Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art characterized by non-violent movements.
It mixes the practice of sports, acrobatics, music, and popular culture.
It began in Brazil with the descendants of enslaved Africans. It is considered by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The use of Capoeira in DR Congo has become a powerful tool to help demobilize children and adolescents victims of violence by armed groups.
Former child soldiers from rebel groups, children in vulnerable situations, and girls who are victims of violence and forced recruitment have classes on how to practice this genuinely Brazilian martial art. They also learn how to play and to sing.
The initiative is led by the Brazilian and Canadian Governments and supported by UNICEF in DR Congo. Among the donors are the international organization AMADE-Mondiale and countries like Sweden and Belgium.
The practice of Capoeira deals with self-confidence and self-esteem among children and their families. The goal is to reduce inequalities and help overcome trauma.
In a country devastated by conflict and affected by commercial interests, rebuilding community ties and restoring a culture of peace has become a major challenge.
Two or three times a week, children at the Heal Africa Hospital in downtown Goma learn how to play Capoeira. Boys in the CAJED Transit and Guidance Center (CTO) and in the shelter of the Fight-Against-Misery Support Program (PAMI) also practice this martial art. Heal Africa Hospital, CAJED, and PAMI are UNICEF partners.
Practice makes self-confidence, emotional empowerment, builds community ties, overcomes gender differences, reduces inequalities, and cures traumas.
Since 2014, the initiative has already benefited around 4,000 children in Goma, capital of northern Kivu province, most of them associated with armed groups in the east of the country.
In the last decade, more than 20,000 child soldiers were released from armed groups in DR Congo, according to UNICEF. The government estimates that more than 3,500 children are still associated with militias.
The initiative coordinated by the Brazilian Capoeirista Master Saudade and two Congolese practitioners, Ninja and Karibu, teaches the boys who have experienced traumas how to play the Brazilian Capoeira. They learn how to play percussion instruments, how to swing in the circle and how to sing in Portuguese.
Children attend activities voluntarily. “They all come naturally to the Capoeira classes”, explained Master Saudade.
“We see that it brings happiness to these children who rediscover their own body, their autonomy, and who recreate the bond of affection that has been broken. They become even stronger in the face of difficulties”, he said.
UNICEF is working to create indicators and thus make Capoeira a model for use in conflict areas.
“I hope that these children are happy and become adults capable of fighting to fulfill their dreams,” says the Brazilian Capoeirista.
Breaking the Ethnic Divisions
Joachim Fikiri coordinator of the Fight-Against-Misery Support Program (PAMI), a non-profit organization founded in 1997, shows enthusiasm when talking about Capoeira and its power to help children’s psychosocial aspects.
PAMI administers a space to accommodate children who have been associated with armed groups in Goma.
“The children arrive at PAMI traumatized. We have decided to include Capoeira in our pedagogical program as another psychosocial support.”
Capoeira, according to Fikiri, allows children to leave behind their past, the armed group, and their violent behavior, and “to have a life again.”
The message of Capoeira is a message of peace. In PAMI, every year, about 500 children join the Capoeira activities.
Fikiri dreams of being able to expand the practice to communities within the province of North Kivu.
“We would like Capoeira to go beyond the limits of Goma and be implemented in various places and ethnic groups,” he says.
According to him, in these countryside communities, there is a need to develop activities that can promote reconciliation, brake ethnic rivalries, and create social cohesion.
“In the countryside communities are where the conflicts start,” explains.
The gender inequality and gender-based violence in eastern DR Congo is a serious issue.
Women and girls end up becoming targets of the structural violence that affects the region. Poverty exacerbates this situation.
“It is a cycle in which women and children suffer the most,” explains Daniel Mbungo, coordinator of activities at the Heal Africa Hospital in downtown Goma, which receives patients from all over the province to treat issues related to physical and mental health as a result of violence.
The women are in charge of providing food for the family and taking care of the house.
“If the mother — who is the heart of the family — suffers, the whole family will also suffer. We have a saying that expresses: educating a woman is educating a nation,” says Mbungo.
The best way to prevent violence against women is to make society more sensitive.
“A holistic approach within communities. Violence is a cultural factor. We hope that we can help create a positive change through Capoeira,” says Mbungo.
He hopes that the more empowered the girls are, the more they will have an important role to play as peacemakers.
Mbungo says he can already see the results in practice after the inclusion of Capoeira as a new approach to help in the process of de-traumatization of women and children.
“I see the results clearly. When we only used to offer therapies to girls, the process took much longer. With Capoeira, the children are advancing much faster,” he admitted.
The use of Capoeira began as a pilot project, explains Marie Diop, the UNICEF child-protection specialist in Goma.
“We wanted to see if it would be possible and how the children would accept. We thought it would be a great opportunity to bring boys and girls together in this activity,” she says.
After three years, Capoeira was then expanded to the Heal Africa Hospital with the objective of including sexual-violence survivors.
“We now have children with various vulnerabilities, and Capoeira is helping to create respect and discipline,” stresses Diop.
In DR Congo, violence is deeply rooted in social norms.
Data is limited. A study done in 2011, published by the American Journal of Public Health, found out that between 1.69 and 1.8 million Congolese women were sexually abused.
Another study done in 2014 in North Kivu showed that half of the women who suffered sexual violence were in the family setting. The report highlighted the spread of a “rape epidemic” in the region.
Accurate data on gender-based violence is difficult to obtain and this is due to the fact that the survivors do not report it out of fear of suffering stigma.
A country profile report from 2014 indicated that 99% of those who commit violence are men.
Sexual violence is a violence caused by the male sex.
Premature pregnancy is one of the consequences of this rape epidemic and has become a serious health problem in DR Congo, with an average of 25% of women between the ages of 20 and 24 who gave birth before they were 18 years old. These women were mothers while still girls.
“We want to offer the girls and women who go to the hospital another space for exchanges, communication, and empowerment, to make them stop being victims and become survivors,” says Diop.