Congo, watch films by documentarians, and engage with musicians from the African continent, specifically in Congo.”
Later this month, Garcia and Ndaliko will send the look book to directors and students at Yole!Africa. It will serve as a tool for Congolese students and help them understand and discuss the ways their peers in the United States navigate issues of Congolese representation, contextualization, and colonization.
“We, as Westerners, need to recognize our own complicity in the issues that are current and also historical,” Garcia says. “We have the ability to have a voice and take action and to elevate the platforms that the Congolese have already created.”
Without Ndaliko, Garcia admits, she never would have made these connections.
“She’s been so inspirational,” she says. “I really aspire to look at the world the way she does.”