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How an African church choir creates community

In an article on the power of music, Gene Beresin, Executive Director of the Clay Center in Boston, Massachusetts, draws a long list of all the researched ways in which music can heal. Among them are music’s ability to reduce pain, improve mood, and have positive effects on symptoms of stroke and dementia.

Dr. Kayonda Hubert Ngamaba knew all of this instinctively—but it wasn’t until a parishioner of his was placed in a social care home that he started to make a connection between his choir group at Ephrata Community Church and the old age residences in his region of northwest England. 

Dr. Ngamaba wears a lot of hats. He’s a psychologist. He’s a research fellow at the University of York’s school for business and society. He’s a refugee. And he’s also a pastor at a church with a vibrant, dynamic, African choir.

Ephrata Community Church in Bolton attracts immigrants and refugees from all over Africa, but especially from the Congo. Their choir sings an uplifting mix of English and French hymns and traditional African songs sung in Lingala, a Congolese language.

If You Can’t Come To Us, We’ll Come To You

The idea to take their powerful music into nursing homes came to Ngamaba one day when he was visiting one of his own parishioners in a social care home.

As a psychologist, Ngamaba saw pervasive and persistent loneliness in many of his patients. But it wasn’t until he visited this parishioner of his and asked her how she was doing that her response triggered him. She simply said, “I’m bored.”

“She told me she was bored,” Ngamaba remembers. “There was nothing to do, and she was missing the choir. The idea started from there. I thought, if she can’t come to the choir, we would take the choir to her.”

And so they did. The members of Ephrata Community Church’s choir came to her with their joy, their love, their voices—as well as some guitars and keyboards. In essence, they restored community to the lonely woman.

Combatting Cognitive Decline With Music

Ngamaba thought about all the care home residents who might be feeling bored, lonely and isolated. He thought especially of the elderly, who are more likely to be experiencing loneliness in homes where nurses and staff are overwhelmed and don’t have much extra time to spend with residents.

Research has long showed that loneliness is bad for physical and mental health. It increases cognitive decline and dementia. But do you know what improves those negative symptoms? Music.

And so in 2016, Ephrata Community Church officially launched its program to bring its African choir into nursing homes. It started with a mandate of four of these residences in northwest England. And the response has been nothing but positive.

“The residents love it,” affirmed one home’s activity coordinator, Diana Bellusci. “It’s uplifting. It puts everybody in a good mood, not just the residents but the staff as well.”

Creating Community

Ngamaba was thrilled—but not surprised—at the transformation he saw in residents once his choir started performing in the nursing homes. Singing and dancing created a sense of community. Isolation was broken. “When the choir started dancing, we saw residents standing up and joining in,” Ngamaba said. “The staff were amazed. These were residents who usually just sat in their bedrooms. The sense of joy was amazing.”

Another added benefit of music is that it helps people retrieve memory. Indeed, choir leader Perseverant Mupolo said of her experience with nursing home residents, “We found that the singing started conversations. They may not remember the whole song, but they remember learning it in Sunday school as children and practicing at home with mum and dad. For some, it’s a wonderful moment.”

Choir members go even further to create a bond with the residents and deepen those wonderful moments. They take song requests—and if they don’t know the song that a resident is asking for, they go home, learn it and come back the next time prepared to sing it.

Perhaps the secret of the success of Dr. Ngamaba and his African choir is that their music brings out the inner child in these seniors who have long since left childhood behind. It brings back happy memories. It brings back a sense of community and care that these residents so desperately need.

As more is understood about the decline of the elderly in nursing homes, more is being done to combat it. There are programs to encourage residents to exercise; there are programs that bring in therapeutic animals. Some residences are putting in craft studios, cafes and woodworking shops.

The idea is always the same: to create a feeling of community, a place where people share interests and ideas. A place where people belong.