Changing South Kivu one dance at a time: The young Congolese woman defying stereotypes

Supported by MECCA M-POWER.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, contemporary dance is a type of art being taken up by many young people. In all cities, you can easily meet young girls and boys forming dance groups. Some go so far as to organize shows. Others become professional in this form of art.

In a country ravaged by wars for several decades, more and more young people take refuge in art to express their joys, their sadness, or their hopes. However, armed conflicts have created a violent environment, which perpetuates inequalities between men and women. Because of this, is not at all easy for girls to become artists and make a living from their talent.

This is what Prisca Kanga decided to challenge, becoming one of the pioneers of contemporary dance in her region.

Dancing or getting married: one of the many challenges

Contemporary art is an expressive process of body movements that conveys messages. This contemporary practice is not practiced by the artists of the city of Bukavu, who are accustomed to traditional or urban dance. The lack of originality on the part of traditional artists, who copy historical approaches to dance across the country, is being challenged by young contemporary dancers who believe dance should first be a form of individual and personal expression.

Access to funding to allow dancers to participate in training is a serious problem. “Several times I missed learning opportunities because I had to take myself in charge. Neither the authorities, nor the family, nor the friends were able to support me,” several dancers told Missing Perspectives. Alongside these general challenges, young female artists experience a specific reality: choosing between pursuing art, or marriage.

Negative perceptions of women or girls as dancers do not encourage them to pursue a professional career. "Girls are supposed to be born, grow up, study - but not too much - get married, raise children. And to do this, she should not become a public figure, especially an artist. The choice is therefore not left to the girl artist to develop her talent and start a family," explains Anne Faida, a gender analyst.

This is a reality confirmed by Prisca Kanga, a dancer for several years: "Every time I am on stage, some people take me for a little crazy, a kid, forgetting that dancing is a profession like many others, a career in its own right. People say that no one can marry a girl who moves her body in front of many people," says Prisca. 

From the shadows to the light, Prisca Kanga defies the limits

Born on May 3, 1998 in the mountainous town of Bukavu, located in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Prisca Kanga is the third of four children. Her parents divorced when she was 8 years old and she had a very difficult childhood, living with her mother.

She started dancing in her church before joining a band, which was all boys. "The first time I danced was at church, there was a praise song being chanted and I danced my ass off. I was in the 4th grade primary school. I felt like I was free of all my problems. When I grew up, I joined a dance troupe where I was the only girl. I worked in interscholastic competitions before I graduated. In 2017, I joined the cultural company named “Espoir” where I learned traditional dance and ballet," she says.

Growing up in an environment where artists take on many jobs in order to make a living from their art, Prisca has beaten all odds to forge a place for herself in the cultural sphere of the city of Bukavu. "We pass several messages when we dance, some of which come from my daily life: quest for justice and peace, war, rape, killing, conflict, famine, gender-based violence, women's rights, protection of children," she explains.

One of the painful events she recounts with sadness was in January 2021, when a fire reduced to ashes 53 houses, 103 households, in her hometown. Prisca's mother's house was lost in the fire. "Our house was my mother's pride, our wealth. Losing it was hard and seeing my mother sad was even harder," she says. To attract attention and awareness of the country’s authorities and broader population in order to help these hundreds of people impacted by the fire, Prisca did a dance performance on the debris of the fire, a way for her to unload pain.

"I can't even know how to express the feeling I had at that moment, so I needed a remedy, dance, otherwise it could be my downfall. So I danced, and I asked for help in my own way. The purpose was also to unload the pain and when I saw my mother rejuvenated just by watching the video, telling her friends with pride that I am a dancer, I felt the happiest and I forgot about those pains," she recalls.

The path to financial independence

As with many artistic disciplines in fragile countries, dance is not only an alternative for young people to vent their multiple problems, but also to express their hopes.

Is it enough to generate income to support themselves? More and more cultural operators seem to be convinced that increasing the number of women and women's artistic productions will allow them to exercise a fundamental right that is often denied to them: that of expressing themselves openly in the public space and being financially independent.

"My work as a dancer doesn't make me rich yet, but it allows me to meet new people, it also allows me to be independent in many areas. I can now be listened to, other young girls are starting to tell me that I am an inspiration to them, and I am not afraid to impose myself in society despite all the prejudices", explains Prisca.

Beyond that, Congolese artists work in a volatile economic environment weakened by the recurring wars in the country, which has not allowed the local authorities to put in place a clear cultural policy, to build performance halls (especially for dance), nor to organise large-scale events that could allow artists to earn enough money.

The latter then turn to national or international non-government organisations to offer them services during their interventions in the communities and who can pay them well. "So far, many people attend our shows and do not understand the message we convey through our body movements. But instead of approaching us, they automatically conclude that it's nonsense, and that they can't pay for it. But recently, a friend of mine who was in such a situation approached me after my show and confessed that he finally understood what we do. He promised to be an unwavering supporter," Prisca shares with a smile on her face. 

With one of her friends, Innès Mangominja, Prisca has set up Phoenix, a young organisation that helps vulnerable people in this corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo. "It's just because I have a soft spot for people in distress. I like to help and give back a smile", Prisca says. "In Phoenix, we teach dance to girls who are on the street, or who live in difficult situations, so that they can let off steam and find joy again."