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.

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Nyarugusu camp: my once-called home

Thursday May 1, 2014, early in the morning: My wife and I accompanied by a close Tanzanian friend began our journey to Nyarugusu refugee camp in Kigoma province, on the far west side of Tanzania, near Lake Tanganyika. We boarded a plane at Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and took a three-hour long flight to Kigoma.

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Philip and I enjoying Lake Tanganyika for the first time in several years. DR Congo is visible in the background. Copyright. All rights reserved.

Landing in Kigoma not only brought so many positive emotions and anticipation to see family, friends and the place that I called home for five years, but it also reminded me of the torture and sufferings I went through during the war on the other side of the Lake Tanganyika, in my home district Fizi, Democratic Republic of Congo. Seeing Lake Tanganyika and touching its waters brought so many childhood memories: the lake that once connected me to the land of my ancestors, the place where I witnessed at an early age the killing, rape, and torture of many close family members and friends.

As I sat beside the Tanzanian side of Lake Tanganyika in Kigoma, so many memories came to mind as I walked close to Kilibizi, the place where I was called a refugee for the first time in my life. This was the place where I felt all my hopes and dreams for a better life, education, health, etc., were impossible and unattainable. This time, however, I felt I was a different Oliver who, through the support of many, overcame what seemed to be impossible.

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My wife and I meeting my parents and sister at Makere. Copyright. All rights reserved.

An hour later, my wife, a Canadian born, finds herself on an overcrowded mini-bus heading to Nyarugusu refugee camp where my parents live. The first twenty minutes of the 4-hour trip felt promising as the road was in good shape. Suddenly, the smooth paved road ended, and we found ourselves on a dusty red road for the rest of the journey, eating the dust kicked up by our van and other passing vehicles. At the end of our trip, we couldn’t tell who was white and who was black – our new race was red! My wife and I, and our Tanzanian friend pastor Philip Patroba from Dar es Salaam, finally arrived at the village of Makere where my parents and church members were eagerly waiting for us. Finally, my wife meets her in-laws for the first time. And for me, tears of joy flowed down my face as I was reunited with my parents and sisters after a long time.

Friday, May 2 morning: We head to Nyarugusu Camp for the first time: the first time in 7 years for me, and the first time ever for my wife and Philip. We would lead a 2-day leadership seminar and also meet all my family members and many old friends. As the Catholic father drove us from Makere Parish  where we stayed during our visit (7 kilometres from the camp), he tells us stories about the camp. The father spoke of various challenges that people in the refugee camp face daily, including malnutrition, poor sanitation, high level of poverty, violence against girls, lack of access to further education for high school graduates, poor housing, etc.

As we continued our journey, big signs welcomed us to Nyarugusu refugee camp: Kigoma Refugee Program; International Rescue Committee Program; World Food Program Humanitarian Aid; UNHCR and its participating member flags – with one quick look at the sign we see the Canadian flag. Seeing this flag made us think of hope, respect of human rights, and dignity. However, the reality on the ground tells us otherwise.

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Housing in Nyarugusu. Copyright. All rights reserved.

Nyarugusu Camp was established in November 1996 when hundreds of thousands of refugees fled war in the DR Congo. In the early years of the camp, many refugees thought that they would only be there for a couple months, then return to their homes. 18 years have now passed and many have nowhere else to call home: children born in the refugee camp are now graduating from high school with little hope to further their education. According to UNHCR 2014 statistics, the camp hosts over 68,909 refugees, mostly from Democratic Republic of Congo and some Burundians. Many refugees in the camp are extremely vulnerable as they have witnessed and experienced horrible forms of violence and torture in their home countries, including seeing family members killed in front of their eyes. After so many years in exile, many are unable to trace loved ones and feel they cannot return home. Moreover, DR Congo continues to be a place of upheaval with high reports of rape, other forms of violence against women, and no respect for human rights.

Talking with people and observing the living conditions, it is evident that people in Nyarugusu have special health needs and limited access to facilities that address their health needs. Due to overcrowding, they are susceptible to communicable diseases such as measles and cholera. They are also exposed to preventable diseases such as malaria. According to a UNHCR report (http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e45c736.html), the situation in Nyarugusu camp, where over 68,909 refugees reside, continues to deteriorate as a result of limited funding. Refugee movements are restricted by the encampment policy in Tanzania, thus limiting self-reliance options and increasing dependence on humanitarian assistance. The camp has poor educational and health infrastructure in dire need of renewal. Many families in the camp do not have adequate shelter and family latrines.

During our visit to Nyarugusu, so many questions came to mind: Where is the hope for change? Why is there such little documentation about the current state of people in Nyarugusu? What do Nyarugusu refugees think is the key to change their situation? How can we partner with them?

People in the camp identified several needs: educational sponsorships for high school graduates; funding for children’s nutritional programs; support for family, youth, men and women’s projects; further trainings on leadership and politics, and other topics; and creating platforms to share their everyday realities with the world.

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Participants in 2-Day Leadership Seminar, Nyarugusu Refugee Camp, May 2-3, 2014 (Facilitators: Pastor Philip Patroba, Oliver M. Mweneake). Copyright. All rights reserved.

As we embark on this journey, we ask that you engage yourselves with these issues that are very real and urgent. We ask you to consider partnering with Nyarugusu refugees in one of the above mentioned areas. Please feel free to comment and email us with specific questions as we work together to transform lives in Nyarugusu.