Got the moves: Children learn capoeira movements at Goma’s Heal Africa Hospital, which treats gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Picture: THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION
Got the moves: Children learn capoeira movements at Goma’s Heal Africa Hospital, which treats gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Picture: THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION

Munyakazi was 14 years old when she was drugged and raped in Quartier Birere, a poor, overcrowded neighbourhood of Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Her neighbour had asked her to fetch water, she obliged and he thanked her with a bottle of soda. It had been spiked, she believes.

A few months later, Munyakazi found she was pregnant. She had to drop out of school as motherhood demanded her attention.

"I don’t remember what happened later in that day. I was raped, I got pregnant and now here is my baby. Soon she is going to be one-year-old," says Munyakazi, now 16.

After giving birth, she remained at her parents’ house in Birere with her five siblings, depending on her mother to help her take care of the baby. Her daily life is an "ordinary one", she says. "I wake up, I help cleaning the house and give my daughter a bath. I wait for the hours to pass until the evening and for another day to come. Nothing special."

But since Munyakazi began attending support sessions at Heal Africa Hospital, which treats gender-based violence in Goma, she has found a new meaning in her life.

Her eyes gleamed when she first saw a group of girls gathered in a circle and moving to the sound of a single string percussion instrument and a drum. The girls were practicing capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music and was developed in the colonial times by enslaved Africans.

The UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) introduced the practice as a way of helping children in conflict zones. At Heal Africa, capoeira classes begun in 2015 and about 300 boys and girls now join the sessions. The Unicef initiative Capoeira for Peace is funded by international donors — including Canada, Sweden, Belgium, Brazil and charity Amade Mondiale — in a region plagued by violence.

"Feel the rhythm," guides Congolese teacher Ninja Kalimba, one of the three capoeira instructors mixing words in Swahili, French and even Portuguese expressions with Brazilian chants.

"Pole pole [slowly, slowly]," he says in Swahili when the children slip out of the rhythm. "Control your movements."

Many girls arrive sad and sick, he says. "Girls are very shy. When I do jokes and play with them, I’m able to break the ice and then they feel they want to start playing capoeira."

Capoeira for Peace began as a pilot project, says Marie Diop, a child-protection specialist for Unicef in Goma.

"We wanted to see how it would be accepted by children and by the communities. We also thought it could be a good opportunity to have both girls and boys being in this activity together," she says.

Now the project has been extended to reach victims of sexual violence, as well as of Congo’s long-running conflict.

"We have children with different vulnerabilities interacting. Capoeira has helped in creating discipline and respect," says Diop.

Accurate data on sexual violence is hard to come by, partly because many survivors do not report due to fear, stigma, psychological effects and poor legal responses.

A 2014 survey conducted by two nongovernmental organisations in North Kivu province in Congo’s east showed that half of women experienced sexual violence in a domestic context. At Heal Africa, most of the girls come from Goma’s poor neighbourhoods.

"We want to give them another space for communication and empowerment so they realise they need not be limited to being a victim of sexual violence," Diop says.

Munyakazi has been attending capoeira classes twice a week and they have become an important part of her weekly routine and vital for recovering her self-belief.

"I like capoeira because it helps my body, my health, and I make friends," she says.

"When the classes are finished, we always continue playing on our way back home. Even if you kick, you will never hurt or touch anyone. That is why I really love it."

Her younger brother joins her for the classes. She even inspired some of the children in the poor Birere district to enrol in the free classes every Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

"Capoeira helps me to overcome what I have been through. It is helping me to, little by little, get through this," says Munyakazi, who hopes one day to resume her studies. "I hope I can take my life in my hands."

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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