Ahead of Rio 2016, capoeira brings a taste of Brazil to DRC
MOLE, Democratic Republic of the Congo – It is midday at Mole refugee camp, and the sun is high as a group of refugees start playing capoeira on the red brown earth.
Rhythmic beats fill the air as the two capoeristas circle each other in the “roda,” a ring formed by participants singing, clapping and drumming. Dozens of refugees living in the camp, including many children, have come to watch the spectacle and take part.
“When we sing, it’s as if we were in the air, like children,” says 17-year-old Porter Kokolo Diack, one of the capoeira masters at the camp. “We forget everything bad when we do the roda. When we sing we forget everything, and we are well, motivated. We are happy.”
The Brazilian martial art combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music and traces its roots back to Angola and the two Congos. It is very popular in Mole camp, in the far north of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which hosts more than 14,000 refugees from Central African Republic (CAR).
Capoeira was brought to the camp two years ago by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its NGO partner ADSSE, as a leisure activity that – it was hoped – would also promote peace and reconciliation and ease tensions among refugees. Capoeiristas in Mole now train three times per week.
“Capoeira is peace, self-control,” says instructor Aristote Makola Gardinois, 31, himself a former refugee from Angola. “I like capoeira because it helped me regain self-control and have a team spirit.”
Gardinois fled war in Angola with his family when he was five, after his father was killed. He joined a capoiera group in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, as it provided a creative outlet from the problems and perils of everyday life, including street gangs called “Kulunas.”
“I started doing capoeira in Kinshasa to avoid joining the Kulunas,” he explains. “Even my friends were joining (them). I didn’t want to be part of that and therefore I joined capoeira to get an education.”
While he is now a Congolese national, Gardinois knows exactly what it means to be a refugee, with a need to find peace and harmony. He is convinced that capoeira eases tensions, promotes reconciliation and helps refugees live peacefully together at the camp and in harmony with the host population.
“Before we had capoeira, we had problems. Capoeira brought peace, self-control and love,” says Diack, one of Gardinois’ students. “Now we live well together, we are relaxed and are able to control ourselves. We also live well with the host population. They also come to do capoeira with us in the evening. We walk them home and we talk.”
Capoeira has also helped 39-year-old Marie Fangoule, a mother of four, to deal with the trauma of the war that drove her from her home in Bangui, the capital of CAR, three years ago.
“We fled because there were many corpses, too many dead people in the streets. When you see so much blood like this, it hurts. We could not stand it. This is why we came,” she says. “When I do capoeira, I feel well, I forget my problems.”
As the capoeristas in Mole leap, kick and spin, their thoughts are with the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team competing in the Rio 2016 Olympics, with whom they identify strongly. The games open tomorrow, August 5.
"Refugees also have talents and can contribute something to societies.”
“We believe in you. We count on you to win,” says Diack, explaining the lift that the 10 athletes’ participation under the International Olympic Committee flag has given to refugees like himself.
“It feels good to realize that the world remembers us. Deep inside, we think that we are refugees, that we cannot do anything. But no. Refugees also have talents and can contribute something to societies,” he adds.
The capoeiristas in Mole hope that one day they may also have the chance to travel to Brazil to improve their skills, eventually taking the athletic art back home with them to CAR.
“We dream that one day we can take the capoeira out of Mole refugee camp and bring it back home to Bangui,” Diack says.