KANYABAYONGA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO – Romain Justin Makelele treks up a stony hill to Central African Baptist Community (CBCA). Dressed in the uniform of DRC’s national army, known by the acronym FARDC, he takes his place beside a string of women clad in yellow and green robes.
It’s Sunday in Kanyabayonga, a town in DRC’s North Kivu province, and he’s come to sing.
For two years now, the 50-member choir which includes Makelele and three other members of the FARDC, three policemen and local people, have met nearly every Sunday at this Baptist church for choir practice.
But it wasn’t always a harmonious union.
Cooperation between members of DRC’s military and the townspeople was once nearly nonexistent, says Alfred Katembo, who represents members of Kanyabayonga’s civil society.
Extortion, threats and intimidation that were issued in Lingala – a language that people in the area do not speak – fueled mistrust between civilians and members of the military.
“A military member was considered a murderer,” says Kakule Visamalya, the choir’s coach.
But in 2017, the Church of Christ in Congo, a local church, and the military chaplaincy of Kanyabayonga came up with a unique approach to ease tensions: a civil-military choir.
“Military members being part of the choir draws everyone’s attention because it’s something that no one could ever imagine,” says 48-year-old Reverend Paluku Safari, a pastor at CBCA.
Romain Justin Makelele, a judicial police officer at Kanyabayonga military prosecutor’s office and co-founder of the choir, says it has increased collaboration between locals and the police.
“They used to consider us criminals,” he says. “But ever since we evangelized, spent the night, ate and sang together, the population has fully understood that we’re all one. Whenever a civilian says something to me, I listen to him, and vice versa.”
They communicate in Swahili, a language both military members and locals understand.
Pascal Bokonde oversees civic and moral education for the 3401st FARDC regiment. He says as many as 85% of military members who come together with civilians do so because of the choir.
“By singing, conductinggospel crusadesand sitting together, we become much closer, and end up collaborating with each other,” he says.
Bokonde, who has been stationed as a liaison between the military and the local community since 2015, says collaboration between the military and civilians is important, especially when operating in an area where conflicts often arise over land and power.
“By singing together, we see ourselves as brothers,” Visamalya says. “[We] share our joys and sorrows.”
Ndahayo Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.