Photo by Emma Brown cc: Emma Brown Photography
“Creative resistance is a nonviolent weapon, but it hits hard. Music, theatre, painting, you can express yourself without shooting a single bullet,without causing any deaths. You just target people’s consciousness." - Yslem Hijo del Desierto (in Life is Waiting film)
The promotion of culture and artistic expression have been vitally important to the Saharawi community since the onset of their struggle for independence nearly five decades ago. Throughout their history of conflict and exile from their homeland of Western Sahara, the Saharawis have used music, film, poetry, dance and other arts to raise awareness about their situation and aspirations, and to keep their identity alive.
But as conflicts continue to erupt across the globe, causing people to flee, international media and aid agencies are scrambling to keep up. Today, a record 100 million people are displaced worldwide, according to the UN. The scale of loss to homes, livelihoods, families and communities is daunting and almost unimaginable. Amid soaring global humanitarian needs, the protracted crisis for the Saharawis is becoming buried under deeper layers of oblivion and political inaction. The widespread lack of knowledge of the Saharawi situation poses a serious handicap to their cause, as it makes it difficult for them to gain the support they deserve and to access platforms for their voices to be heard.
For the estimated 200,000 Saharawis living in five refugee camps in SW Algeria, the extreme abnormality of their situation has inexorably been transformed into normality. The belief in a different kind of future, one where they can develop their potential and fulfill their dreams, grows bleaker by the day.
As a London-based organisation that promotes and nurtures Saharawi artists, Sandblast has developed different strategies to reinforce Saharawi creative resistance and promote awareness and solidarity. Keeping alive a story that has stagnated for many years and engaging support are challenging missions, but we have remained committed and steadfast in our approach.
Creative nonviolent resistance can take many forms, and it plays a crucial role in the Saharawis’ pursuit of self-determination. As the Saharawi rapper Yslem Hijo del Desierto put it in the brilliant 2015 film ‘Life is Waiting’: “Creative resistance is a nonviolent weapon, but it hits hard. Music, theatre, painting, you can express yourself without shooting a single bullet, without causing any deaths. You just target people’s consciousness.”
Saharawis' methods of resistance are constantly being redefined and diversified thanks to the emergence of new digital spaces to voice their grievances and assert their demands. At Sandblast, we aim to tap into digital and non-digital platforms for Saharawi artists, musicians and creatives to share their art and their stories with the world. It is believed that about 70% of Saharawi cultural heritage has disappeared since Saharawis first fled to the refugee camps in Algeria. Today, a third generation of children are growing up more likely knowing the stories of Sleeping Beauty and Superman than their own traditional desert stories and know little about their homeland. Meanwhile, elders with real memories of life in Western Sahara are dying out and with them irreplaceable oral libraries of the past.
Our Desert Voicebox project plays a vital role in countering this alarming trend. We train local refugee women to provide English and music education to over 70 primary school children in camp Boujdour. We also tap into local cultural resources like artists who can teach them about traditional music, and we have been devising activities to ensure the children speak to their elders to learn about their past. Finally, we aim to use our existing platforms and networks to showcase Saharawis that are using creative means to advocate for their culture and rights.
Creative forms of nonviolent resistance have and will continue to shape the Saharawi resistance movement until a just and lasting solution is achieved. In spite of the immense risk and powerful oppression, Saharawis are increasingly gaining access to digital technology and online spaces to document their struggle and appeal to the international community for support. As we continue to grow our online presence and following, we hope to reach even more people with the incredible and varied art forms of the Saharawi people.
Art has the power to make peace by addressing universal themes in ways that tap into our emotions and enable us to connect with our common humanity. We all have a role to play in fostering global peace. By standing in solidarity with Saharawis living under Moroccan occupation, in the refugee camps, and in the global diaspora, we can actively support their struggle for equality and human rights by sharing and promoting their art, from past, present and future generations.
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