In May of 2007, music therapy professor Karen Wacks, traveled with eight Berklee students to Kenya on a service learning trip sponsored by Musicians for World Harmony (MWH), a nonprofit group created by former Ugandan refugee, Samite Mulondo. Since that time, the relationship with MWH has continued and professor Wacks is currently with Mulondo in Uganda, developing a feasibility study on using music performance and therapy for the Lord’s Resistance Army’s (LRA) ex-child soldiers to address post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Children between the ages of 5 to 17 are still forcefully abducted, forced to kill, and be trained as rebel fighters or commanders’ wives. In addition to physical disabilities or even death, less perceptible but important psychosocial damage is inflicted upon children by armed conflict and violence. Music has been proven to provide the safety, comfort, and connection so needed for a child’s mental, emotional, and spiritual development. 

The following post was written by professor Wacks. 

I have been in Uganda since last Saturday afternoon and now it is a week later. This is some of the most intense work I have done thus far in my career as a music therapist.   There is no comparison to any other population or life situation.

When thinking of building this trip in the future, it will take a very special type of individual who can handle witnessing the level of suffering and pain that all of North Uganda is experiencing. Every family has been touched in some way by the killings, the abductions and the residual effects of the war.

Music therapy professor Karen Wacks visits Uganda


I was so swept away by the opportunity to do some traveling back to Africa and to work with Samite that I was blind to the fact that Northern Uganda is still quite vulnerable.  And the war has moved from the field into the home and community—children are dealing not only with the stigma of being war children, rejected by their own families and communities but also causing severe PTSD, depression, and suicide.

This morning, Samite and I led a training workshop for the counselors of the youth, many of who were child soldiers themselves and are now working to help others. As I facilitated many of the same music therapy sessions that I use in classes and workshops, as well as some mindful meditation, I found it compelling to witness how music therapy interventions work across cultures—no matter what country one is from. Our goal was to have participants continue to develop inner resources and just express themselves—and that they did—from the challenges they face in confronting their own fears to working effectively with others.

African Rural Development Initiatives (ARDI) dance troupe during Berklee's visit to Uganda.

And then this afternoon, we worked with the youth. I don’t have words to express how music brought them all together, opened them up and created a sense of empowerment and hope. Blending traditional African music and dance with Western music therapy material elevated their spirits and the room was filled with laughter and joy. Before our eyes, youth who had been withdrawn and anxious began to interact with their peers, sing loud and clear and move freely to the beat.

We left that afternoon with the knowledge that something profound had happened— music had created a warm, safe environment of trust and belonging. We had only begun to touch the deeper issues. The stories, the pain, the atrocities….

Former Ugandan refugee Samite Mulondo and older child soldiers during Berklee's trip to Uganda.

We are well aware that a few sessions with music doesn’t fix the deeper problems that lie ahead for these youth.  Ongoing, sustainable interventions are the only way to fully address the issues. However, for that moment, life was joyful and good. Is it enough?  Absolutely not. This is only the beginning; the relationships have begun.  Continuing on this journey….

Lesley Mahoney
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