Thursday, October 30, 2014

Not to worry today

Today I am in prison in Ougadougou, Burkina Faso. I walked into the Maco prison, the oldest and biggest prison in the city, with an MCC partner who works with juvenile offenders, but now they won’t let us out.

We can hear the disturbances in the street, just outside the prison walls, but we really don’t know what is happening. Parliament was to vote on changing the constitution to allow the president to serve an additional term after 27 years in office, but the people seem to think 27 years is long enough.

Adam Sensamaust (MCC country representative) and I are in prison with Pegue Savadogo, the director of Lieux de Vie (Places of Life), an MCC partner organization working with juvenile justice and employment training opportunities that allow some young offenders to serve alternative sentences.

A soldier leads us into a room where 85 young offenders are waiting for us. We are told the youngest is age 13. About half of these young men have already received their sentences and the other half are waiting for theirs.

We are introduced to Fatass Ouedraogo who is convicted of stealing a motor bike, which is considered a major offense since it was the source of the victim’s livelihood. Fatass, age 16, has already served nine months and will serve three additional months before being released on parole to Lieux de Vie after the minimum one year sentence. Pegue will mentor him for up to a year before Fatass’ sentence will be considered complete.

Pegue tells us later that Fatass wants to learn the carpentry trade. Pegue has worked with about two dozen young men over the last two years to learn trades that can give them the skills they need to earn a living. This is especially important for Fatass who is considered homeless since his parents have left Burkina Faso for a nearby country.

After the meeting with the young men, we walk back out through the courtyard past the pots of white stew that will serve as the one meal a day these offenders will receive. Another young man stops us on the way out to talk to Pegue about when he can apply again for the Lieux de Vie program, since he was refused entry by the courts the first time.

Because of the disturbances in the street, we are escorted to a waiting room and not allowed to leave the prison until the guards believe it is safe enough for us to do so. One soldier tells us some of the demonstrators tried to break through one of the prison gates, but they eventually gave up.

While we are waiting to be left out of the prison, Pegue tells us he began this work with juvenile offenders in prison almost 30 years ago. He was formally registered with the government in 2008 and has been working with MCC the last several years. He sees this ministry as part of his Christian witness and has a vision for starting a second facility.

Pegue tells us he is trying to introduce restorative justice concepts into the Burkina Faso justice system. He is especially working to help offenders work toward reconciliation with the victims of the crimes they committed.

Bringing victim and offender together never happens in the Burkinabe justice system, Pegue tells us.

An hour or so later, and after considerable encouragement from us, the guards finally decide to release us from prison and we are reunited with Adam’s family and MCC staff. Eventually we learn that the protestors took over parliament while we were in prison, and that the police and military refused to resist. There is some destruction of property and burning in the streets, but for the most part, the label of the “quickest coup in history” seems to fit.

And so do the words of one of the prison guards who told us not to worry today because Burkina Faso is a peaceful country and everything will be okay.

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. He is in Burkina Faso this week and hopes to be in Rwanda in a few days.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A gift that lasts forever

The river of God is full of water, you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. – Psalm 65:9

In Avad, in eastern Kenya, it took 23 days and several hundred people to build a sand dam a hundred meters long. Or put another way, it took over two years for the community to get to the place to be able to sustain this effort. Either way, the end result is the same – the sand dam provides water in the dry season for 6,000 people in three villages. It is a 23-day (or two year) miracle!

Without the sand dam, there would be no water, no life, the villagers told us. With the sand dam, in the dry season, women no longer have to walk miles in search of water. And the drinking water the villagers now have is cleaner and causes less disease. There is enough water for crops and cattle.  

The Utooni Development Organization in the Ukambani region of eastern Kenya has built over 1,500  sand dams here. The dams are part of an overall effort to transform the environment of disadvantaged communities and help farmers to improve their water supply, food production, health and incomes.

The villagers we met were proud of what they had accomplished. “When we work together, we can do a lot,” they told us. We sang and prayed together first, and then we inspected the dam itself. The construction is simple. A cement retainer wall has been built across the river and sand has filled in behind the wall, trapping water for later use.

In the rainy season, there is enough water going over the dam for everyone. In the dry season, the community is able to access the water stored in the sand. And the water table has risen substantially, even for communities downstream.

Leaders of the Utooni Development Organization are working with self-help groups in 80 communities in the region and they expect to build many more sand dams. Teaching communities about water management, food production and healthcare, giving people this kind of knowledge, is a gift they believe will last forever.

Because of the work of the Utooni Development Organization, the river is indeed full of water and overflowing. These villagers give God the glory.

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. He just returned from a two-week trip to eastern Congo, Burundi and Kenya.

Ambassadors for Christ

God . . . through Christ, has given us the ministry of reconciliation. (II Corinthians 5:20)

“You can’t invite people into the family of God and refuse to be their brothers and sisters,” MCC country representative Paul Mosley tells the 90 Intervarsity student leaders gathered for a retreat at a Catholic seminary in central Burundi.  Paul tells us later that these students are all of Tutsi and Hutu ethnic origin and it is very likely that every single one of them has lost a family member to the civil wars and genocide in the region in the last 20 years.

“We are ambassadors of Christ and God’s message of reconciliation,” Paul tells the students.  These students are here for three days of intensive Bible study and it is also likely that these few days could change these students’ lives.

A decade ago, 15 other university students in Burundi attended a similar IVF gathering to study the Bible together. As a group, they decided that they wanted to respond together to what they were studying in God’s word.

Today, these 15 students are the governing body for Help Channel, a Christian ministry in Burundi reaching out to people in need through large-scale relief and development projects. This help is desperately needed because ninety percent of Burundians are small, rural farmers living in poverty with little formal education.

A few of the former students are involved in the administration of Help Channel’s projects, but most have professional careers elsewhere and simply support Help Channel’s ministries with their volunteer time and financial contributions.

In addition to food security and water management projects, Help Channel addresses a wide range of other issues primary school education, HIV/AIDs education and family planning, as well as humanitarian aid and agricultural projects.

“We want to share the gifts the Lord gave us with the most vulnerable people among us,” director Cassien Ndikuriyo told me.

Help Channel initially began in response to a drought. The students worked to develop a network of churches to respond to the crisis. This network of churches continues to be an important part of how Help Channel responds to the needs of the communities they serve. Churches even help identify the beneficiaries of their various ministries.

“We see ourselves as the deacons of the church, helping the widows and orphans among us,” Cassien tells me. Ambassadors for Christ, as Paul reminded a new group of students just a couple of days ago at the retreat center.  

It is hard to figure out how these Bible study groups fit into a formal strategic plan, Paul tells me, but given the fruit the Bible studies are producing, he knows it is something he needs to keep doing. In addition to the leaders of the Help Channel, that original Bible study 15 years ago has also produced the leaders of four more of the partner organizations MCC works with.  

Paul and these former students are ambassadors for Christ and ministers of reconciliation.

Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. He just returned from two weeks in eastern Congo, Burundi and Kenya

War no more

 Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.  – Luke 6:27

Whether or not the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago has actually caused the instability in eastern Congo today, it certainly has been a strong contributing factor.

In the mid-90s, Rwandan Hutu soldiers blamed for the genocide of thousands of Tutus and they fled into eastern Congo with their families. These soldiers have formed militias that control parts of the countryside 

and the resources there. In response, Congolese have formed similar groups. Today, dozens of armed groups patrol various sections of eastern Congo and the government is not able to provide protection for the communities who are caught in the middle.   

MCC is working with the Churches of Christ in Congo (ECC), an association of churches, through a Peace and Reconciliation Repatriation Project (PPR) that helps these Hutu soldiers lay down their weapons and return to their native Rwanda with their families.

These wars between rival armed groups have caused all sorts of problems for the people, the president of PPR tells us. Many people have died, women have been raped and the environment pillaged. He says that one result is that, even though the land itself is rich, the people here are poor.

Many military efforts in response to the violence in the region have failed. But PPR has begun a new kind of effort that doesn’t involve guns, tanks or helicopters.

The militia groups and their families have become a part of the communities where they are located. PPR has appointed people who serve as “animators” throughout eastern Congo who reach out to community leaders, combatants and refugees alike. Each animator works with the pastors in the community. When the militarized groups begin training in a particular area, community leaders are notified and a united front can often discourage violence from occurring.

ECC leaders tell me they believe they are called to be peacemakers. Bulambo Lembelembe, PPR director, says that MCC workers have courageously stood with them, taking risks and accompanying them, helping convince the Rwandan militia groups that is safe enough to return to their native Rwanda.

To date, more than 1,500 former soldiers have returned to Rwanda with their families, a total of more than 20,000 people. The churches have made this work possible, Lembelembe tells us. He says the armed groups trust PPR and so does the government. They still have a lot of work to do because almost 200,000 former Rwandan soldiers and their families remain in eastern Congo.

Lembelembe says that every person is created in God’s image. He believes that the church is called to live out the social Gospel. “Christ teaches us to love everyone, even our enemies,” Lembelembe tells us. 

Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. He was in eastern Congo in late April.