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Africa, famine, Food crisis, music, music therapy, poverty, social justice

How music empowers children in the Sahel

Some of you may have heard about the food crisis in West Africa and about my passion for how music empowers and heals – I wrote the below to help Unicef with their aid efforts in the area. Please donate here

Across the Sahel region almost 4 million children under the age of five are threatened with severe and moderate acute malnutrition, Unicef now estimates.

Drought has sucked the land dry all across the desert region, and food is simply too expensive for most families. These figures make for a desperate day-to-day life for children; but they do have one tool to foster resilience: music.

Nathan Fuhr, a musical conductor based in Senegal, says music and culture are so integral and intertwined in Africa that they cannot be divided. “Music is culture and vice versa,” he says.

While the latest food crisis is particularly bad because of the large increase in food prices, the Sahel region is no stranger to to the challenges of the harsh environment. This constant hardship makes music even more important for children growing up in the region. It is not something they pursue because they decide it’s their passion or their parents pay for lessons – it is woven into the ritual and custom of the very culture.

“Three-year-olds can just kill it on the drums,” says Fuhr, who is American and grew up in the Midwest. “Just being so rhythmically tuned in means they can lubricate their experiences to help them become infinitely more bearable. It is the reason they can smile and laugh and have that positivity and togetherness.”

Music is a force that binds communities together in a different way than in the West , according to Fuhr – who is putting together a number of musical projects with local and international artists. “There is a way people have an awareness of the collective – it’s the limbic brain, not individualism [as in the west] and no one is being marginalised. The way language is used [through music] is like a net but in a good way [to keep people together and safe].”

This early exposure to art is a way for young people to express their emotions, experiences and hopes for their homeland. The Sahel Opera Project, a collective of artists, musicians, dancers, actors and designers, is one of the ways of how this can culminate for children and young people. The aim of the project, which was set up by Prince Claus of the Netherlands, is to showcase the talent of the Sahel region through operas, plays and music. “The Sahel Opera illustrates beautifully many dimensions of the link between culture and development,” according toSahelOpera.org.

A strong response to the emergency in the Sahel will help to keep this spirit alive.


About Herpreet Kaur Grewal

Herpreet Kaur Grewal is a newspaper-trained journalist, editor and commentator. She formerly wrote and edited a section for the social policy and politics magazine Regeneration & Renewal. She has worked for The Times of London and her articles have featured in The Guardian, The Observer and The Daily Express. She specialises in social deprivation issues, gender, human rights , arts and culture.


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Herpreet Kaur Grewal is an editor and journalist currently based in London.

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