Congolese Learning How to Vote

(AP Photo/Anjan Sundaram) :: A group of Pygmy women stand in the village of Mubambiro, Congo, Tuesday Oct. 24, 2006, just days away from the final round of Presidential elections, work is still being done to teach the largely illiterate people of the Congo to properly cast their ballots, as the Pygmy people have oral traditions so do not embrace the use of writing. In the first round of voting in July, election observers found counted numbers of beans, peas or pebblesfolded into ballot papers to indicate their choice. Democracy will be tested on Sunday Oct. 29, 2006, when the beans, and votes will be finally counted for a president, after four decades of dictatorship.

Updated: 10/25/2006

MUJA, Congo

Blondine Pendeyiki brought a handful of red beans to the voting station to cast the first ballot of her life and was dismayed when she was told she couldn't use them to vote.

Election workers say that after the first round of voting in Congo, they found notes like ''I love you, I vote for you!'' on ballots, or beans, peas or pebbles carefully counted to correspond to a candidate's number on the ballot and folded into the voting papers — instead of the required thumbprints or crosses.

They expect to have to disqualify more such ballots in Sunday's second and decisive round.

In a largely illiterate Congo trying to embrace democracy after four decades of dictatorship, 42-year-old Pendeyiki is far from alone. She still doesn't understand why voting officials didn't accept her beans during the first round in July.

''Many in my country have never voted before, so we have to teach them why they can't use beans or stones to vote,'' said Deodata Bunzigiye, a social worker and election observer who says she has helped some 30,000 illiterate and poorly educated Congolese learn to vote.

''My work can be very tough. The Pygmies, and Africans in general, have oral traditions,'' she said. ''Learning to use a pencil is not a priority.''

President Joseph Kabila faces Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former rebel leader, in a runoff for the presidency of a country the size of Europe.

In the rural east, few Pygmies have access to television or campaign posters and most had no idea what the candidates looked like. So during the July 30 first round, unable to recognize them, they came with beans to indicate their choice.

Most knew they wanted to vote for Kabila and knew he was listed as the seventh candidate on a ballot sheet that listed 33 contenders for the presidency, Bunzigiye said. So they folded the ballots around seven beans or pebbles to indicate their choice, and handed them in.

Experts say it could be years before communities in Congo's inaccessible interior have access to voter education programs.

''This time there are going to be quite a few people who don't know how to vote, who don't understand democracy,'' Herbert Brown, head of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute in Congo, which is aiding the country's transition to democracy, told The Associated Press. ''But as you continue with elections through the years, in the end most people will learn.''

Kabila won about 44 percent of the vote in the first round, far ahead of Bemba's 20 percent, but short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff.

The announcement of results in August sparked three days of fighting in the capital, Kinshasa, between troops loyal to Bemba and Kabila that involved heavy weapons and tanks.

Thousands of Congolese in villages like Muja, seven miles from the eastern city of Goma, are hoping their votes will bring peace after decades of brutal Belgian colonial rule, a crippling dictatorship and two devastating wars that lasted from 1996 to 2002.

''If the elections don't bring peace, then it is all wasted,'' said Pendeyiki, who lost four of her six children to disease during the conflicts. ''That's why we're voting, isn't it? So our children can grow up in peace.''

According to the electoral commission, over 70 percent of Congo's 25 million registered voters cast ballots in July, showing up in large numbers even in the country's most insecure pockets. Of the 17.5 million ballots cast, more than 5 percent were disqualified, according to commission spokesman Desire Molekela.

With only two candidates in the final round, choosing a candidate this time should be easier for voters like Pendeyiki and her Pygmy neighbor, Maria Christian, who is determined to mark her ballot properly this weekend.

''Making mistakes is part of the learning process,'' said Christian, 45, carrying her baby son on her back as she leaned over a black volcanic rock and practiced drawing a crude cross with a stone in preparation for marking her ballot with a blue pen on Sunday.

''I am learning how to vote ... my country is learning how to vote.''

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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