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
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