Capoeira: A surprising source of social transformation

Lugging a big wooden drum, about a dozen tambourines, and an assortment of other percussion instruments, we walked onto the big green astroturf. Some members of our team got to work assembling berimbaus, the staple instrument of a Brazilian dance/music/sport called Capoeira. Others began assembling several dozen young Syrian boys into a big circle. This was the beginning of a series of intensive Capoeira classes for Syrian youth living in al-Azraq camp in Jordan. I was there to help the team, part of the NGO Bidna Capoeira, monitor their project and get a better sense of how Capoeira can support disadvantaged youth.

Al-Azraq camp is astonishingly monochrome: little white pre-fabricated houses are lined up neatly against a backdrop of beige sand, for as far as the eye can see. The youth centre, with its bright green astroturf, created quite the contrast. It is easy to imagine how eagerly young people living in the camp flock to the centre, simply to enjoy a few hours of colour. The assortment of Brazilian instruments we brought with us, along with the unique songs and acrobatics that my colleagues were coming to teach, were an even more exciting contrast to the monotony of life in a refugee camp. I asked some of the youth what they do when they are not at Capoeira class, and their answers included helping their mothers get food and water, studying to catch up on the years of school they lost due to war in Syria, and little else.IMG_0914

But, while the initial appeal of the Capoeira classes might have been the fact that they offered something new and different in an otherwise dreary life, I was particularly impressed by how they helped these young people grow in confidence and respect.

The first class was on the astroturf, but the second class took place on a concrete patio, with a tin roof to keep the heat of the sun off our heads. The tin roof didn’t help keep the desert sand from blowing onto the patio, though. When we began the class there, the master teacher, a Brazilian who has been training and teaching Capoeira for almost 50 years, told the students that they needed to respect their space. He asked if anyone could rummage up some brooms. A few minutes later, a kind-faced woman appeared and silently began sweeping the far end of the patio. The teacher, however, asked her to stop. He said that the students need to feel pride in their own environment, and that pride would take root when they cleaned their own training space. Hesitantly at first, but with growing enthusiasm, one boy after another took the broom until they swept out the entire space. On the next day, we showed up again to a dusty patio and the teacher again called for brooms. He said that, from here on out, if the space was not clear when he arrived, he would not give a class. On the third day, we arrived to a freshly swept patio, as well as a circle of chairs neatly arranged in the shadiest spot under the roof. The boys grinned as they told the teacher that they were excited for the class, and had all pitched in to prepare their space!

Similarly, on the first day, when we pulled out the many instruments, which the teacher had brought all the way from Brazil, nearly fifty children ran to them, picked them up, and started banging away. It was fun to watch the joy on their faces as they played with these novelties, and at first their musical attempts created a pleasant cacophony. But soon, the sound grew loud and tedious, and I began to wonder if we would be able to gather the instruments back into one place again. The teacher then arranged the children into groups, according to which instrument they were holding. I watched as students fought over the more popular instruments, complaining when they got stuck with a small drum that they thought “boring”. We told them that everyone would eventually get a turn with everything, but they did not have the patience to wait, and kept squabbling and complaining. After allowing a few minutes of this chaos, the teacher brought them back into a circle and began to talk about the history of music in Capoeira, the significance of each instrument, and the orchestra that would be created when everyone learned to play in harmony with each other. He also talked a bit more about respect, and said that just like it was important for capoeiristas to respect the space in which they trained, it was also important for them to respect the instruments they were playing. He said that, from then on, if a student grabbed at an instrument without a trainer offering it to them, that student would have to sit out the rest of the music lesson.IMG_0922

About half of the students nodded and quickly put back the percussion pieces they had grabbed at, just moments before. A few others didn’t understand at first, but the teacher enforced his rule, and they began to understand the importance of respecting authority and sharing with each other.

These are small victories, but sometimes the small victories are the greatest ones. We might be tempted, when thinking about these challenging times in the Middle East, to want to solve entire crises, and then to feel utterly hopeless when we can’t do that. But Jesus often approached “the least of these” and spoke straight to their personal needs; similarly, touching people’s hearts in these minor, yet very wise, ways, is sometimes the best way we can help. Today’s Syrian refugee teenagers are, after all, the next generation of adults in Syria, and organisations like Bidna Capoeira are working hard to ensure that they are not a lost generation. In the Capoeira classes, I saw refugee youth who had lost much of the structure in their life when war broke out in Syria, re-learning discipline. Material loss may have made them desperate, to the point that they might break out in fight at food distributions or quickly snatch at anything given to them, but they were re-learning the value of sharing with others. They lived in a monochrome camp in the desert and were learning how to make colour in their own lives through music and dance.

All of this happened in a few short lessons; there is so much more that Capoeira classes can offer. Capoeira is interactive in nature, creating a space for its participants to act out their social frustrations inside the roda, or circle. It is physically challenging, requiring a great degree of discipline. It is empowering, in that its students are often expected to start teaching others once they have reached even a limited level of competence. It has a rich history of resistance in Brazil, which can inspire its students to address social problems in a productive way. It is expressive, as students learn a variety of songs and eventually learn to improvise as they play and sing. I look forward to learning more about how Capoeira can benefit refugee youth!

7 thoughts on “Capoeira: A surprising source of social transformation

  1. “These are small victories, but sometimes the small victories are the greatest ones. We might be tempted, when thinking about these challenging times in the Middle East, to want to solve entire crises, and then to feel utterly hopeless when we can’t do that. But Jesus often approached “the least of these” and spoke straight to their personal needs; similarly, touching people’s hearts in these minor, yet very wise, ways, is sometimes the best way we can help.”

    Thank you for reminding me of this truth. I also work with Syrian refugees and teenagers generally in Lebanon. We need to seek and appreciate small victories🙂

    • This is the first time I hear about Capoeira. It seems interesting . Those refugee children need all kinds of play that could bring joy and confidence to their lives.
      nice of you , Katy , bringing this up.

      • Yes, though it’s a traditional practice in many Brazilian communities, to many in the rest of the world it feels very innovative. There’s a depth to this type of play that I have really come to value! Thanks for your kind words.

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