A Journalist turned Arts Therapist and Mental Health Practitioner, Franca Ma-ih Sulem Yong has dedicated her life to promoting tolerance, forgiveness, empathy and human fraternity as keys to peace. In her new path, she, in 2018, started the Afrogiveness Movement which she coined from two words: “Africa ” and “forgiveness” to enable survivors of conflict and intolerance heal through forgiveness and release through arts.
Under this movement, she established the Afrogiveness Centre through which refugees and conflict affected youths who have fled interfaith and intercultural conflicts can heal, connect and uplift each other. On the 16th of November, 2021, she launched the Afrogiveness Choir; Cameroon’s first interfaith/refugee choir dedicated to using music to promote tolerance, forgiveness, human fraternity and peace.
In an interview granted Atlantic Chronicles, she explained what inspired her to create the Movement and Choir, and underscored the need for such initiatives in the society.
When we meet Franca, we first wanted to know what her interfaith choir was all about.
Please can you explain what this interfaith/refugee choir is all about?
Afrogiveness Choir uses the universal language of music to enable young survivors of interfaith and intercultural conflicts to heal, connect and uplift each other while learning tolerance and realising that peace is necessary for all irrespective of background. Thus, choristers write and sing songs that communicate the “oneness of our humanity”. Their songs, some of which have already been performed at the Yaounde National Museum and at UNESCO’s Hall in Yaounde are based on themes like tolerance, forgiveness, empathy and peace. The choir creates a safe space where meaningful relationships can develop between survivors of religious-based and culture-based conflicts (including refugees and Internally Displaced Persons-IDPs); allowing for interfaith, intercultural and peaceful cooperation and co-existence. In this choir, love is not only preached but practised and diversity is not only accepted but celebrated. As such, choristers consist of young survivors of interfaith and intercultural conflicts aged 10 to 25 of all physical or mental abilities/disabilities.
What inspired you to create this choir, and what do you hope to achieve with it?
Cameroon is grappling with interfaith and intercultural armed conflicts which have disrupted more than 4.3 million lives and it has become necessary – perhaps more than ever before- to recognise and celebrate the unity in our diversity. These conflicts, which stemmed largely from interfaith and intercultural intolerance continue to breed tensions between Christian versus Muslim survivors of the Boko Haram Conflict, Christian versus Muslim refugees of the Central African Republic civil war as well as Anglophone versus francophone survivors of the Anglophone conflict.
In 2018, I coined Afrogiveness from 2 words “Africa” and “forgiveness” and later established the Afrogiveness Centre to enable opposite camps of survivors of these conflicts to forgive the horrors of interfaith and intercultural conflicts while releasing through arts therapy. I was inspired to create the choir when I noticed the healing power of music in bringing these youths together despite their differences.
The Afrogiveness Centre currently hosts 1500 young refugees and IDPs, some of whom have been orphaned, kidnapped, tortured, sexually abused, caught by stray bullets and forced into child militarisation or street life because of these interfaith and intercultural conflicts. Statistics show that 50% of peace building processes do not last and that the proverbial shaking of hands and signing of peace deals between warlords do not sustain peace (interpeace, 2020). This is a strong sign that we need to invest significant efforts in preventing armed conflicts by building peace in the mind. The Afrogiveness Choir fills this gap by not only harnessing the music talents of these young survivors but also inculcating in these survivors of intolerance the values of tolerance, forgiveness, empathy and peace.
We also offer them platforms where they can use their harnessed musical talent to spread the values they have learned to the public. Every year, on international day of tolerance-November, 16, we organise the annual “Tolerance Show” (now in its 4th edition) in partnership with UNESCO during which they perform their songs to raise awareness on the importance of tolerance. We hope that by using their musical talents to educate and entertain, they would rise from victims of intolerance to agents of tolerance.
What are the needs of these youths whose lives have been disrupted by armed conflicts, and how will this initiative help them?
Healing: These youths need healing from the horrors of interfaith and intercultural conflicts.
As earlier mentioned, some of them have been orphaned, kidnapped, tortured, sexually abused, caught in stray bullets and forced into child militarisation or street life. They need the healing power of forgiveness to overcome trauma, otherwise they would nurse thoughts of vengeance and fall prey to the dragnets of violent extremism. With the help of Arts Therapists and Psychologists, #Afrogiveness helps them positively manage emotional shock while releasing through arts
Connection: It is important for these youths to recognise the “oneness of our humanity” and this can best happen when they develop meaningful relationships with their peers, especially those who come from different backgrounds or opposite camps of the same conflict. Most conflicts have stemmed from an “us versus them “syndrome and through #Afrogiveness, we are trying to build a new generation which thrives on human fraternity. Therefore, we focus on inculcating in these youths the values that thread our humanity because we know that youths are not only the backbone and future of our country but also its main agents of change. They need to develop mutual understanding for one another and they need to learn to coexist with people of all religions and backgrounds.
Rehabilitation and reintegration: These youths can only survive if their basic needs are met. #Afrogiveness fills this need by offering scholarships and providing other training/seed capital on income generating activities.
Besides from the Afrogiveness Choir, we run the Fraternity Poetry Project, the Art4Tolerance Project and the Purpose Storytelling project through which our beneficiaries use their harnessed talents to spread values that communicate the “oneness of our humanity.”
There are several armed conflicts in Cameroon, is the membership of this choir limited to some areas, or will it spread to all?
The Choir is spread to young survivors of all armed conflicts because all armed conflicts in Cameroon stem from intolerance. So far, the choir consist of Christian versus Muslim survivors of the Boko Haram conflict, Christian versus Muslim refugee survivors of the Central African Republic civil war, Anglophone versus francophone survivors of the Anglophone Conflict as well as refugees from 6 African countries (Togo, Mali, Niger,Nigeria, Sudanand Rwanda) who have suffered from interfaith/intercultural conflicts.
What is the place of music/choir in the lives of victims of armed conflicts, and how is this going to make their situations better.
Music acts as a catharsis. Music allows us to release and express pent-up emotions. It also enables us to explore our imagination and conjure up images of how we want the world to be. For these conflict- affected youths, music is healing. It helps inreducing stress, improving mood and self-expression. We hope that music would help them process trauma while connecting with themselves and others.
Moreover, music is a universal language that everyone understands and we hope to use music and the choir to promote tolerance by allowing for peaceful coexistence between these youths whose lives have been disrupted by interfaith and intercultural conflicts. Choristers do not only write and sing songs but also use their songs to spread tolerance, forgiveness, empathy and peace.
Who are you working with, are you in a team, or partnering with some NGOs? And how can this initiative be supported by well-wishers?
The Afrogiveness Choir is run by the Afrogiveness Movement, an organisation I founded in 2018 to provide educational, psychosocial and legal support to survivors of conflict and intolerance. We work in partnership with the National Commission for UNESCO, Cameroon’s Ministry of Arts and Culture and the UNHCR to achieve our goals of creating peace in the minds of men by promoting tolerance, empathy, forgiveness and peace.
Interviewed By Andrew Nsoseka