During my second practical workshop with the refugees, we began in a circle in the middle of the room and slowly began to raise our voices together and dance. We were familiar with the tunes and had in fact performed them for an internal audience at the refugee centre, earlier in the year during the spring. Let me reflect on that first song and dance session back in April, which was a moment of supreme shock for everyone. Up until then, our sessions had been highly structured and clearly led by me. I was using drama games I had learned during a Teaching Drama course and also my university training. Now, however, I felt the need to take a step back and let participants show me what they could do. ‘Let’s sing’ I said spontaneously. I then opened the floor to them.
I had previously often heard one of the ladies humming in the café and so asked her to kick us off. Her song, ‘Kembo’, seemed to be well- known, as they others were comfortable joining in, while the lady led the song and sung a second voice. All of them chipped in at junctures to offer their own moves. I myself initiated a conga which was a very unifying moment. We stamped and sang loudly and without apology. A drama session is an ideal opportunity to temporarily break through some of the barriers the refugees may deal with in day-to-day life, particularly as they work through the necessary application processes to receive asylum. Here, they have a space to openly express themselves.
Most of the participants are Congolese. As a South African, this culture is, of course, different from my own, but not entirely alien. The refugees were, therefore, very surprised by my familiarity with African music. On the surface, I seem very English, as I moved to the UK at eleven. At heart, however, African rhythms are still deeply rooted. I taught them Shosha Loza, a Zulu song I had learned as a child. Before we began the theatre sessions, I had already been serving tea and coffee in the café for some months. I knew the clients but the drama group became a way for me to get to know the group more deeply, not through words but through movement and expressions of a shared African identity.
Now, having started the classes again after a long break over the summer and autumn, the singing and dancing is no longer a surprise for most of them but an expected pleasure at the end of each session. When we begin our final sing-song, visitors dropping in for the first time, continue to be surprised. The singing therefore becomes an initiation ceremony as we re-enact out group identity each week and welcome new people into the room. During our last session, a new lady actually arrived in the middle of the song. I consciously moved towards her, opened the door and invited the rest of the group to join me in welcoming her into the space. She was encouraged to take her coat off and join in with us immediately. The joy of this welcome perhaps transmitted the desires of the refugees to be welcomed here, in their new country of domicile. In this way, the song and dance becomes a way to express the needs of the group and a site of healing and unity.
So, how does this link to archaeology? Well, we have sung these songs countless times within the space. They are a means of voicing who we are, where we have come from and our links to our home countries. One Congolese man I interviewed said, he had learned to speak Eritrean here. The centre is a site for cross-cultural storytelling and linguistic exploration. By re-enacting our original song session back in May, over and over again each week, we regularly reinforce our group identity and individual validity within the space. We communicate, through song, the storytelling that is continually taking place. Click here to listen to an audio file from our last session.
We repeated the exercise from the previous week, waking up the space using our voices and bodies. This time, however, we incorporated the Congolese and Zulu songs into the exercise. I encouraged participants to invite the space into the communal activity, engaging with the different elements of the room, this time not by saying ‘hello’ but by singing. I believe this enabled the refugees to more consciously communicate with the room itself and perhaps subconsciously consider its role in framing and housing their experiences.