When her mother learned that Chérie Rivers Ndaliko was thinking of grad school, she did what she always had: she created a spreadsheet of the best schools.
“I mean, when I was a kid, she went through the entire phone book to choose my elementary school,” which began with a W, Ndaliko said.
The name at the top of the latest list started with an H. “I said, ‘Mother, c’mon. You can’t be serious.’”
But her mother had done her homework: Harvard was not at the top of the list because of its prestige, her mother insisted. “She said, ‘This place will help you find the answers you are looking for.’”
Ndaliko was skeptical. Not only that she could get in, but that Harvard was the place to study Africa from her social activism perspective.
It took her 10 years – at 10 different institutions on three continents – to get her bachelor’s degree.
She began at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she trained as a concert pianist, then set off to Europe and Africa and back to study everything from literature to psychology to education. Her last stop was the Berklee College of Music, where she finally picked up her degree and began scoring socially conscious films.
Her problem was not aimlessness, but conviction. She always had a vision for what she wanted to do in the world and believed she could bring about change, given all the right tools. It was a matter of acquiring them.
“To my utter shock, Harvard not only accepted my application, but gave me a Presidential Fellowship,” she said. “And they said, ‘Whatever it is you are doing, come do it here.’”
She grew up on the northern fringes of San Francisco, in an area where most people were well educated, liberal and white.
There was no TV in the house, only musical instruments, books and a backyard garden. Ndaliko started playing the piano when she was 3, and later, a series of other instruments.
“My Dad and I were the only black people where I grew up, and everyone accepted and loved us,” she said. “But it was never the place I knew I belonged.”
Her father grew up in southern Louisiana, one of 11 children in a family that believed in education as the pathway to wherever they needed to go.
That idea took him to graduate school at Columbia University, then to California where he spent 30 years in the Department of Corrections developing programs that placed value on redemption and rehabilitation.
Her parents met when her mother was a student at the University of California, Berkeley and volunteered with at-risk children in Oakland. In the racial climate of the times, Ndaliko’s maternal grandparents disowned their daughter when she married a black man.
“Growing up in a mixed family, with aunts and uncles from Africa, grandparents from Denmark and an African-American father, I had so many questions about who my people were supposed to be,” Ndaliko said. “But over time, it gave me a perspective that I really came to appreciate because I really do feel a deep human connection to many, many different places.”
‘A meeting of the minds’
Because she grew up without TV or movies, Ndaliko said, she was drawn to film and its power to shape – and change – minds. But she was also troubled by the news accounts that had painted a false picture of Africa in the Western imagination as a dire, homogenous place perpetually in crisis.
As a film scorer, Ndaliko worked with African-American filmmakers who sought to counterbalance that caricature by making positive movies about Africa. But these bothered her just as much since they often created a mythic, utopian Africa that was equally unreal.
“It is not enough to say millions of people in Africa are living in disaster, but neither is it enough to say millions of people in Africa are doing really well,” Ndaliko said. “To see Africa as it really is, you have to understand that these opposing realities – crisis and normalcy – do not cancel each other out. They exist side by side as part of a complex, larger truth.”
In 2006, she went to Harvard in search of the information she needed to make films that revealed a more nuanced Africa. Ndaliko still considered herself more of a social activist than an academic, more interested in changing the world than advancing her career.
Soon after she arrived, she was summoned to the office of Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the chair of the Department of African and African-American Studies, who had a mission for her.
Higginbotham had recently started the Social Engagement Initiative to link practical experience with academic study. In addition to traditional scholarly training, the program allowed students to develop research and service projects in Africa and African-American communities, then draw on an interdisciplinary cluster of professors to help fine-tune and evaluate the projects.
“She said, ‘Chérie, I started this program to integrate the highest caliber of intellectual work in higher education with the ethic of service that African studies was founded upon. I want you to help me figure out how to create this marriage of scholarship and service at the graduate level.”
With that in mind, Ndaliko returned, once again, to her roots in Africa.
Finding her way to Congo
The next person Ndaliko met at Harvard who would change her life was Petna Ndaliko Katondolo, an internationally acclaimed Congolese filmmaker and activist.
After hearing him lecture, she interviewed him the next day.
The fifth of 13 children, Petna had not yet turned 20 in spring 1994 when the genocide began in Rwanda and the torrent of refugees began flowing past their home in Goma, capital city of the North Kivu Province in the east of Congo.
His mother took whatever she had – food, clothes, bandages – to give the people who flooded past their door.
That same year, Petna wrote his first play, “Victims of War,” which explored the memory of the survivors of that genocide. In 1997, he was forced into exile in Uganda for his outspoken anti-war sentiments. While there, he was at the forefront of human rights activism and funded Yolé!Africa, a center with a mission to promote peace through art and culture.
In 2002, Petna returned to Goma to establish a second branch of Yole!Africa there.
“At the time, it was the only institution in the east of Congo that offered youth an alternative to either joining a rebel militia, leaving as a refugee, or getting killed by a rebel militia,” Ndaliko said.
“Petna believed that fundamental human rights include the right to self-expression and critical thought,” she said. “He founded Yole!Africa to give youth the tools to imagine something different than war. He said, ‘If they can’t imagine it, then it is never going to happen.’”
During their interview, Ndaliko described the research she had done in Mali, Kenya, and South Africa – and that she intended to travel to Congo to conclude her research on film and social change in Africa’s conflict regions. She promised to go to Yole!Africa.
“Yeah, yeah, that would be great,” he said. “You are welcome any time.”
She knew he did not believe her because while many people say that are going to Congo, “nobody comes.”
But Ndaliko not only went to Congo, after living there for more than four years, she and Petna eventually married.
The mission back home
In 2012, Ndaliko became the first doctoral student at Harvard to complete a social engagement dissertation, a groundbreaking study of aesthetics and ideology in the conflict zone of Goma that identified the fight for controlling the media as the locus for understanding post-independence Africa and spurring social change.
Along the way, she joined with Petna to launch “Jazz Mama,” a documentary film and growing social movement that drew attention to the power and dignity of Congolese women, despite the horrific circumstances they faced in the ongoing conflict.
She also became co-director of Yolé!Africa in Goma, which now serves some 24,000 youth every year by offering free training in video arts, dance and music. Ndaliko launched and directs a choir for women and girls – writing and scoring some of the songs herself – with inspiring messages of women’s empowerment.
She had traveled all over the world searching. Congo was different; it kept pulling her back. “All of a sudden it got really clear that this was home,” she said.
That connection continued even after Ndaliko accepted a position as an assistant professor in Carolina’s music department in 2012.
With her students in her First Year Seminar, she and Petna founded Yole!Africa U.S. to spread awareness in the United States, inspire legislative change and promote artistic exchange between American and Congolese youth. Last fall, the music department, the College or Arts and Sciences and the Stone Center sponsored “Celebrating Congo: a Two-Day Festival of Art and Advocacy” that Ndaliko planned with the help of music students and Yole!Africa U.S.
Ndaliko doesn’t inspire activism by insisting on doing things her way.
“I can definitely give people information, give them tools and help them make connections,” she said.
“That’s the exciting thing about working with young people. They have so many great ideas, and if you don’t tell them it’s not possible, they just go ahead and do them.”