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Linda Kaoma - "Healing traumatized and broken communities is worth dying for"

Cape Town-based freelance events and project manager in the arts, gives an insight in healing and transforming societies through the arts and culture

Linda Kaoma speaking during the fourth Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators

Tomás De La Rosa | 24.10.2017

As someone who featured on CNN African Voices due to her work conserving and recording African poetry for mobile consumption, Linda Kaoma is considered an expert in the crucial role arts and culture play for traumatized communities and the recuperation of cultural identity. Toward the end of the fourth Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators, Kaoma spoke with Salzburg Global about how the arts play a role in healing broken communities and the inspiration behind her work.

Salzburg Global: What inspired you to do the work that you do and what drives you on a daily basis?

Linda Kaoma: The organizations I work with use the arts for more than just art’s sake. We use the arts as a catalyst for transformation, healing, and empowerment of African communities. I do this is because my creative expression has allowed me to change the narrative of my own life, and I want others to have that opportunity. The arts are a therapeutic process that heals people and communities. I come from a community that has faced much injustice, which resulted in a broken and divided community; the arts helped us resolve that by not delving into the brokenness, and moving beyond it.

I do this work because I understand what these communities go through, and truly believe that they need healing. Through this healing, it’s that communities can start changing their own narrative, as they are able to use creative expression to dig deep into their humanity. This serves as a universal language that everyone can speak, regardless of origin or living conditions, because it is part of the human condition.

SG: You work with organizations that use the arts as a tool for transformation, empowerment, and healing? What is this? What are some of the most powerful types of transformation art can do for local communities?

LK: My work with Clowns Without Borders is an example of this. We travel to marginalized communities in crisis, and add a fun, theatrical, element to life in a refugee camp, which helps appease their minds after all they have been through. From a privileged perspective, this might seem as simplistic and futile, but these people have lost everything on multiple occasions, and so the sole idea of laughter is one they have not had in a long time.

The possibility of going into communities and offering them a moment of relief, peace, and laughter is of huge importance, as it helps them reconnect, at least briefly, with the humanity war and crisis has forcefully taken from them. To me, this is the ultimate healing; you are able to see the light return to their eyes as they laugh.

SG: During your work with Clowns Without Borders in South Sudan, you wrote an incredibly heartwarming article saying “Why do we live if we have not found something worth dying for?” Is your thing worth dying for to use the arts as a tool to heal communities such as those in South Sudan?

LK: Yes [it is indeed worth dying for]. At the time I wrote this, I had been diagnosed with a chronic condition, and my doctors were very much against the idea of me going to South Sudan because there were serious concerns my health would deteriorate. However, I remained resolute, because I really believed in my work.

As I said earlier, these are people who have lost everything multiple times, they have absolutely nothing. Even within my illness, I was able to understand my privilege, and that I had a duty to utilize my privilege to go there and make a difference. Even though I faced my own challenges, in the broader, bigger, picture that it was nothing to me because I knew how much these people needed human contact to relieve them from their devastating environment.

SG: You speak of your work with Badilisha Poetry being fueled by Africa having a history of not keeping records of your culture, and you not wanting this to happen with poets. To some degree, do you think this transforms communities by making culture accessible and timeless?

LK: Throughout African history, either because of colonialism or our own hand, much of our culture has not sat with us, and a lot of us don't have access to history, which represents a problem for young people attempting to create or assert their identity. We live in a global community, and so the consumption of external culture should not be frowned upon, but for poetry this represents a major challenge, as people tend to prioritize other better-known poets over local expression. The project was about helping local poets become better known, and make record of their work for future generations.

Another of the project’s priorities, was ensuring the preservation of a distinct African style of poetry, which would allow poets to do great things around their culture without the need of conforming to western styles. The intention of this, was to help poets develop a strong sense of self, as well as providing a platform for them to exhibit said sense. Through this platform, poets were able to network with each other, establish a community, and exchange sustainable experiences.

I firmly believe will make a part of our culture accessible and timeless. I did a lot of work for this in Mombasa, Kenya, recording older poets in order to preserve their art for local organizations; I worked with many great poets, including a man some refer to as “The Father of Swahili Poetry”.  Through them, I was introduced to a community that I would have otherwise not been able to access, and truly gain an understanding of. I provided me with some perspective, and taught me not to have the arrogance to assume that, through reading, we know everything about their literary community. To have their work immortalized does so much for the poets and those who use them as inspiration. It makes their work accessible, and also gives some confidence to those who want African art to be respected for its own value.

SG: Lastly what do you take from your time at the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators?

LK: At first, this experience was somewhat intimidating for me, I felt unprepared when I read who some of the people attending it were. Coming here, getting to know people, hearing talks, and learning in such an intimate way really changed my perspective, however. I learned that behind all of these great names, there are just people who try to do as much good as they can with the resources that they are given.

The program was very thought-provoking, in the small groups we had time to ask questions you are not used to hearing and reflect about them. In a way, this is as transformational for me as the work I do with vulnerable communities.

I leave this forum with a renewed sense of balance. The session felt very much like an exchange, I learned I need to work on my leadership skills, but was also able to pass down my knowledge of innovation on how to do community work. I'm taking away community entrepreneurship skills that I will apply on my daily work and when helping to transform communities. Because of this, I have also gained an unquestionable feeling that what I am doing is exactly what I want for my career, I like where I am and where I’m going.

The Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators IV is part of a ten-year multi-year series. This year's program is supported by the Albanian-American Development Foundation, American Express, Arts Council Malta, Cambodian Living Arts, Canada Council for the Arts, Edward T. Cone Foundation, Fulbright Greece, Japan Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, Adena and David Testa, and the U.S. Embassy Valetta, Malta. More information on the session can be found here. More information on the series can be found here. You can follow all the discussions on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram by using the hashtag #SGSyci.

Tomás De La Rosa