A chance connection on social media led Heidi Epp, a music teacher from B.C., to travel to Africa this summer to teach music and peace and conflict transformation.
Kendri Mastaki Mushagalusa, founder and director of Peace Foundation DRC and the Peace Music Academy in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), had invited Epp, a member of Yarrow United Mennonite Church in B.C, to come to DRC to help with music education at the school he founded. Mushagalusa is a former YAMEN (Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Worker) participant through Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) who wanted to do something proactive to help his community.
Life in Bukavu, a city of over one million, is difficult, with a 90 percent unemployment rate, and education not accessible to all. Mushagalusa started the Peace Foundation, a non-governmental organization whose aim is “to promote individual and institutional change through respect for democratic values, the promotion of peace and respect for human rights.”
A key part of the Peace Foundation is the Music Academy, where all teachers are volunteers. Their offices are in the local Mennonite Brethren church, where many of the teachers attend, though the school is not officially affiliated with any church group. Approximately 40 young people, ages 7-18, attend the Academy.
A continent away in Canada, Epp was pursuing her lifelong passion for music. She teaches piano privately and directs the Richmond Youth Honour Choir. Additionally, she is president of the Chilliwack Youth Orchestra and program director for Bakerview Music Academy in Abbotsford. She is also founder of the Fraser Valley Children’s Chorus.
When Mushagalusa reached out to Epp on Facebook because he read about her music work, the connection was underway. A conversation ensued about music and music education. Epp learned that many of the students attending the Peace Academy were orphans or impoverished children who lived with only one parent. Even public school costs money, so the education at the music academy is the only education they receive.
Questions about music education and leadership began flying across the internet. “Kendri asked me, ‘Would you be willing to meet our choir online?’” recalls Epp. When she did so—after being awakened by an unexpected call at 5:30 a.m. with the choir ready to sing for her—Mushagalusa told her, “We really need you to come here!”
Excited about the possibility, Epp realized, “If ever there is a time I could go, this is it.” She funded the trip herself, with help from friends, and put on a fundraising concert at her church to raise money for the costs of the workshops she would lead.
Epp travelled to the DRC from June 15 to July 2, taking with her teaching supplies, rhythm and melody cards, and recorders. “The first week I worked with kids, and the choir gave a concert,” she says. “The second week I gave workshops to the teachers on peace and conflict transformation, using Jesus as a model for relationships.”
The choir concert proved to be highlight of her time in DRC, as members of various ethnic groups joined together to sing and dance spontaneously. “The entire room was hopping with dancing and music and joy,” reports Epp. “There was no border, no divide between tribes, gender or age.”
Part of Epp’s mission was also giving musical instruction to the Academy teachers, many of whom are highly educated in fields such as law, computer science, and agriculture but don’t have extensive musical training themselves. Also attending the leadership workshops were representatives from various Christian denominations who wanted to start musical programs in their own churches.
Epp brought musical supplies with her, including a collection of recorders. “They’re durable, transportable, and the fingering from the recorder translates to woodwind instruments,” she explains. She is grateful to Facebook friends who donated funds to buy the recorders, and to Long and McQuade music stores and the Canadian publishing company Theme and Variations for donating musical supplies.
Now she is pondering, “Where do we go from here? The PMA program is growing; how does the foundation become self sustaining? How do we help make it happen?”
Following her time in DRC, Epp travelled to Rwanda to visit the MCC offices and learn more about MCC programs in the area.
Reflecting on her time in Africa, Epp says, “I would go back in a heartbeat. I have become very attached to those people and very invested in their ability to progress and develop and invest in their community.”
Heidi Epp leads a workshop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo about peace and conflict transformation.