Munyakazi was 14 when she was drugged and raped by an older man in Quartier Birere, a poor, overcrowded neighbourhood of Goma in eastern 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, and the man raped her.
A few months later Munyakazi discovered she was pregnant. She was already at secondary school, but had to drop out of classes as motherhood demanded too much of her time.
“I don’t remember anything from 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,” said Munyakazi, now 16, who asked to be identified by her nickname.
After giving birth, Munyakazi stayed 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 said. “I wake up, I help cleaning the house and give my daughter a bath. I wait for the hours pass until the evening and for another day to come. Nothing special.”
But since Munyakazi began attending support sessions in Heal Africa Hospital, which treats gender-based violence in downtown 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 practising Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art developed in the colonial times by enslaved Africans. Three years ago, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF introduced the practice as a way of helping children in conflict zones.
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At Heal Africa, Capoeira classes begun in 2015 and around 300 children, both 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.
A surge in fighting around Democratic Republic of Congo has forced more than 1.5 million from their homes this year.
“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. Tout le monde comprend?” he asks, slipping back into French.
“Many girls arrive sad and sick. 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,” said Kalimba.
DISCIPLINE AND RESPECT
“Capoeira for Peace” began as a pilot project, said 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 said.
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,” said 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 non-governmental organisations in North Kivu province in Congo’s east showed that half of women experienced sexual violence in a domestic context.
Figures are usually obtained through medical and police records that can underestimate the extent of the violence.
Early pregnancy is a key health concern across Congo, with about a quarter of women aged 20 to 24 having given birth before the age of 18.
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 said.
“MY LIFE IN MY HANDS”
Munyakazi has been attending Capoeira classes twice a week for several months now. The martial art has 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 said, as she rushed into the hospital’s main hall for her class.
“When the classes are finished, we always continue playing on our way back home,” she added. “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,” said Munyakazi, who hopes one day to resume her studies.
“I hope I can take my life in my hands.” (Thomson Reuters Foundation)