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Former refugee brings orphans therapy: Song

Samite Mulondo uses music therapy to let kids express their emotions
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Can we trust you?” the girls asked.

Samite Mulondo told them they could.

Shyly, the three girls, who’d been sexual slaves for rebel soldiers in northern Uganda, asked if he could help them be tested secretly for HIV. And not just them, but 130 others.

Their request surprised Samite. He’d come to Uganda from America to play music and try to ease their pain. This was more than he’d expected.

That moment, and others like it from Africa’s refugee camps and orphanages, are helping Samite build a new kind of foreign aid: Music therapy.

It’s striking how quickly music can bring life to glassy eyes, says the Ithaca-based Samite, a former Ugandan refugee. “You play them two songs and they say, ‘Can I sing? Can I tell you what happened to me?”’

Samite’s new CD, “Embalasasa,” is the latest step in bringing musicians and instruments, and some hope, to African children.

In January, his nonprofit Musicians for World Harmony took nearly a dozen Americans to orphanages in Kenya and Tanzania to meet hundreds of AIDS orphans and former street children. To break the ice, the Americans sang the “Hokey Pokey” and handed out hundreds of instruments, like flutes and kalimbas, or thumb pianos. And with a new digital recording studio as a gift, they helped children burn CDs of themselves singing.

“They sing, and then they die,” Samite says, his soft voice cushioning the words. “But it’s important for a kid to say, ‘This is my friend’s voice.”’

It’s not known how many groups like Samite’s exist, if any. A spokesman for the American Music Therapy Association, Al Bumanis, says music therapy was used with victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Columbine shootings. Opera singer Luciano Pavarotti supported a music-therapy project in Bosnia after the genocide there. Samite’s work is “unique enough,” Bumanis says.

This year, Samite’s work has attracted the attention of the largest music-therapy department in America, at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Karen Wacks, an associate professor, says the school is talking about putting together an Africa trip for students, and Samite, next year.

A chance to feelThe idea came from Amanda Maestro-Scherer, a Berklee junior who went with Samite this year.

She remembers being shown around an AIDS orphanage by a little girl, maybe 10 or 11, named Faith. Then she took out her guitar and asked the girl to help write a song.

“Happy or sad?” Maestro-Scherer asked.

“Sad,” Faith said. And she started singing about a girl who was sick and alone who came to an orphanage and found a new home and friends.

Songwriting is a common approach with people who’ve experienced trauma, Maestro-Scherer says. It lets people express themselves indirectly.

“It’s very quick,” Wacks adds. “You don’t have to sit and process what someone is thinking or saying. You’re able to access your emotions almost immediately.”

Both would like to push music therapy beyond its established role in nursing homes and schools of developed countries and into the places where the 47-year-old Samite ventures.

Samite found his role by accident. He was helping to film a documentary for PBS called “Song of the Refugee” in 1997, but people in Liberia were angry about the cameras. The director suggested that Samite play a song, and he did on his flute. People gathered, and after a while they began singing and playing. Soon the cameraman could shoot anything, Samite says.

Later, in Rwanda, he pulled out his flute again. He was at a transit camp for survivors of the genocide there, and he started playing for a little boy. The boy brought over his friend, and then about 20 more. First they sang, then they told stories of the killings they’d seen.

After that, Samite says, he called his wife in America and told her he now knew why he was a musician. “I woke her up,” he says, smiling. “I was actually crying.”

Finding his nicheAs a musician, Samite doesn’t need this kind of work to survive. He tours. He’s working on the soundtrack for a documentary about Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya.

Glenn Ivers, the producer of the PBS documentary, “Song of the Refugee,” has seen enough projects come to Africa and fail. The world gives a lot of aid in food and clothing, but there’s very little for the spiritual side, he says.

The last word comes by e-mail from Kenya, where Anthony Njeru produces videos for musicians across East Africa. He’s been the cameraman for some of Samite’s visits, and he writes, “It is very important to understand the place of music to the African. It is as everyday as food.”

Music as therapy isn’t always quick and easy, he says. He remembers a boy at one AIDS orphanage who refused to talk about his feelings on Samite’s first visit last year. But unlike many who visit Africa, Samite came back.

“This kid took him to the small cemetery holding tiny mounds of flower-filled earth and began pouring his feelings,” Njeru writes.

And the other children asked Samite to return.