As Congo's Politicians Battle for Power, Voters Still Learning to Vote

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

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

"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 teach some 30,000 illiterate and poorly educated Congolese 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."

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 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 contestants for the presidency, Bunzigiye said. So they folded the ballot around seven beans or pebbles to indicate their choice, and handed them in.

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

"This time there're 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 fragile 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 released in August sparked three days of fighting in Kinshasa between troops loyal to Bemba and Kabila that involved heavy weapons and tanks.

Thousands of Congolese in far flung villages like Muja, 7 miles outside of 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 lived through Congo's wars but lost four out 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 registered voters turned out to cast their ballots in July, showing up in large numbers even in the country's most insecure pockets.

With only two candidates contesting 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 drew a crude cross with a stone. "I am learning how to vote ... my country is learning how to vote."