Learning Curve: Congolese Master Ballot Basics ; Part of Voter Education Is Getting People Interested in Voting, Because Elections Here Used to Be Worthless

Article excerpt

In the gloom of a dusty meeting hall, a circle of women in bright head scarves sit on hard school chairs, concentrating on what Felicien Nzitatira is writing on the blackboard: "Why to vote. How to vote. How to choose. How to behave."

Keen hands are already in the air as the aid worker turns to face the women. All leaders of church groups, they've come from 70 congregations surrounding this rundown town in eastern Congo more than a thousand miles from the capital, Kinshasa.

"We must vote because we must have peace," offers Jeanne Nabine, a middle-aged widow with five children.

The seminar is one of thousands taking place across this vast central African country in a bid to explain the democratic election process to Congo's 25 million newly registered voters.

Until a referendum on a new constitution last year, they had never participated in any ballot other than sham polls for former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, where the choice was a simple "yes" or "no" for the president's re-election. He usually "won" with 90 percent of the vote.

But on July 30, the country will have a first taste of genuine democratic elections, when they must decide on one of 33 presidential hopefuls, and choose between some 9,500 parliamentary candidates chasing just 500 seats.

"People here used to have no interest in voting because they lived so long under dictatorship and thought elections were worthless," says Mr. Nzitatira, who directs the Goma branch of the Peace and Justice Commission. Charged with educating voters throughout Congo, the $1.5 million nationwide program is funded by the UN and several partners, including the British Roman Catholic aid agency Cafod.

"We have had to start from scratch, to teach that the law ensures that their votes are secret and that each vote will be counted, that they must resist influence or intimidation by the candidates," he says.

The lessons seem to be working. Under the shade of a mango tree in the village of Lupaya, a string of dung-walled huts 250 miles southwest of Goma, candidate Dr. Didier Molisho faces a circle of subsistence farmers sitting in the dust. Perhaps the urbane Belgian- schooled doctor expected an easy ride convincing these unsophisticated villagers to mark their inky thumbprint next to his campaign symbol, an ear of corn, on election day. But the Peace and Justice Commission has passed this way, and the voters are not to be hoodwinked. …