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. 

A spirit of generosity

We can hear the children singing as we park our vehicle at the road’s edge. Looking down the hill, the sight is unbelievable. Hundreds of children are standing in the courtyard of the school, singing to welcome our arrival.

The Mubimbi school in the North Kivu province of eastern Congo is just down the road from a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) where MCC is working. MCC sponsors 120 school children from the IDP camp to attend this school.  

In front of their teachers and fellow students, some of the IDP school children sing poems to us – MCC is the one who gives us rulers and pens and pays our school fees, they sing. The principal tells us that there is now no difference in academic performance between the children from town and the children from the camp.  

Later, we visit the IDP camp itself. More than 300 families call this camp home. The homes which they fled from six years ago are two days walk away. One woman told us that she has tried to return to her village three times but had to return to the camp because the armed groups are still there and it is still not safe to return home.

MCC has helped these families to rent fields nearby to plant their own crops. MCC provides seeds, tools for cultivation, agricultural training and a three month food supplement for each family until harvest time. The goal is not only to help these families grow their own food, but for the families to save enough seeds for the next planting so that the families can begin providing their own food.  

There are millions of Rwandan refugees and internally displaced Congolese in eastern Congo, but just a small portion of them are in camps like this one in Mubimbi. The large majority of Congolese who have been displaced from their homes are living with host families.  Responding to this reality, MCC has begun a program that benefits both the IDP families and their hosts.

In Bweremana, a farmer of a host family shows us his field of crops and tells us he anticipates a bountiful harvest, enough to provide seeds to plant next year. MCC rented the field for him and the IDP family he is hosting. He tells us he invited another family into his home, even though his house was already full, because the family needed help, and you just can’t simply leave people outside.  

This farmer’s experience will be multiplied many times over. Five hundred couples of host and IDP families are receiving rented land to cultivate, and five hundred more in six months. A spirit of generosity among host families is being rewarded.

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

A home that receives no blessing

Shasha camp for internally displaced people in eastern Congo                 

On the shore of Lake Kivu in eastern Congo, it is difficult to miss the blue tarps that cover many of the small temporary huts in the Shasha camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). The tarps are new one-year tarps that MCC has given the 198 families who have called this camp home for the last six years.

Eastern Congo is unstable, perhaps because the government lacks both the will and capacity to control the dozens of armed groups, both Rwandan and Congolese, that have roamed the countryside since the genocide in neighboring Rwanda 20 years ago this month. There are millions of Congolese internally displaced in eastern Congo. A smaller number of Rwandese are also refugees here.

The Shasha camp is much smaller than the other IDP camps nearby. The camp is populated by the Batwa, a Pygmy group, who once lived in the hills about a 15-hour walk from here before they were routed from their homes by one of the armed groups. They have chosen to camp here, rather than in one of the larger camps, because they are regularly discriminated against by other IDPs.  

This is the kind of group MCC works with, MCC service worker Michael Sharp tells me, because MCC is a smaller organization and can see what larger agencies sometimes overlook. We meet with the elders in this camp who thank MCC for providing the tarps and some food and for helping to send their children to school. You are the only ones who have helped us, they tell us.

The men and women we meet in the camp hope that they can one day return to their land, but they know, for the present, the armed groups are still there. Land ownership issues further complicate the picture. Some of their community members felt forced into joining the armed groups to protect the land that was sold out from under them.

The camp elders thank us as we leave, for caring enough to come and see. A home that receives no visitors, receives no blessing, one of the elder tells us. By being with the Batwa community, we are sure we have received a blessing this day. 

Ron Byler is executive Director for Mennonite Central Committee U.S. He was in eastern Congo in late April 2014