New Hope in Congo

| December 29, 2018 | 0 Comments

This article is a continuation of a previous Plain News post on December 5. Due to being unable to contact the head of the organization that is working in Congo, this post is a bit overdue.

To recap the first post, Bro. Billy North from Alabama made a trip to Congo to check into helping some Congolese with appropriate technology. What he found was amazing; the Congolese had built a model village of about 10,000 people from scratch out of the African bush, using hand tools. Very little government or NGO aid was accepted.

The following is compiled from conversations with Billy, Sebastian Kalinde (leader of PNE, discussed below), and some online information. If some of these details are not exactly right, I take the blame for getting the story confused. This is what I understand of how it all happened …  ~Mike Atnip

Sebastian Kalinde is a Congolese man who was schooled in rural development (his wife also worked in that field). By the time of the Second Congo War in the late 90s, he was working on his master’s degree and was helping Congolese villages with water projects, cooperatives, and other development. The war sent him and his wife scuttling for the Zambian border to the south, although it took them three months to finally reach the comparative safety of Zambia.

Here Sebastian was settled into a refugee camp. He and a few others began growing their own little garden in the camp (the camp eventually almost became self-sufficient in growing its own food, the only refugee camp ever to do so) … and talking about plans of returning to their homeland. When they returned, they realized that they would need to do something different. The United Nations would take people back to their native area and drop them off with some supplies. However, this would sometimes create new conflict, because the returning refugees would find that someone else had taken over their lands. Or many, like Sebastian, would find their house burnt down and their job taken over by someone else.

Rather than deal with the possible conflicts, the little group of refugees decided that they would like to start brand new. They had three criteria. First, they wanted to start not too far from Zambia, in case of more war. They could then slip back over the border. Second, they wanted to be close to some place where they could have a market for produce. And third, they wanted a place with some good soil so that they could provide enough food for themselves.

Sebastian was one day called to the UN office, where he unexpectedly was told that he had been chosen to emigrate to the US. He was the very first person to come from the refugee camp to the US. It was not his choosing to do so, and when he left he thought to himself, “It’s over.” In other words, the plans and dreams of starting a new village in Congo were just that and no more: plans and dreams.

Sebastian ended up near Mobile, Alabama. One day an old friend from the refugee camp called him and asked about helping with the project of resettling in a new village. “They need you,” he said. The problem was that the United Nations was steadfastly against the idea of dropping refugees off into the middle of the bush, with no schools or medical outposts.

Meanwhile, the 2006 Congo elections were taking place, and the UN held off repatriating the refugees while the elections were happening, as the elections had a lot of violence. (Please pray for the Congo elections coming up Sunday, which have been called off for two years already. So far, no major violence has occurred in this election, but things could change rapidly.) By the time the UN was ready to ship the refugees back the next year, Sebastian had drawn up plans for the model village, with details that covered practically every aspect of village life.

While the UN was not exactly excited about the new village plan, the Congolese government was. With so many refugees and internally displaced people seeking work in the large cities, the government was excited about a plan for refugees to start in a rural area. If they could find some land, Sebastian was told, the Congo government would support the idea. All the unsettled areas of Congo are owned by the government, but are administered by local chiefs. Sebastian knew some chiefs, and found one who controlled land close to the Zambian border who was willing to donate some land.

This is how the village of Fube was started. The refugees were dropped off along a road in the area and headed into the bush to whack out a living with machetes and hoes. This was the first time that the UN had ever done such a thing! A 7th-Day Adventist organization helped build the first school. The UN gave each family some basic supplies, and Sebastian worked out a deal to get some metal roofing sent in for the homes. This was in 2008.

In 2011, Sebastian travelled to Fube. There was no road to the village at that time. In 2013, he returned to Fube again. This time, he was able to rent a car in Zambia and drive all the way to Fube. This meant that the villagers had built 44 kilometers (27 miles) of road from Fube to the border, all by hoes and picks. This road was needed to help sell their produce. Their closest large market is in Zambia, 80 kilometers away (50 miles). Now they could bike their produce to market on a good road!

When is the last time you biked your produce to market, 50 miles away?

Besides those 27 miles, they have built all the streets in Fube by hand, and another 9 miles of road to a new village. And, out another direction they also built another long section of road. All by community, volunteer labor.

Things in Congo took a backward turn during the war. The economy and infrastructure is in shambles. Some places of Congo still have sporadic bush war, but Fube is in peace. The people there do not have to lock their doors at night. Before the war, Congo and Zambia were about equal in living status. But while Zambia has inched forward, Congo slid backwards, so that today the two nations are quite different. Sebastian told me, for example, that a public school teacher in Congo asked him for help in getting some books. “I have never read a book in my entire life, from the first page to the last,” complained the teacher.

Another public school administrator was asked how much she makes. “I don’t know,” she replied.

“What do you mean that you don’t know?”

“Well, I have worked as an administrator for five years and am still waiting on my first paycheck,” she said.

Yeah, it’s that bad!

Congo has never really had an official census taken. All population figures are estimates, even “official” government ones. Sebastian says that he estimates Fube to currently have 10,000 inhabitants, down from maybe 12,000 as some families have moved on to other places. That is about 2,000 families.

“How does it go when you need a community project done?” I asked him. “Do you just announce a project and people volunteer?”

Well, all roses have thorns. With the success of the village—it is the largest village, now, in the area—many people have moved in who really do not understand and hold to the original vision. About 200 of those 2,000 families are part of Project New Hope (PNE, after the initials of the organization’s Italian name … Sebastian had worked with an Italian NGO before the War). These 200 families still do have the vision and are the ones who make things happen.

“How much time do these people spend on community projects, in comparison to their own needs? One day a week?” I asked.

“I can say that it is far more than that,” Sebastian replied. Yes, they take care of family and personal needs, but they then spend the rest of their time in community projects.

These families have very, very little in material goods. What moves them is a hope. When refugees are handed everything in a basket, they can easily get a spirit of dependency, which is often a hopeless feeling of ever being able to accomplish anything. Then when the UN or the NGO leaves, so does hope. But when the poor people dig in and work together with faith in God—although they by no means have the luxuries that we have in America—they begin to have HOPE and a sense of ACCOMPLISHMENT.

Congolese government officials are continually amazed at what is happening at Fube. Sebastian has been scrutinized and doubted many times. Is he some American trying to pull a fast one, getting all those people to work for his project for free? Are their strings attached, that one day he will pull? But when these officials come to see for themselves what is happening, they leave intrigued. “The only place in Congo where the community has built itself,” one former doubter said.

PNE is not officially a “Christian” organization, but since about everyone in Congo claims Christianity, it by default is Christian. Catholicism is strong in Congo. Sebastian’s real name is Kiwele, but before he could attend school, The Catholic Church (which sort of de facto ran the country in Colonial days) said that he had to take a Christian name, or schooling was not an option for him.

“We put God first,” Sebastian told me. So while it is officially not a Christian organization, it unofficially is. The 200 families that make up PNE come from several denominations. Sebastian is Methodist, which has a large following in Congo. But Catholics and Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses are part of the 200 families that make up PNE and that make PNE do the good things it has done.

For the future, PNE has the second village started. Those who make up PNE may end up moving out of Fube to the new village and build a training school. PNE has just been given a large area (about 20 miles by 30 miles in size) to expand in, as the government has seen what they have done and would like to see the project grow. What to do with this large area, with much timber and possibly mineral resources (Congo has many natural resources worth oodles of money)?

For many people, the plan of action would be to sell off the resources and pocket the money. But PNE would like to develop the resources so that the profits stay in the local community. PNE would also like to teach other Congolese villages how to live sustainably, working together.

Time will tell how that all works out. Meanwhile, a ray of hope has glimmered: with God’s help, they can accomplish good things!

For discussion

How would buying a bulldozer to build the roads have helped to bury hope in the hearts of Fube residents?

Our American way is to borrow money, buy big equipment for a business, and make payments for many years. While this approach can bring a larger black number on the bottom line, it also sends much of the profit out of the local community (to the equipment manufacturer and the bank). Discuss how this compares with using local resources in a sustainable way and being content with a smaller profit margin.

Community/brotherhood is a core component of the kingdom of God, which Anabaptism has long underscored. Yet, we see a group of Africans of diverse church denominations (with anything from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Catholics to Methodists to Pentecostals) achieving what we as Anabaptists many times fail to bring to reality in our local churches (in terms of community working together for the common good). Discuss why this may be, and what we can learn from it.

Discuss what could happen if an Anabaptist mission would take the good parts of PNE and mix them with other aspects of the true faith, such as non-resistance, plain dress, separation, etc.

A hard question! Can we as Plain people today go to Africa and teach contentment? Or do we need to learn more of it here first before trying to teach it to the poor? (Ouch! Stepping on my own toes here!)

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