My life: from childhood to war- Building Resilience

Growing up in Fizi, Democratic Republic of Congo, I had the privilege to learn the history of my country and my district. I learnt that Fizi is one of the nine territories of the South-Kivu province in the Eastern part of the DR Congo. The district of Fizi borders with Tanzania and Burundi on the east, across Lake Tanganyika. Fizi is a vast and poor rural area of about 22,000 km2 with over one million inhabitants. The district headquarters (capital city) is also named Fizi, which previously had over 30,000 inhabitants. However, due to incessant wars, the district of Fizi has remained uninhabited for a long time. Throughout history, Fizi has been a battlefield, living the population in absolute misery and poverty. The former President Kabila led an unsuccessful rebellion against the regime of late president Mobutu Sese Seko from 1963-1979. With the support of Rwanda and many other countries, President Kabila led a second rebellion (the so-called liberation war) from 1996-2002 and succeeded in overturning Mobutu’s dictatorship regime (see map from the previous blog).

As a child, my parents, grand-parents, and mentors would share stories with me of what life was like for them between 1963-1979. Even still, I never imagined another war could happen because the area was peaceful and we could move around freely without fear of gunshots or war.

Growing up in Fizi, life was fun as we climbed mango, orange, avocado, and papaya trees-name them all, we enjoyed them. As a child I enjoyed running around the bush and climbing mountains to play with monkeys, and never hesitated to run whenever I smelled gorilla, chimpanzee, elephants, or lions passing by. I learnt as a child to be watchful when walking in the bush as the area was full of deadly snakes. All these experiences became part of everyday life until the day came when shedding innocent blood became the order of the day. This day I will never forget in my life.

mango-tree

Mango tree

MDG : DRC : Chimpanzees in Tongo forest, Virunga National Park, DR Congo

Chimpanzees in my home land

October 25, 1996. Although rumours of war spread all over the country, nobody in the Fizi territory believed that they would have to flee for their lives and seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Everyone believed in the army’s ability to secure the land and protect us from any attacks. On the morning of October 25, 1996, I woke up and went to class as usual. Around 11am we heard shootings but the school authorities did not think that it was anything serious until it was too late. Parents came to pick up their children from school as the situation in the area had become fatally violent. Over 5 people were reported killed in the shootings that lasted two hours in the nearby mountains.

Hundreds of thousands of people had to flee for their lives when the war broke out in 1996

Hundreds of thousands of people had to flee for their lives when the war broke out in 1996

Unfortunately, my sisters and I had nobody to pick us up, since my parents lived 60 kms away from our school. We decided to start the long journey home. To our surprise, the streets were full with hundreds of people, carrying luggage and their children, walking or running to unknown destinations to save their lives. All of a sudden, hundreds of military cars appeared on the road, escaping the frontline battle and fleeing with their families. My two young sisters and I were confused, shocked, traumatized to see the unbelievable wickedness of human nature. Shootings, shootings after shootings, dead bodies everywhere on the streets. Walking through the dead bodies was the only option. I thought that at our age, my sisters and I and many other children were innocent – this was no longer true.

Hundreds of children were separated from their parents. I was encouraged to meet other lost children in the bush, and we shared the little we had with each other. We enjoyed chatting and warming each other up as we had nothing to cover up ourselves with. We shared the journey home with two other kids who also lost their parents when someone started shooting at a crowd that was running for their lives. One of the children had witnessed his father being shot in front of him. Needless to say, as the eldest of all, close to 14 years at that time, I became the counsellor and the leader.  No one would walk on the main streets as it was so dangerous. We also slept in the bush, at that time not worrying about the deadly snakes and insects, among other dangerous animals. The only thing we worried about was the shooting. I never thought shooting and stepping over dead bodies would become a normal experience at an early age in my life. I guess my beliefs about unfairness and injustice only reflected the brokenness of mankind, greed, and the pursuit for self-fulfilment, etc. War-war-war – I hate you.

Lost children during war-

Lost children during war-

The next morning, we walked the final 20 kilometers in the bush to arrive at our parents’ house. It was no surprise that the village was so quiet: everyone had run for their lives except a few armed people. I happened to have a house key, so I went in the house and realized my parents had left everything behind. I wondered how they were going to survive. My younger sisters had so many questions for me that I could not answer: Do you think our parents and two other sisters were killed? Do you think we will ever see them again? Do you think God will protect them? Do you think it is fair that they left? Do you think they love us enough? I had no answers to their questions. Growing up in Christian homes, we all had big questions about God’s work or presence in the midst of war. We sang some of our favourite songs and prayed briefly. It was time to decide where to go. The other two children we travelled with through the bush decided to continue their journey with one of their neighbours.

I decided to go back to school with my two young sisters. At this time, I did not know if that was the right or wrong decision. Our journey back to school was chaotic as shootings continued. We also spent two days on the road. I started begging for food and anything for survival. We finally arrived at the school, and no one was there anymore (story to be continued in the next blog).

As I reflect on October 25, 1996 – walking through dead bodies, meeting some other lost kids in the bush, surviving the deadly snakes and ferocious animals – it makes me realize how terrible war is.  Although the walk to meet our parents – which proved in vain as no one was home – was a torture, I am learning more that situations in our lives do not just happen for nothing. Through those difficult moments I was blessed by people on the streets who had very little but willingly shared with us strangers. I never thought to become a beggar in my life, but I now realize that the structures we put in place around the world force many to become beggars every day. I am learning that ordinary people, like those people I begged from for food, can make a huge impact in someone’s life. Although these people may not even recall what they did for us – some of them were even shot to death in the war – I live now as a result of their simple act of compassion. I completely feel that the prayers and support of many gave me hope and courage to face every day with confidence. Today I don’t regret my past. I now rejoice in knowing that I can make a difference in someone’s life as many did and continue to do in mine.  I see more than ever before now that we can make a difference and change someone’s story today.

IMG_0880

My chemistry high school teacher in Nyarugusu refugee camp

Advertisements

My life: from childhood to war

Map of Congo showing Fizi- my home district

Map of Congo showing Fizi- my home district.

Born in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I grew up in the small village of Lusenda in Fizi, South Kivu province, on the shores of beautiful Lake Tanganyika. Fishing and farming were the main economical activities, both of which I actively participated in. After school, many of us would run to the lake for fishing, and catching a fish was not only fun but also a sign that dinner or lunch will be delicious. The game of catching and throwing was not an option.

Lake Tanganyika- home to my favourite fish (Mikebuka-I miss you)

Lake Tanganyika- home to my favourite fish (Mikebuka-I miss you).

My village had no library; however many of us young men and women had the privilege to learn from firsthand experiences. In our oral culture, our grandpas and grandmas and anyone older were considered a library that we could easily consult in times of need.

Born from a primary school headmaster and a housewife, I had the privilege to attend one of the best schools in the area and at the same time learn farming. My dad was not only a headmaster but a farmer and businessman who worked hard to make sure the family had enough. Needless to say, our house was always full with extended family members and church visitors. At an early age, I learnt that life was full of both happy and stressful moments.

Everything in my village revolved around relationship. People knew each other quite well and we were all connected: if the person is not your brother, then he is your uncle; if not your younger father, then your grandfather; if not a cousin, then an aunt, or young mother, etc. At that time, I do not think I fully understood what it meant to go hungry until the war broke out in 1996, as it was cultural and acceptable to eat at anyone’s house in our village. Everyone was encouraged to be courageous and help others navigate stressful situations….to strive despite the hardship of everyday living.

Rich fertile soil of my ancestors- home to sweet mangoes, pineapples, avocados, oranges--name them all- we have them

Rich fertile soil of my ancestors- home to sweet mangoes, pineapples, avocados, oranges–name them all- we have them.

Life was just like that – from school to fishing, choir practice to football (soccer) games, and so on – until October 1996. Before October, we heard rumours about the war, about forces from Rwanda invading our country, however everybody believed in our military and the president at that time (Mobutu Seseseko) to protect us. We were all proven wrong. As the rumours of war continued, my parents decided to send me and my two younger sisters (6 and 8 yrs. old) 60 km. away where we could continue our schooling without worrying for our lives.

October 25, 1996. This day I will never forget: shooting, blood shedding, and all evils one can think of became the norm of everyday life. This was the day my two younger sisters and I were separated from my parents, not knowing if we would ever see them and my three other sisters again.

It was a tough time – we were only three of us and our God as we passed through dead bodies and heard shootings of all kinds (to be continued in another blog). 

As I reflect on that day and our walk to meet our parents – which proved in vain as no one was home – I now feel that situations in our lives do not just happen for nothing. Through those difficult moments I learnt to depend on God more and accept every day as a blessing. The prayers and support of many gave me hope and courage to face every day with confidence – today I don’t regret my past but I rejoice to have come out of it stronger than I ever thought. I don’t think much was due to my own strength, but God’s grace and the support of those who invested in me.  After my recent visit to Nyarugusu refugee camp -where I did my high school as mentioned in my first blog- I just can’t believe that people have been in that place for 18 years now. If someone could not have invested in me, I could still be there. I am realizing more that it is possible to make a difference and change someone’s story today.

Fizi's version of a highway. Wait until the rainy season and see

Fizi’s version of a highway. Wait until the rainy season and see how it changes.

What about education?

“Welcome to the refugee camp,” says my husband in his matter-of-fact voice.

Signs as we enter Nyarugusu refugee camp

Signs as we enter Nyarugusu refugee camp

 

Entering Nyarugusu refugee camp. May 1, 2014. Copyright. All rights reserved.

Entering Nyarugusu refugee camp. May 1, 2014. Copyright. All rights reserved.

We had just arrived at the main UN headquarters in Nyarugusu refugee camp. I glance around my surroundings. People were gathered in clusters – some standing with bicycles, others holding children, others sitting on log benches under trees. I saw one woman trying to submit a paper to the UN through a gate. Everything seemed to move in slow motion: maybe because people don’t have jobs to rush to, farms to cultivate, food to gather, and they cannot leave the camp. We drive to my in-laws’ home. My husband directs the driver: “turn left here; take a right at the next dirt road; I remember walking this road so many times.” His family has lived in the refugee camp for 18 years.

Meeting my sisters-in-law for the first time. They welcomed me with such love. Copyright. All rights reserved.

Meeting my sisters-in-law for the first time! They welcomed me with such love. Copyright. All rights reserved.

Multiple women burst out of the house and run to the car to greet us: “Kaka! Wifi!” Hugs, joy, laughter, tears…I was overwhelmed by the love and joyful embrace of my sisters-in-law. It’s such a joy and honour to finally meet my new family: Mom, Dad, sisters, and extended family. The language barrier made communication very difficult, and we did our best to communicate in English and Swahili. This was a really humbling experience for me. Nonetheless, we found ways to talk, make jokes, and share about our lives. I love and appreciate each of them. As we gather for lunch, extended family and close friends arrive. There must have been at least 70 people: aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, children of nieces & nephews, grandchildren… half the family appears to be under 30. I meet my new brothers, cousins, sisters, nieces, nephews. I struggle to ask questions in broken Swahili: “Habari za shule [How is school]?” Nzuri [Good],” they respond.

Sharing a meal and spending time with family in Nyarugusu.  Copyright. All rights reserved.

Sharing a meal and spending time with family in Nyarugusu. Copyright. All rights reserved.

Students persevere in their studies: primary school attendance in the refugee camp is 97% and secondary school is 87%. They face dilapidated buildings, few latrines (washrooms), 1 teacher for 50-100 students, 5-9 students per school desk, and 10 students per textbook. On top of this, girls face further barriers: the risk of rape, as they travel long and isolated distances to collect firewood; early marriage; and pregnancy. Despite these challenges, high school students in the refugee camp excel: last year, they wrote the DR Congo national exam and came out top of the region that they are connected to in DR Congo.Without scholarships, however, they have no opportunity for post-secondary education (DFID, 2013).

High school students excel despite lack of materials, teachers, schools, latrines, and other social barriers. Copyright. All rights reserved.

High school students in the refugee camp excel despite lack of materials, teachers, schools, latrines, and other social barriers. Copyright. All rights reserved.

As I sit with my new family, my sister-in-law slips me a brown paper envelope. “This is for you.” I open it: Dear Madam, I hereby humbly request assistance for a university scholarship. I am a Congolese by citizenship. I have a high school certificate and have worked 4 years as a secondary school teacher. I would deeply appreciate your assistance in seeking a scholarship. Although employed by the UN, teachers receive only 18,000 Tanzanian shillings per month (~$11 CDN). To compare, 1lb. peanuts costs 2,000 TZ shillings. I didn’t know what to say. I imagined myself in this young man’s situation: a young man my age, who has no hope of leaving the refugee camp unless he has funds to study. I felt guilty that my home country has provided me with so many opportunities in life, yet he has been denied even the basics to survive. I knew was also frustrated that I couldn’t promise a scholarship in that moment. Later that evening, I finally allowed all the emotions I had held for the whole day to overwhelm me. As my grief pushed tears out, I felt a physical aching in my chest as I thought of the conditions in Nyarugusu. If I hadn’t seen the situation for myself, I almost wouldn’t have believed that people live in such desperate situations in this day and age.

High school friends come to visit and surprise us with an extremely generous, humbling gift. These friends graduated with my husband in 2001 and still live in Nyarugusu.

High school friends surprise us with an extremely generous, humbling gift. These friends graduated with my husband in 2000 and still live in the refugee camp. After high school, there are no educational opportunities in Nyarugusu.  Copyright. All rights reserved.

Talking with my husband, though, who is himself a high school graduate from Nyarugusu, I was struck by how possible it is to provide hope – at least to some. A full 4-year university career costs about $5000 CDN in Burundi: this means $1250/year for 4 years. How can we say the situation is hopeless for Nyarugusu refugees when the required investment is relatively little? Many people invested in him as struggled to complete his university degree, and he is now a licensed social worker in Canada, and uses his profession to provide hope to others. As our plane touched down in Canada on May 16, my mind was already racing: what can I do? Who can help? There is great urgency to provide hope, especially for young people, who have no hope for the future unless they leave Nyarugusu. As a Canadian, so many times I have thought and heard others say: “There’s just so many problems in the world. What can we do? I don’t think much will ever change.” But changes in individuals’ lives create change in the family and community. Personally, I think it’s worth every effort we have. We have identified 5 people from the refugee camp who could start university in January 2015 if funds were available. We are now seeking partnerships with individuals, churches, and organizations to make this a reality. Please join us: ask questions, reflect on these realities, and consider what you might be able to do in response.