Latin America & Caribbean

African navy cadets homesick in Brazil

A group of African cadets pose at the Escola Naval in Rio in May 2013
Image caption Escola Naval in Rio de Janeiro is training an increasing number of African cadets

At Brazil's Escola Naval in Rio de Janeiro, 23 young men are training to become navy officers.

But they are not about to join the Brazilian navy. These foreign cadets are receiving training before rejoining their own forces at home.

And home is nowhere near Brazil. Out of the 23 foreign students, 17 come from Africa.

The high percentage of African cadets reflects Brazil's growing ties with the continent.

Surprise deployment

In his eight years in office (2003-2011), former Brazilian president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva visited 27 African countries, more than any of his predecessors in the job.

That growing diplomatic presence is also reflected in closer military co-operation, with the Brazilian navy not just selling weapons to African nations, but also training its military personnel.

Their main aim is to be more effective in their joint fight against piracy and drug trafficking in the South Atlantic.

In the decade between 2001 and 2011, more than 1,200 African naval personnel attended courses in Brazil, most of them from Namibia.

Michael Kasita, 30, and Tangeni Haimbala, 26, are two of them. They are in their third year of studies to become machinists in the Namibian navy.

Upon their return, they will be expected to work as specialists in ship propulsion.

They say their deployment to Brazil came as a surprise. "I was sent by the Namibian navy, they know what they need," explains Mr Kasita.

He says he had little input into what he would learn during his time in Rio. "It was the navy which decided what I was going to study here."

At the Escola Naval, the two Namibians have mainly taken technical courses, such as applied electronics, strength of materials and fluid mechanics.

Via the internet, they keep in touch with colleagues at home who have already finished the course in Brazil.

Courses at the Escola Naval are conducted in Portuguese, a language the Namibians are unlikely to use once they return to their Anglophone home.

So the main advice from those who have already graduated is to make sure the cadets learn the right technical words in English in their spare time.

That is one problem Americo Fortuna da Silva, 23, does not have to contend with.

He is from the former Portuguese colony of Angola. But even though there was no language barrier for him, he says military academies in the two countries differ markedly.

"The Angolan Naval Academy is more geared towards the military aspects, while here they concentrate more on the academics," he explains.

Language barrier

New recruits, especially those without any previous military training, get sent on a one-year acclimatisation course.

Image caption The African cadets spend four years at the naval school in Rio de Janeiro

Twenty-year-old Cherif Ismaila Babou, from Senegal says that course was key. "Before coming here, I only knew Brazil for its carnival and football."

"When the Senegalese navy said that I was going to be trained in Brazil, I was a little confused," he admits.

"Apart from anything else, I didn't know how to speak Portuguese," he recalls of his early days in the academy.

He now speaks it with only the slightest hint of an accent.

He says the hardest thing was to be so far away from his family, especially in the first year.

Like their Brazilian colleagues, the foreign cadets live at the academy during the week. At the weekend, most of the Brazilians go to visit their families.

But that is a trip the Africans cannot take. They have to wait until the summer holidays to make the long journey home.

Mr Babou, who has just started the officer's course, has almost four more years of technical and practical training in Rio ahead of him, as well as six months on a training ship.

He says he will never get used to being separated from his family.

"I am more adapted now, but it is still hard to deal with the feeling of home sickness."

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