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‘Capoeira’ Works Wonders for Traumatized Teens in Central African Republic (CAR)

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A capoeira instructor teaches orphans the proper techniques of the martial art inside the Fundation Voix du Coeur orphanage in Bangui, April 20, 2017. (Z. Baddorf/VOA)
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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.”

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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.”

Young orphans practice capoeira on the grounds of their orphanage. The martial art was developed centuries ago by African slaves in Brazil, April 20, 2017. (Z. Baddorf/VOA)
Young orphans practice capoeira on the grounds of their orphanage. The martial art was developed centuries ago by African slaves in Brazil, April 20, 2017. (Z. Baddorf/VOA)

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.

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“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.

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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.”

A young Central African Republic woman performs capoeira at an orphanage in Bangui. A group of refugees brought the martial back with them from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, April 20, 2017. (Z. Baddorf/VOA)

A young Central African Republic woman performs capoeira at an orphanage in Bangui. A group of refugees brought the martial back with them from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, April 20, 2017. (Z. Baddorf/VOA)

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.

Several young orphans practice the capoeira moves needed to participate in a “roda” — a “round” where the participants dance and perform martial arts moves to music, April 20, 2017. (Z. Baddorf/VOA)
Several young orphans practice the capoeira moves needed to participate in a “roda” — a “round” where the participants dance and perform martial arts moves to music, April 20, 2017. (Z. Baddorf/VOA)

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.

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Central African Republic at ‘Risk of Being Forgotten’ ; President Touadera Appeals to UN for Help

Thousands have already died and a fifth of Central Africans have fled a conflict that broke out in 2013

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Central African Republic
Central African Republic President Faustin Archange Touadera addressing the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2016 (VOA)

Geneva, September 20, 2017 : The president of the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadera, on Tuesday pleaded with the world to not forget his country and urged the U.N. to bolster its peace-keeping force amid growing violence that threatens to spin the country out of control.

Thousands have died and a fifth of Central African Republic nationals have fled a conflict that broke out after mainly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozize in 2013, provoking a backlash from Christian anti-balaka (anti-machete) militias.

Fighting on the increase

Although unrest has since subsided, fighting has spiked this year and the United Nations warned this month that ethnic fighting could descend again into a much larger conflict if combatants are not disarmed.

“Central African Republic is at a critical moment in its history. We need the support of our friends; there are risks that we’ll be forgotten,” Touadera told a news conference ahead of a high-level meeting at the U.N. General Assembly.

Violence has escalated since former colonial power France last year ended its peacekeeping mission in the country, which once had as many as 2,000 soldiers. France has grown concerned by events, although officials say Paris is unlikely to return to Central Africa unless the capital were under threat.

The violence continues despite a peace deal signed between the government and rival factions in Rome last month and a 13,000-strong U.N. mission (MINUSCA), which will see its mandate renewed in November.

“The only force capable of ensuring security is the United Nations,” Touadera said. “The capacities of MINUSCA in terms of men and equipment have to be strengthened.”

Weak security forces

National security forces are too weak to tackle a multitude of armed groups and counter the spillover from conflicts in neighboring countries. Diplomats have also said that Touadera does not have the political strength to impose central government rule.

Touadera bemoaned the departure of France’s Operation Sangaris, but also the withdrawal of about 2,000 American and Uganda forces that were fighting the Ugandan rebel group The Lord’s Resistance Army and the withdrawal of MINUSCA’s Congolese battalion in the west.

“All of this has created a vacuum that the MINUSCA must fill,” he said. (VOA)