Playing for Freedom
Jugando por la Libertad, meaning Playing for Freedom, is an award-winning capoeira program aimed at providing psychosocial support to children and youth affected by extreme poverty, violence and forced displacement in Colombia, using Capoeira as a tool.
Capoeira is a dynamic combination of martial arts, music, and dance from Brazil evolving from the struggle of enslaved Africans against their oppressors. Thanks to some of the principles inherent to Capoeira, like unity in diversity, equality, inclusion, respect, responsibility, and tolerance, it is considered to be an efficient tool to transform the lives of socially excluded youth.
Currently, the program is active in Ciudad Bolívar, one of the most populated slums on the outskirts of Bogotá, where the majority of the population is internally displaced people (IDPs). Since its beginning in 2008 the program has benefitted nearly 300 children and youth from vulnerable sectors.
In September 2013, Playing for Freedom won the Beyond Sports Award for Sport for Conflict Resolution and was short-listed for Peace and Sport’s NGO of the Year award.
Playing for Freedom was born in 2008 when Cristhian Casallas, currently leader of the program decided to bring Capoeira to Ciudad Bolívar in order to equip youth with the necessary attitudes and skills to build a positive future for themselves. Cristhian, who himself grew up in this deprived area of the city, together with some friends Capoeira after witnessing a roda with Brazilian masters in Bogotá.
Fascinated by this unique martial art but unable to access it given their poor backgrounds, they attempted to learn Capoeira through videos and any illustrations they could find at the public library. During their following experience of a roda, a Brazilian Master invited them to participate and was highly impressed by their skills and knowledge of the martial art, especially given that they had learned it on their own. He decided to grant them scholarships to train with the school and turn them into professional capoeiristas.
Having had this unique opportunity that completely transformed his life and provided him with a positive outlook toward his future, Cristhian decided to give back to the youth in his community through Capoeira. His encounter with Niousha Roshani, Executive Director at Nukanti and also a capoeirista, solidified the project and together they formed Playing for Freedom in 2009.
According to a 2013, report by the UNHCR, with 80% of its population living under the poverty line and 50% of its settlements being illegal, Cazucá belongs to Bogota’s most marginalized regions. Moreover, illegal armed groups remain active in the area carrying out from extortion rackets over drugs, arms and human trafficking to forced prostitution and child labor. In 2013, the Human Rights Ombudsman of Colombia reported the existence of insurgent groups operating in Cazuca whose activities include recruitment of minors, forced prostitution, social cleansing and assassinations.
The above presents a glimpse of the challenging environment in which the inhabitants of the Cuidad Bolívar and Cazucá neighborhoods live on a daily basis, often traumatized and terrorized by the escalating violence. Additionally, the area suffers from an extremely weak educational system making opportunities for children and youth very scarce.
Marginalized children and youths
Like in many “red zones” like this throughout Colombia, one of the most vulnerable groups among the population is the one of marginalized children and youths, not only are lacking education opportunities and in some cases even basic nutrition, but also being at risk for drug abuse, becoming victims of different forms of violence or getting involved in gang activities.
Marginalized youth, particularly in conflict-ridden places like this, face unique economic and social obstacles; flawed or interrupted education, language barriers, a lack of skills for employment, and often discrimination and exclusionary social environments. These factors put these young people at a serious disadvantage in terms of their individual and collective development.
As Capoeira originated among socially excluded groups, its principles lie in inclusion, equality and respect. It also offers the opportunity to immerse in a foreign culture and adapt its rich tradition of resistance to a local setting. The roda, the circle of people within which Capoeira is played brings together capoeiristas regardless of their origins, age, gender, faith, income or educational levels. The circular form suggests equality and inclusion, and invites participants to express their striving for a better life and social justice.
Capoeira is a unique tool because it combines sport and art, and therefore brings benefits from both areas. As a martial art it develops self-control and discipline, while unlike other sports there are no winners or losers in Capoeira as players are rather comrades than opponents. This is also reflected in the language used in Capoeira: we speak of “game” and “play” instead of “fight” as in other martial arts. At the same time the music and dance elements of Capoeira encourage participants to be creative and express themselves freely, which is not typical for other martial arts and sports.
Thanks to its unique features and inherent values and principles Capoeira is widely used in social programs around the world. Check out this video about the Playing for Freedom program where our participants speak about the impact Capoeira has had on their lives.