Congolese Mennonites open homes to survivors of violence

Peace flows from welcome by churches and MCC in DR Congo

People from CEFMC Kimpwanza Kikongo­phone parish in Kikwit gather after a worship service. — Justin Makangara/MCC/Fairpicture People from CEFMC Kimpwanza Kikongo­phone parish in Kikwit gather after a worship service. — Justin Makangara/MCC/Fairpicture

Ever since survivors of brutal fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo fled to the city of Kikwit in 2017, the Mennonite Brethren Church has been ministering to them with faith and action.

Survivors came with burns, wounds from machetes and babies about to be born. They were exhausted from walking for weeks or months from neighboring Kasai Province without much food or water. They carried emotional wounds from seeing family members and neighbors murdered in front of them.

The Mennonite Brethren Church of Congo — based in Kikwit and known by its French initials, CEFMC — saw their need. Members responded by taking people into their homes and giving clothing and food. CEFMC hospital staff provided medical care. Churches became temporary shelters.

But the needs were greater than the church could meet alone. Mennonite Central Committee, with initial support of donations from global Anabaptist organizations, followed by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and MCC donors, is walking with CEFMC. A local committee is empowering displaced people to establish new lives in Kikwit.

General secretary Antoine Kimbila said the church is called to meet its people’s holistic needs. When a person’s spiritual and physical needs are met, they are more likely to experience peace.

“Peace is a synonym of shalom. When we say shalom in Hebrew, it is the total salvation of mankind,” he said. “When what you [MCC] bring to us in the community as projects . . . is married with the word of Christ, that brings peace to humankind.”

Peace didn’t come to Kikwit immediately. The arrival of displaced people caused conflict, said Jacqueline Kafuti, the first CEFMC elder to invite people to live in her home. Other neighbors hosted people from Kasai too, but there were those who pushed newcomers aside because resources were already limited.

In addition, some displaced people acted out because of the trauma they experienced, said Kufutama Kafaire, a member of the CEFMC local committee who handles finances.

“Someone who is displaced because of war, his head is troubled. It looks as if the war has been following him even where he is,” Kafaire said.

Providing equal education was one way CEFMC helped strengthen the connection between the two groups. By providing school supplies for primary school students and secondary school fees for displaced teens, the burden on host families was lifted. CEFMC also provided trauma training for teachers.

Colette Koy Mazao, whose fourth-grade class doubled in size with the arrival of displaced children, said she struggled at first because displaced children self-segregated in the back of the classroom and did not speak the local language, Kikongo, or the academic language, French.

Some displaced children were violent. Others would sometimes cry when she called on them. When she asked why, they told her, “We are thinking about the situation that we have passed through.”

Through the training, Mazao and other teachers learned the importance of mixing students in the classroom, instead of allowing them to sit in separate groups. Teachers organized outside activities so students from both groups would be on the same teams.

In the classroom, Mazao learned to pay more attention to the emotional needs of displaced children by drawing them aside when they looked upset. If a student is absent often or sick, she visits the student’s family to see if there is a problem she can help resolve.

Mazao also has learned to be less serious in the classroom.

“It has helped not only the displaced children but all the pupils to live in peace with everybody,” she said.

She’s happy that one of the displaced children is at the top of the class academically. He helps her monitor classroom behavior when she is absent.

“Things didn’t change so quickly,” Mazao said. “We worked progressively. Now there is a change.”

At the CEFMC hospital in Kanzombi, staff struggled initially with the behavior of displaced people. Jacques Tangudiki, a member of the CEFMC local committee who is responsible for health care, said displaced people demanded to be treated first and tended to be violent and noncompliant with treatment. This created tension between nurses and patients.

“Imagine your father was murdered in front of you; your mother was raped in front of you. They were living with all of this,” the doctor said. Sometimes they would express anger when there didn’t seem to be a reason for it.

Tangudiki said nurses have learned to understand this trauma response and how to help people deal with emotions through trauma training MCC provided. The hospital also provides free primary care to displaced people, including disease prevention and medication for common ailments such as malaria and waterborne diseases.

CEFMC has worked with MCC to lower the rate of waterborne diseases by drilling two deep wells. Potable water from a borehole drilled in Kanzombi significantly reduced waterborne diseases treated at the hospital.

Clean water has improved the health of thousands of people in Kikwit. It also reduces fighting at remote springs where youth, whose parents expected them to get water multiple times a day, would fight over who could access the single water pipe first.

Now that water is available near where people live, adults can get water throughout the day. They have time to work together in fields CEFMC provided to the most vulnerable displaced people and their host families.

“Without water, there’s no life,” Kimbila said. Clean water helps treat diseases; education helps people to understand things; agriculture helps them to eat. “So all of these projects need water to help humans survive.”

He compared CEFMC’s holistic work with the people who were hungry and tired while listening to Jesus preach. He fed them by distributing one boy’s fish and bread to the crowd.

Jesus “came not just to save the soul but the body,” Kimbila said. “God takes care of us, not just spiritually, but physically, too. For this reason, we as the church work with partners to save people holistically. It’s difficult to bring someone who is hungry to peace.”

In Tshikapa, a 10-hour drive from Kikwit, the Mennonite Church of Congo is implementing projects similar to the Mennonite Brethren Church. The Evangelical Mennonite Church in Kabwela also carried out projects with MCC for years. Once-strained relationships among the denominations have been resolved as groups worked together to meet the needs of the displaced people.

With MCC training and former representative Mulanda Juma’s conflict-resolution skills, local committees in each denomination are equipped to respond to crises.

Women have trained together to learn peacebuilding skills that equip them to resolve conflicts among family, friends and community.

As a result of all the peacemaking work — humanitarian and spiritual — displaced people are gradually settling into life in Kikwit.

“Since they came here, they completely lacked a lot of things, but now they have first the joy because many have become members of our church, an important step,” Kimbila said. “Be­cause they are at our side, they feel there are people who love them, with whom they can live.”

Linda Espenshade

Linda Espenshade is Mennonite Central Committee U.S. news coordinator.

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