Congolese kids practicing capoeira
Congolese kids practicing capoeira
Didier Kebongo

LIMETE — Three times a week here, in this municipality within the Kinshasa province of Congo, street children gather in the square to practice Brazilian expand=1] capoeira, a martial art that incorporates dance, music and acrobatics. For the past seven years, these unlikely enthusiasts of the disclipline have occupied a portion of an abandoned basketball court.

Standing in line, four of them play traditional musical instruments. Barefoot, they warm up. Then, two by two, they begin to spin on their hands and feet and make imaginary strikes without touching the other dancer. After a few minutes, they step away and leave the space to another duo. When one child inadvertently touches his partner, organizer Yannick N’Salambo or his assistant intervenes to demonstrate the correct poses. The children are real attractions, drawing a crowd of fans and curious passersby.

Capoeirists’ charter

They practice for three hours under the supervision of N’Salambo, a computer engineer who learned capoeira from a Brazilian man who passed through Kinshasa in 2004. Each session ends the same way: with advice and, most importantly, with a reminder of the capoeirists’ charter values: respect for elders, punctuality, discipline.

“Some children have found a new meaning to their lives thanks to the discipline and energy of capoeira,” N’Salambo says. He has been sharing his passion with children for seven years already. “I’ve welcomed children who were very stubborn at first: they were aggressive, undisciplined, rude. I can assure you that practicing capoeira has changed them,” he says.

One of his assistants, 30-year-old Ninja, credits capoeira for helping him get off the streets. When he joined the club, N’Salambo says he was “introverted and shy” from living on the street for 20 years. Ninja, whose real name is Dieudonné Atshekwa Mosi Kikongo Nkoy, earned his nickname thanks to his agility and his flexibility. “Capoeira was a stepping stone for him,” N’Salambo says. The two have been close ever since they met. Today, Ninja makes a living by giving lessons with N’Salambo in sports clubs around Kinshasa.

“This sport teaches people to respect one another,” says Soleil Makasi, 20, one of the few girls in the club. She feels better about herself since starting the sport six years ago. “I used to be too pudgy. By doing capoeira, I’m maintaining my waistline. Some people think I’m 15!” she says. Meanwhile, little 4-year-old Beni Lomboto, says smiling, “I come here to fall over.”

20,000 children on the street

N’Salambo says Brazil’s new ambassador in Kinshasa, Paulo Uchoa, is glad this Brazilian sport has come to the Congo and offers something positive to these children’s lives. He has promised to support them. In fact, soon they will no longer train in the street but in a facility for which the Brazilian embassy is paying the rent.

The Street Children Assistance Network estimates that about 20,000 children in Kinshasa are homeless. The NGO that helps these abandoned kids says some of them left their families voluntarily and others were kicked out. On the streets, they are on their own, so they do what they can to survive. Until he can find a sponsor who can guarantee some financing, N’Salambo will continue to pay for almost all the club’s costs.

The procedure with the Ministry of Sports and Recreation to promote the sport to the rank of federation is getting nowhere. But it deserves the designation, N’Salambo says, because capoeira — which has been booming in Brazil and elsewhere since the 1970s — was actually born in Africa. It was African slaves who first developed capoeira during the 20th century in Brazil, in secrecy. They were forbidden to practice fighting, so they masked it with dance.

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