School hosts French choreographer, journalist

Kiara Royer and Gabby Kepnes

Bolewa Sabourin, a choreographer and “artivist,” and Balla Fofana, an author and journalist, visited the school on Tuesday to speak to Upper Division French students.

The event was held to allow students to explore cultural diversity and the effects it has on people, French teacher Kenneth Carpenter said.

“I loved the fact that we could have these guests who have interesting identities and experiences that they could share with students,” World Languages Department Chair  Pilar Valencia said.

“Bolewa and Balla are promoting their book, “The Rage of Life,” which recounts Bolewa’s life story as he moved between Congo, Martinique and France,” Upper Division French Teacher Dr. Niamh Duggan, who organized the event, said.

Sabourin, speaking through a translator, shared the struggles he faced during his tumultuous childhood in France and the Democratic Republic of Congo. When Sabourin was 21, he created an association for art therapy with his best friend to help give disadvantaged people a voice, he said.

As a result, Sabourin had the honor of meeting the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Congolese gynaecologist Dr. Denis Mukwege and worked with Congolese sexual assault victims alongside Mukwege in 2016, Sabourin said during the event.

In the book, Sabourin discusses using dance as a tool for social justice and the empowerment of minority communities, Duggan said.

“We knew there were a lot of different aspects of his work that the students would be interested in,” she said.

One of eight children raised by a single mother, Fofana was faced with incredibly challenging health and financial problems – both of which sparked his motivation to recount tales of the oppressed as a journalist, he said.

“I started being interested in journalism when I saw the power that it gives and the way you can have someone be speechless,” Fofana said. “There are a lot of untold stories, so we have a lot to do,” he said.

Currently, Fofana writes for Liberation, a French magazine, and works at Parisian high schools to encourage students to become activists themselves.

Duggan organized the visit through a collaboration with the Columbia University Global Center in Paris, she said.

“I knew that the two [speakers] were coming to New York and had two events scheduled at Columbia, so I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to create an exchange with our students at Horace Mann,” Duggan said.

Before speaking, Sabourin invited the audience to stand up and dance with him, Nshera Tutu (10) said. “Dancing together got everyone energized and focused, and it helped me get the most out of the discussion,” she said.

Sabourin then spoke about his time working with Dr. Mukwege and sexual assault survivors, Meryeme Elalouani (11) said.

“When [Sabourin] talked about his work with sexual assault victims in Congo, he said that he couldn’t even imagine that a human being could do this much violence and be this cruel to people, and this helped create his motto of how to weaponize his heart and his mind,” she said.

“This was one of my favorite parts because [Sabourin] showed how he used dance and art forms to help the women’s psychological problems,” Elalouani said.

Although Sabourin spoke for most of the talk, Fofana joined Sabourin on stage for questions at the end of the session. Fofana hoped that students would realize the importance of taking the time to focus on themselves and their own backgrounds, he said.

Following the presentation, Sabourin taught a Congeneese dance workshop to French teacher Caroline Dolan’s French 3 Honors class in Gross Theatre.

Sabourin’s dance gave Upper Division Dance teacher Denise DiRenzo ideas to incorporate into her own lessons, DiRenzo, said.

“My students loved the way he led the audience through the choreography without words, and it was fun to see almost everyone jump in one hundred percent,” DiRenzo said.

Catherine Zhang (10), who attended the morning presentation and the dance workshop, appreciated Sabourin’s positive attitude, she said.

“He seemed very energetic with the impact he wanted to make, which made our class more excited for the activity as well,” Zhang said.

“I saw moments in which students were asking really really good questions, and their presentation sparked more than curiosity; it prompted deep and serious reflections,” Valencia said.

Fofana emphasized the importance of learning languages to show that everybody has something in common with somebody else, Valencia said.

“The most important role of learning languages is the ability to build bridges and find commonalities between different experiences that normally don’t have anything to do with each other,” Valencia said.

Carpenter was pleased that so many French students were able to listen and understand the excellent French they heard from both men and learn about the good work that Sabourin is doing with severely abused women in the Congo, he said.

Bolewa and Balla’s stories show that it’s possible to use difficult life experiences to help others, Duggan said.