After fighting between armed Christian and Muslim groups displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the Central African Republic in 2013 and 2014, five Christian and Muslim youths returned to their homeland late last year and brought back with them something new to the country – capoeira, a Brazilian martial art combining dance, music and acrobatics.
“We, the youth, studied capoeira a lot in the camp since we didn’t have school or anything like that,” explained Vicky Nelson Wackoro, who sought refuge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for three years. “And the capoeira for the people, it was the only means of entertainment.”
Wackoro had only previously seen capoeira in movies.
“I didn’t really know what capoeira was,” he said. “It was my first time of practicing it in my life.”
Capoeira was developed centuries ago by African slaves in Brazil.
Wackoro and a group of other Central African refugees received scholarships to study capoeira at an association in Kinshasa for three months. While there, Wackoro achieved Level 5 Orange Cord.
When Wackoro and four of his fellow capoeira students returned to their homeland in November, they formed an association to share the martial art and its message of tolerance with their fellow citizens.
“It’s become a passion for us,” said Oussein Christian, who is the group’s president. “We really like that.”
They volunteer at the local Fondation Voix du Coeur orphanage, teaching the martial art to about 100 children every weekend. They practice in the courtyard in groups, with adults watching from the sidelines.
“Our country has just gone through a crisis. And the children are a little traumatized. And we are there to help and give them a little advice, and I think that helps to calm them down,” Christian said.
Fourteen-year-old Frankie Mongbanzi, whose parents died several years ago, arrived at the orphanage in September 2016.
“When I came here to the orphanage, I found a big family,” he said. “I’m happy to play capoeira with my brothers. At the beginning it was difficult. But when the professors come to correct us (they) help us to improve.”
Christian said their group of capoeira enthusiasts tries to impart to the orphans the values of capoeira - tolerance, fair play, discipline and respect. They hope it can help the children foster a more peaceful future for the country.
“In the other arts like taekwondo and judo, they hit each other,” Christian explained at the orphanage, “but in the capoeira, we don’t hit each other. And in each ‘round,’ even if someone makes a hit, you have to say, ‘Oh, he touched by mistake.’ You hug each other and say, ‘Excuse me, excuse me.’”
There’s been a difference in the children since they started playing capoeira in November of last year.
“The children are fighting all the time. They spar all the time. And they don’t forgive each other easily,” said Ange Ngasseneno, the director of Fondation Voix du Coeur orphanage. “But, I saw that with the capoeira, the children are learning to forgive each other. Today, they have learned to resolve their problem and ask for forgiveness.”
The capoeira association also meets weekly at the capital’s stadium and throughout the week in the surrounding neighborhoods. They want the organization to be an alternative for youth at risk of being recruited into armed groups.
The capoeira classes include participants of Christian and Muslim faiths.
“We in the ‘rounds’ just play. It’s not a question of religion. It’s not a question of nationality. It’s not a question of ethnicity,” Christian said. “We are all just ‘capoerists.’”
Reconciliation is an ongoing challenge for this country still struggling with divisions over religion and the impact of a bloody civil conflict.