Angolan returnees in vanguard of fight against superstition
M'BANZA CONGO, Angola, October 31 (UNHCR) - In November 2003, the sister of Antônio de Pádua Valuala Dezi went to see a kimbandeiro - a diviner and healer who could reputedly communicate with the spirits - and was told her 11-year-old son had evil powers. The next morning she strangled her son in the belief he was a sorcerer.
In some countries, witchcraft has been reduced to a once-a-year joke to be celebrated with pumpkins and pointed hats at Halloween. In others, such as Angola, it is still a matter of life and death - and an impediment to social development.
Dezi's sister was arrested, imprisoned and condemned to 18 years in jail. Less than two months after his nephew's murder, Dezi became one of the first volunteers in the Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) group formed by UNHCR in M'Banza Congo, the current capital of Angola's Zaire province and former capital of the Congo Kingdom - until the 16th century an empire with one of the largest organized societies in Africa.
Dezi was among the first members of a group of 75 former Angolan refugees - all returnees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo - who volunteered to promote reconciliation in the country after 27 years of war. Since then, the group has shrunk to 25 volunteers but is still very active.
At first, the group held daily meetings in six communities of M'Banza Congo to speak about equality and fight the prejudice against returnees. Now, having received so many threats from violent husbands and others, they work more discreetly.
Another group sponsored by UNHCR's sub-office in the city holds two community meetings a week, gathering good audiences. At a recent meeting in Sagrada Esperança, a poor neighbourhood, the role of women in society and the forthcoming elections were discussed.
The groups' activities are funded by Women Waging Peace (WAGING), which is supported by USA for UNHCR, an organization that raises funds for UNHCR in the United States.
João Paka, a soba (traditional leader) who was attending a meeting for the third time, complained about all the kissing in Brazilian soap operas on TV, and of having to explain to his young daughter why couples kiss each other's mouths.
But Paka also stressed: "The world has changed. Women did not drive cars or pilot planes in the past. Now they do, and we think that is good." He follows the gender trainers' guidelines given to activists by the Ministry of Women.
"Everything that is written in your book, we have been doing. I, for example, carry the wood - not my wife," Paka said, despite being a soba in a country where carrying heavy things is essentially a women's job. He proudly tells neighbours he helps his wife in daily chores such as washing the dishes.
A few women complain about the number of separations and divorces. In general, such women - many of them former refugees - learnt to be more independent because they had to be. Now, groups such as Dezi's are helping them keep their independence back home in Angola.
On elections, the activists talk about the importance of making use of the current free national registration campaign, even if it means going through the trouble of having witnesses corroborate someone's place of birth. Gaining documents is the first step to finding a job and benefiting from citizenship, including the right to vote.
An old man says he can remember how to vote: write an 'X' in a square by the side of the candidate of his choice on the ballot paper. He did that in 1992, during what Angolans now call 'the short peace.'
But, despite having practised what others have only heard about, he is still somewhat confused: "An identity card is only for voting? Ones without ID will be able to vote? Angolan refugees will be allowed to come back before the elections?"
The activists answer his questions one by one in the local Kikongo language.
"The response is really good," says André Alves Maifula, a community leader and one of the group's coordinators. "We speak their dialect, the same language. Some do not speak up here - there is still a lot of suspicion about public speeches - but they go home, and they talk a lot about what they have heard in these meetings."
Recently, ten of the activists received bicycles, and as a result can now expand their activities to the outskirts of the city to talk about the roles of men and women, and about the elections.
In the afternoon, when a few activists of the SGBV group meet to talk about their work, Simba Esperança, dressed in a vibrant green traditional dress, explains in Kikongo that when she sees a mother hitting a child, she runs to give the mother counselling.
First she asks why the mother is hitting her child. If the answer involves feitiço (a spell), Simba asks for proof. If a kimbandeiro is evoked as proof, she usually says: "You can't say that. No one can enter into another person's heart."
According to Esperança, if none of her arguments work, the case is taken to the police.
"When we first had our training and started working, most of the problems were around rights to fetch water," says 29-year-old Rosa Madalena. "We would arrive at the water point and the other women would call us 'langas' (foreigners) and tell us we could not take water home."
Domestic violence was also widespread. Divorces, according to the group, are increasingly common. "We, the repatriated Angolans, do not find much work. So, the divorce rate is high, either because the husband cannot support the family, or because the wife found another man with more money," says Bibiana, one of the coordinators.
Domestic violence and the rape of women and children have decreased in targeted neighbourhoods since the SGBV group was formed in January 2004. The neighbours now know what to do and one of the members of the group is usually called in to solve community conflicts.
Every case is reported to UNHCR's office in M'Banza and to the Ministry of Family and Women's Affairs (MINFAMU). Sometimes, as with the murder committed by Dezi's sister, the police have to be be called.
Despite the admirable efforts of Antônio de Pádua Valuala Dezi and the other SGBV volunteers, parents who are led to believe their own kids are sorcerers are still all too common in M'Banza Congo: in September, a religious charity running the Santa Center, which cares for abandoned children accused of witchcraft, was hosting 51 such children.
By Maria Benevides in M'Banza Congo, Angola