SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Capoeira is best known in Brazil. Slaves from Africa brought the dance-like martial art there centuries ago. Now it's making its way back to Africa. Capoeira is being taught to former child soldiers as a way to integrate them back into society. Reporter Erika Beras brings us this story from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: In a hot, dusty courtyard in Goma, about 50 teenage boys begin their daily practice. As they wave their arms and shuffle their feet, they giggle and whisper to each other in Swahili. When the teacher, who the kids call Ninja, yells out a command in the language of capoeira, Portuguese, they dutifully follow.
DIGU DONNE MOSIKKINGO: (Speaking Portuguese).
BERAS: Ombeni is a small, thin 15-year-old. He's moving back and forth while kicking a leg up between chants. He says he likes capoeira the way it's practiced here because it only simulates violence.
OMBENI: (Through interpreter) It's a game where you show that you want to beat someone. And just before you hit him, you bring back your arm. Even when you kick or throw a punch, you never actually hurt anyone. You only pretend. But you don't hit a person.
BERAS: Violence is something Ombeni knows well. We're only using his first name for his safety. Last year, he joined an armed rebel group where he collected water and delivered guns. Then he escaped, ending up in this program, far from his hometown and the rebel group. He's here with dozens of other former child soldiers from the country's many armed military groups. Ombeni says capoeira helps him forget his life as a child soldier.
OMBENI: (Through interpreter) When I'm playing this game, I forget things and ideas that I was having when I was in the army.
BERAS: The program is funded by UNICEF and other NGOs. Boys here used to play sports, but that tended to cause fights. They could dance, but the dances represented different warring regions. So that was tricky. Capoeira, despite being a martial art, is culturally neutral. The teacher, Ninja - his real name is Digu Donne Mosikkingo - has taught hundreds of these boys. He says when they arrive, they tend to be withdrawn and reluctant to talk.
MOSIKKINGO: (Through interpreter) With capoeira, it's a game that brings them together. They started trying to dress like me. They started talking to others. They are open.
BERAS: In the courtyard, Ninja leads the boys in a circle where they practice balancing exercises.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).
BERAS: As they fall out of the poses, they laugh and quickly try to get back into them. Another boy, 17-year-old Bahati, has also quickly taken to capoeira. The years leading up to this were full of violence he endured and inflicted. Today he sings and carefully watches his instructor before mimicking his moves. Doing this, he says, makes him feel like a normal kid.
BAHATI: (Through interpreter) It helps because I had a soldier's mentality. This erases everything completely and you become like any other child who does things like attend schools and didn't have to go through all of that.
BERAS: In a few weeks, he'll go back home where he hopes to keep this up. But the problem is when the boys do leave, they're essentially left to fend for themselves. So it's hard to know how effective this is at keeping them from rejoining the armed rebel groups.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).
BERAS: But at least while they're here, they're kids again. For NPR News, I'm Erika Beras.
SIMON: This story was produced in partnership with the International Women's Media Foundation.
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