From refugee to peacebuilder

MCC representative Mulanda “Jimmy” Juma turned childhood trauma into motivation to work for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Mulanda “Jimmy” Juma, right, MCC representative of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, talks with Pascal Birhahwa Muhindo, principal at Katuze Secondary School in Mosho III village. MCC and the Community of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Congo installed latrines at the school. — Matthew Lester/MCC Mulanda “Jimmy” Juma, right, MCC representative of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, talks with Pascal Birhahwa Muhindo, principal at Katuze Secondary School in Mosho III village. MCC and the Community of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Congo installed latrines at the school. — Matthew Lester/MCC

In 1996, Mulanda “Jimmy” Juma knew that Laurent Kabila was mounting an armed rebellion against the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Juma didn’t know that Kabila’s fighters were coming to Mboko village until they began shooting randomly in all directions.

The 23-year-old university intern ran for Lake Tanganyika. He knew dense trees and foliage along the lake offered hiding places because, when he was a child, his family would find safety along the lakeside when armed groups attacked.

“I could see people falling down, people who I knew, as I was running away,” said Juma as he recounted his life story in 2020. Two of his uncles and their families were already at the lake, so he hid with them. “When I came out in the evening, the water in the lake was red. People who took boats to escape were shot in the water.”

Under the cover of darkness, they boarded one uncle’s narrow fishing boat, about 15 feet long, and rowed south, away from the rebels. The waves were so big and the boat so full it almost capsized.

And so Juma’s journey as a refugee began — one of pain and suffering, but one that eventually, along with encounters with Mennonite Central Committee staff, would lead him to years of studying, teaching and practicing peacebuilding.

Today, as representative for MCC in DR Congo, Juma’s experience gives him empathy as he works with church partners to provide emergency food and generate income opportunities for people who have been forced from their home by violence.

The deeper need, he says, is for peace, because with peace no one is forced from home or separated from family. With peace, people can use the rich resources of DR Congo to develop their lives and support themselves and others.

‘We were fleeing all the time’

Juma’s experience with violence as a young adult was far from his first. Before he was 10, his family lived in the bush along the lake, near the village of I’amba, an area frequently attacked by armed groups seeking supplies or exerting power.

“We were fleeing all the time when rebels came . . . to steal or to loot or whatever. We were used to it,” Juma said.

Despite this environment, Juma felt secure in his parents’ love. He was born as they were returning from 10 years as refugees in Burundi. He witnessed his father’s ingenuity, persistence and integrity as he rebuilt his businesses and insisted on his children’s education. His mother taught him the importance of faith and going to church, even though attending meant walking through dangerous territory.

Juma thrived in school, despite attending sporadically because of the violence. At the top of his class through every level, he was able to attend university in Bukavu, where he studied regional planning and did his internship in Mboko. That’s when the shooting began, and he left everything behind.

Hungry and penniless

He and a friend started walking — through Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique. For more than a year, they endured being hungry, penniless and lost, but they survived because of the kindness of strangers, short-term jobs and stints in refugee camps.

“You think you have a clear idea of what you’ll do next. All that is shattered,” Juma said. “I lost hope. Lost direction. I didn’t know what to do. We had to run away.”

During his journey, he was told that his father had died during a 1998 massacre of more than 1,000 people in the town of Makobola, where he attended secondary school. Attempts to reach his family yielded no response, so he feared the worst.

Eventually Juma’s journey took him to Durban, South Africa, in 1999, where he found a home among refugees, many of whom were being mistreated. As he advocated for fair treatment of refugees with local authorities, he learned that he could get peacebuilding training through MCC.

“I was like, ‘Study peace? Is there such a thing as studying peace?’ ”

Shedding trauma’s baggage

At the MCC office in Durban, where Juma came to inquire, Suzanne Lind, an MCC representative, told him about ways to study peace with MCC. As she learned to know him, she realized he was hesitant to talk about his own trauma, so she invited him to go to an MCC trauma-healing program in 2001.

“I came to discover that I was carrying this baggage of trauma for a long time,” Juma said. “Literally, I really cried in that training as I shared my stories, painful stories. The whole group came to me, really embracing me and giving support. I felt relieved from there, really feeling like some weight is gone — less heaviness about some things that happened in my life.”

The following year, MCC sponsored him to go to the Africa Peacebuilding Institute, a training institute for Africans who want to learn more about how to build peace in their communities.

“I learned about new ways and approaches of dealing with violence,” Juma said. This enabled him to let go of his plan to avenge his father’s death.

“I also learned an eye for an eye will only make people blind,” he said. “I don’t want to make more people blind. I actually want more people to see.”

From pain to joy

Using every opportunity, Juma continued to study and promote peacebuilding even while he worked various jobs to support himself. He earned a master’s degree in peace studies and conflict resolution.

He carried out several peacebuilding programs with troubled youth over the next four years, and he accepted the invitation of Carl Stauffer, MCC’s southern Africa peacebuilder, to lead trauma-healing groups and teach peacebuilding skills at the Africa Peacebuilding Institute and other MCC-sponsored trainings.

During one of these trainings in Burundi, he found out his parents were alive, and they were eventually reunited.

In Zambia, where he worked for the Dag Hammarskjöld Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, he and two other Congolese refugees — Kiota Mufayabatu and Issa Ebombolo — started a community peace club in Lusaka for refugees and Zambians who were in conflict with each other.

As they came together to study peace, tensions eased between the two groups. More community peace clubs were formed, supported by MCC, and then spread to many Zambian schools, under the leadership of Ebombolo.

After earning a doctorate in Italy, Juma replaced Stauffer as MCC’s southern Africa peacebuilder in 2012.

In this role, Juma mediated conflict within organizations, helped peace clubs to spread to South Africa and Nigeria, and coordinated training for many African peacebuilders at API. As he traveled around southern Africa, he encouraged API graduates as they started peacebuilding projects wherever they lived.

“For me, seeing these peace initiatives bubbling in the southern Africa region was joy,” Juma said.

Aiding Congolese Mennonites

In 2017, Juma decided to return to DR Congo as an MCC representative, turning down a position he had been offered with the African Union.

“The reason I came back to Congo was to have an opportunity to contribute in a small way to peace and development here,” he said. The opportunity was already present.

A violent conflict in the Kasai region in 2016 and 2017 had uprooted more than 1.4 million people, including about 50,000 Mennonites. Three Congolese Mennonite denominations located in different parts of Kasai helped provide food, clothing and shelter, but they needed assistance.

As Mennonite organizations around the world collected money to help them, Juma organized workshops for each denomination’s relief committees, teaching them how to carry out a large distribution. In the process, however, a lot of anger and criticism was expressed toward MCC and each other. Juma responded peacefully.

“The attitude of not pushing them back, not being angry at them and allowing them to speak their mind and feeling safe as they speak their mind, somehow began to create a relationship between me and the Mennonite churches,” he said. And through interaction among the three relief committees, relationships were strengthened.

Over time, the three denominations conducted multiple distributions in the Kasai region, and two continue to carry out farming projects with displaced people and trauma-healing workshops today.

Juma longs for the violence in DR Congo to stop, so he keeps working for peace. He remembers the words of a man living in an area where rebels and soldiers stole the villagers’ harvest each year. “Give us peace, and we’ll do the rest ourselves,” the man told Juma.

Those words encourage Juma to continue what has become a lifelong work of training peacebuilders and working to give people tools to resolve conflict.

“Maybe one day,” he said, “if many people are doing what I’m doing, we could have peace.”

Linda Espenshade

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

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