GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo – At least three afternoons a week, 15-year-old Mwamini heads out of her tiny home, with its walls made of cardboard, rotting wood and plastic sheeting, and walks to a nearby hospital in Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
She doesn’t go there for treatment – she goes to escape hunger.
Mwamini, who asked to be identified only by her nickname, which means “believe” in Swahili, doesn’t go to school. She had to drop out when she was nine because her mother could no longer afford the $300 school fees for the family’s eight children. Sometimes, the introverted teenager helps her mother sell bananas at the side of Goma’s unpaved roads. But most days she wanders the streets, waiting for the hours to go by.
Except when it’s time for her capoeira class. Mwamini is one of 300 children, mostly girls, who regularly meet at Heal Africa Hospital to practice the nonviolent martial art that combines acrobatics, dance and sport.
“I like capoeira because once I’m in class, I can free my mind, I escape from reality,” Mwamini says. “Playing capoeira with others helps me forget about poverty, about my condition. We’re very poor, very often we don’t eat at home. Every time I play, I forget all the suffering.”
Capoeira is believed to have been created by liberated African slaves in 17th-century Brazil. Today it is being used in DRC as a tool to help survivors of violence and conflict.
Led by the governments of Brazil and Canada, and the nonprofit organizations UNICEF and AMADE-Mondiale, the initiative Capoeira for Peace was launched in North Kivu in 2014 to address self-confidence among conflict-affected children and their families.
Heal Africa, which is well-known throughout the country for its focus on gender-related health issues such as fistula treatment and counseling for survivors of gender-based violence, started out teaching capoeira to girls. It recently opened up the classes to boys, too.
Responsibility and Respect
To the sound of drums and the berimbau – a single-string percussion instrument – Brazilian capoeira master Flavio Saudade gives the class a pep talk before lessons begin: “We want to deliver a positive message to the world, that the DRC doesn’t want to live in conflict anymore, that it only wants peace and good things to happen. With capoeira, we can send this message to the whole world.”
After a quick warm-up, the children come together in a circle and perform a ginga (“sway”). Then, in pairs, they enter the middle of the circle to improvise the moves they have learned so far: kicks, takedowns, handstands.
At a glance, it looks like a fight, but in the true spirit of capoeira, neither player touches the other. “Capoeira is inspired by movements of the animals, it was then used for combat,” Saudade says. “But here, the main principle of capoeira is responsibility and respect.”
Saudade uses the breaks in between lessons to emphasize the point, sometimes specifically addressing the boys in the class: “You always have to respect girls. We know that here in Congo, many times, women are not respected.”
One of the world’s least developed nations, ranked 176th out of 188 in the 2015 Human Development Index 2015, DRC is struggling to heal from the wounds left by years of fighting between the army and rebel groups. The war officially ended in 2002, but armed clashes continue to this day, and the violence has so far led to an estimated 5 million deaths and left more than half of the country’s population living below the poverty line.
Breaking the Cycle of Suffering
DRC is also considered one of the most difficult countries in the world to be a woman. In the latest Gender Equality Index, it was ranked 144th out of 148 countries.
“Poverty aggravates the situation even more,” says Daniel Mbungo, program manager at Heal Africa. “It is a cycle in which women and children are the ones suffering most.”
For years, the organization has been using counseling to help children in North Kivu overcome trauma and integrate back into society, but it wasn’t until the capoeira classes started in 2015 that the children began showing real progress.
“The children who come to play capoeira have suffered different sorts of violence. Some of them live on the streets, some were rejected by the family, some are victims of violence,” says Mbungo.
“When we were just counseling girls to help detraumatize them, it was taking a long time. But now with capoeira, they are jumping steps, it is going faster. This is a new approach to detraumatization.”
The goal, he says, is that by teaching boys and girls capoeira’s principles of self-control, confidence and respect, those lessons will become part of their everyday lives.
“Violence is a cultural factor and culture doesn’t change overnight. We expect that through capoeira we can help create a positive change, as capoeira is an inclusive activity. We don’t refuse anyone,” Mbungo says. “We hope they go on to become future peace builders and peace makers.”
It’s already working on Mwamini, whose three weekly classes are no longer just about escape – now, they are also a source of hope. “One of my goals is to become a master of capoeira, to teach others,” she says. “I just want to continue playing capoeira and someday go back to school.”
The reporting trip to DRC was funded by the Erasmus Mundus Journalism Consortium and the Reporting Right Livelihood 2017 journalism programme.