“Rivers Unite, Dams Divide.” It’s my favorite activist slogan, one I learned from Turkish activists, and it neatly captures why we at International Rivers do the work that we do, and what kind of planet we envision.
The Nile Project – a collective devoted to musical and cross-cultural interaction and outreach among the peoples of the Nile River – beautifully embodies the first half of this sentiment. They also seek to use the human connections they are forming through their glorious pan-Nile sounds to create stronger bonds among the sometimes-tense nations who call Africa’s longest river home. They hope that by focusing on what binds them together – the Nile – it will ease the way to finding solutions for the Nile’s many complex challenges, including the divisions that large dams are creating. They are, in effect, forming a new collective identity, one that brings them closer to being citizens of the Nile as much as they are citizens of their individual countries.
Mina Girgis, the Nile Project’s co-founder and Executive Director, says, “For many projects, music is the end result. But for us, it is just the beginning. The integration of music with youth leadership and innovation, we hope, will create a driving force that will change the way Nile Citizens relate to each other and their shared ecosystem.”
After three years of forging a vision, working on music together and sharing it in the Nile region, Mina and 13 of the Project’s 28 musicians have embarked on a US tour this year. Fortunately for those of us in International Rivers’ Berkeley office, they’ve been sharing their unique vision of using music to forge bonds and overcome conflict through a residency at the University of California at Berkeley, where they’ve been giving public seminars, concerts, and lectures this month.
The concerts are where you can truly lose yourself, and perhaps for an evening imagine yourself as part of this new identity, one formed from our ties to the Earth more than to a particular set of boundaries or a place name on a map. Even though I couldn’t understand the singers’ mother tongues at the recent concert I attended at UC Berkeley, the universal language of music made me feel that we could all speak Nile for the night. The magical mixing of African drums, Arabic cane flute, traditional stringed instruments from Uganda and Burundi, vocals in a half-dozen languages, and dancing that seemed to be from a higher plane brought two thousand people joyously to their feet, and left us feeling part of a new way of thinking about our citizenship on this planet, and our connections to each other.
Just like the river – always changing as its waters flow from source to sea – the musicians of the Nile Project are creating something fluid yet grounded, unique to the moment but at the same time ancient and coming from a place deep within the human soul. It makes me hopeful for this sometimes-troubled region, and for the planet.
Learn more about The Nile Project’s US tour
Read an interview with Mina Girgis from World Rivers Review’s Arts and Activism issue