Congolese arts refuge helps street children find their voice

By Ange Adihe Kasongo and Benoit Nyemba

KINSHASA (Reuters) - A small recording booth on the outskirts of the Congolese capital Kinshasa has become a safe space for homeless teenagers to rap and sing about their life on the streets and dreams of a brighter future.

Lyrics about sexual abuse, theft, and run-ins with the police lay bare the hardships faced by the few dozen children and young people who attend the Mokili Na Poche cultural centre - a day refuge offering a place to wash, eat, and learn to those in need.

"It really makes me happy when I sing," said 19-year-old Osé Mavakala, who has slept on the streets for years like more than 20,000 other homeless children in Kinshasa, according to U.N. agency UNICEF.

Other teens looked on with pride as Mavakala rapped intently into the microphone at a session in late August.

The chance to record in a studio has inspired Mavakala to dream of bigger goals. "It encourages me and I tell myself - ah, life belongs to the courageous," he said, citing U.S. rapper Lil Wayne and Congolese star Fally Ipupa as influences.

He has been coming to the centre for the past three years, taking part in the music, art, and literacy classes it offers from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time (0700 GMT-1800 GMT). Founder Cedrick Tshimbalanga hopes these skills and the routine will help the children find their feet and their voices.

"With music first and foremost the young people are able to talk about their daily experience - everything they live through daily: rape, theft, trauma, attacks," said Tshimbalanga, who plans to publish their tracks soon in an album.

The classes are also a chance for the young people to make up for lost opportunities. While Democratic Republic of Congo has made progress in boosting access to education, over 7 million children aged between five and 17 still do not have access to schooling, according to UNICEF.

"Break free from the criminal life, my friend, it's time to see what the future holds for you," Mavakala rapped during an emotion-filled impromptu performance at the centre in August.

(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)