Slam democracy

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has a rigid educational system, largely unchanged from the colonial era. Slam artists and activists are working to open it up to alternative spaces of expression.

Image credit Guerchom Ndebo.

One thread runs through the education system of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): authoritative knowledge should not be questioned. The groundwork was laid during Belgian colonialism and refined under the autocratic regime of President Mobutu Sese Seko. The successive Kabila regime continued this tradition.

During colonial times, the promotion and development of a very basic education infrastructure served a broader aim of the colonizing mission: A higher level of education was neither considered possible nor desirable because it could unleash revolutionary potential among the oppressed.

With the country’s independence in 1960 and then especially under Mobutu’s “authenticity” policy, education was to be decolonized through reforms to curricula. Future citizens would be raised on a nationalist discourse and practices such as praising national heroes and raising the state flag every morning before school.

In 1971, Mobutu’s party, the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR), initiated the complete nationalization of the education system. With this control, Mobutu also pursued the goal of supporting his autocratic regime: by creating youth sections of his party in schools and universities, or by replacing the course of political education with Mobutism.

The legacy of colonial paternalism, and the behavior of those later in power to put their own welfare above that of the population, continues to have an impact on education today. As Depaul Bakulu, of the Goma Slam Session, says: “We are not taught that the authorities owe us anything. I personally graduated from high school without a single teacher talking about the mechanisms to make demands when our rights are violated.”

Image credit Guerchom Ndebo.

The Goma Slam Session is a collective of spoken word artists that aims to promote critical thought and freedom of expression through the art of slam. In addition to their own creative work they offer free writing and performance workshops. What started in youth centres and youth prisons, developed into an intensive focus on schools.

The collective thus represents another tradition in the DRC’s school system: that often in the history of the DRC, educational institutions were places of resistance, particularly in the 1980s when structural adjustment slashed the education budget. To this day, teachers are demanding better wages, and debates on education policy are lively.

The Slam Session meets Saturday mornings in a house in the middle of a busy neighborhood in Goma. The attendees perform their self-written texts that deal with various topics, such as women’s rights, COVID-19, love, or Congo’s independence. The purpose is to improve each other’s work through mutual learning via fruitful criticism.

In addition to these weekly slam sessions, the house is used for organizational meetings or workshops, and it is open to everyone to rehearse, write, and exchange ideas. The members of the collective stress that their Espace Slam is not an office, but a self-governing space and that they work within a horizontal framework. Through a joint decision, the money they received for their performance at the Amani Festival 2020—an annual festival that takes place to promote peace in the region—was invested for the first six months of house rent.

These principles of complementary knowledge and non-hierarchical structures also guide the school visits. The goal is to provide students with more opportunities to cultivate a sense of critical thinking. Learners are asked to criticize the workshops as a whole and thus contribute to the process. “I’m not a teacher, I’m just a facilitator. Even by your experiences, I can also learn,” explains Bakulu to the pupils. Such an announcement is unusual in an educational context, where the teacher is perceived as an authority that can hardly be questioned.

To secure access to the schools, the Goma Slam Session uses a scientific rather than activist approach, emphasizing improvement of language, performance, and practice. In March 2020, after recurrent visits to 14 schools, the activities were discontinued because of COVID-19. The Espace Slam also remained empty because of the ban on gatherings of more than 20 people. With the first relaxation of measures in July, however, while the schools were still closed, the Academie Slam was launched.

The texts that were presented after this four-week training in the Espace Slam plead for social justice and dignity for arrested persons, refugees, or the victims of the massacres in Beni. Due to the complex recent history of war and political oppression in Goma’s North-Kivu province—the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) reported an increasing number of violations of human rights and democratic freedoms, both by state actors and armed groups in 2020—it is not surprising that the denunciation of these circumstances is a central theme.

Image credit Guerchom Ndebo.

Although civil society movements, such as Lucha or Filimbi, have long spoken out against the DRC government, this kind of critique does not suit everyone, as Benedicte Luendo says: “To be honest, I’m scared of being an activist. But with slam I can express myself freely without taking to the streets.” She fears the repression of the security forces, which can intervene harshly in case of demonstrations—for example, in July this year, when Congolese demonstrated in numerous cities for a reform of the national election commission and several people were arrested, injured, and even killed.

Like art in general, slam targets the attention of the public. Although DRC’s media landscape certainly allows critical voices, Bakulu doubts the independence of many traditional media houses. Either they are under the control of those in power, or they are afraid of a temporary forced closure, as was for example the case with the channels RFI and Canal Future during the last elections. In addition to political repression, the precarious financial situation of local media houses seems to play a role: Since many journalists are not paid for their published articles, they follow invitations to press conferences or events by politicians or entrepreneurs to write in their interests in exchange for a small subsidy.

In a context where many lack the means to engage with print media, slam has potential as a means of critique. In their piece “Coup de bâton”, for example, the duo Ghislain Kalwira and Jacinthe Maarifa uses the stylistic device of the stick stroke—used as a punishment in education and upbringing—directed upwards against the authorities, the media, and the international community.

“Many people understand slam up to now as a new, foreign form of art, although we have an oral tradition,” says Kalwira. To bring their art closer to the people, they perform on the street and away from places such as the Institut Francais, the cultural institution which has hosted the collective many times. They mix Swahili into their performances, as free school education for all remains a promise rather than reality, and thus speaking good French remains a status symbol.

As the number of women who bring their own critical voices to the public is still limited, the Goma Slam Session launched Slam au Feminim in September, bringing the program to the school, because due to household responsibilities many girls do not have the same opportunities to take part in extracurricular activities such as the Academie Slam.

As long as the education system fails to provide the young generation with the critical thinking skills and other tools to analyze and address social and political problems, the Goma Slam Session will continue with its subtle subversion. “Perhaps we are going to present a threat against the lamentable mediocrity of the political system and those who govern us in the future,” Bakulu says, “but so far the schools have welcomed us.”

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