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Published On: Tue, Aug 23rd, 2016

Healing through dance: ‘It made me think back to how I ran away’ – Blessing Sibindi (28), an asylum seeker from Zimbabwe

Théogène “Totto” Niwenshuti meticulously set the scene for his performance at the Kildare Dance and Movement Summer School.

While most participants were taking a break outside Loftus Hall at Maynooth University, he asked those remaining, including several professional dancers, to scatter clothing and shoes around the floor and then lie face-down, motionless, among them. He was especially keen that bodies should block the entrance through which the class would return after the break.

When they arrived, chattering and oblivious, silence descended as a stark realisation swept through the group: they were being asked to pick their way through “the dead”, people who had grabbed a few belongings and fled, but who hadn’t survived.

Gradually the “dead” arose gracefully and joined the wider group, while Totto, having spent several minutes using phenomenal strength to manoeuvre into one-handed handstands in tight corners between various chairs and belongings, danced around them.
Softly, he told his story of running through a forest with a group that included a little girl: they reached a crossing, and couldn’t agree on which path to take. The girl suggested left, and he and others followed; they survived. The rest turned right, and many of them were massacred.

He moved fluidly as he spoke, and several participants, some of whom experienced atrocities in their own lives, were visibly distraught. Later, in a circle, as they held hands and began to absorb the experience, the group seemed revivified, strong and transformed.

“It made me think back to how I ran away,” an emotional Blessing Sibindi (28), from Zimbabwe, said later. An asylum seeker who has lived in Ireland for two years, Sibindi lost most of her family in 2005 in a car crash that she says was not an accident but politically orchestrated. “Then my mother was beaten to death in 2013. She was an active member of the MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] Party. I had nobody and my life was in danger. This was why I had to run.”

Sibindi’s solo journey took her to South Africa and then to Ireland. She now lives in a hotel for asylum seekers in Newbridge while awaiting a decision on her application.
“It’s strange – the dance [with Totto] made me upset, but I feel it was a good thing,” says Sibindi, who was invited by Kildare County Council Arts Service along with other asylum seekers to take part in the summer school.

Integration

The idea behind the invitation was to help further integrate asylum seekers into the community, says Carolann Courtney, arts and wellbeing specialist at Kildare County Council.
“We didn’t want to do sessions only with one specific group. It’s all about integration, and it’s a safe environment with no one judging you on how you dance or your physical ability or the colour of your skin. It’s about being open to dance, and it’s universal.It’s not about language, it’s about you being in your body and letting that happen.”

Sibindi discovered a love for Irish dancing while living at a direct provision centre in Carrick-on-Suir. “I really love it, and I took part in the Irish dancing this week – but I have no space to dance in my room, and no one to come dancing with me. I cannot work, and I have all this time.”

The summer school had a profound effect, she says: “Since I came here on Monday, the moment I stepped my foot inside, I feel my problems have been left outside. It is really helping . . . When you go to sleep and you get that refreshment, you get to dream good things.” – Irish Times