Congo Leads Way in Response to COVID-19

On May 20 – 21 Congo’s Protestant denominations convened an interfaith conference to discuss religious practices and prevention of the spread of COVID-19. Members of the Church of Christ of Congo were joined by Catholics, Kimbanguists, Muslims and Orthodox leaders to share strategies. (Photo by Bryan Parrish, Mission Co-Worker with Disciples of Christ of Congo)

“With health systems in even high-income countries still at risk of being overwhelmed by the pandemic, leaders would do well to heed the example of the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo).”  This was the conclusion of the World Health Organization’s director general in a Guardian article announcing the end of the latest Ebola outbreak in Congo. Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus used the June 25 announcement to notify governments and health agencies of what measures were behind Congo’s success in turning back Ebola.  “The Congolese people ended a devastating outbreak through an unshakeable commitment to science, data and community, and with international solidarity.”

The Congolese have benefited from the learnings and improvements in health infrastructure gained in stemming spread of Ebola in their response to the COVID virus.  The latest WHO statistics on COVID in Congo speak for themselves:  in a population of 90 million people there have been 11,052 cases and 303 deaths.  These figures are way below those of other Central African countries.  In the neighboring Republic of Congo there have been 5,156 total COVID cases with 92 deaths in a country with less than half the population of the DRC.   Rwanda leads the DRC in most measures of economic and infrastructure development but has treated 383 cases per each million persons in its population compared to the DRC figure of 122 cases per million.

The tragically inept and chaotic response of the United States is evident in a comparison of the virus’ spread and mortality rate with the Congo’s (DRC).  There have been 680 deaths in the U.S. per each million persons and 25,538 cases per million in stark contrast to the Congo’s loss of 3 persons per million to the virus and 122 cases per million Congolese.  Even accounting for Congo’s challenges in tracking cases and deaths in remote areas and the country’s faulty data practices, the U.S.-Congo gap in the spread of the virus underlines crucial differences in the countries’ response to COVID.

Perhaps due largely to its experience with other deadly viruses, sub Saharan Africa was quick to respond to COVID.  A March 30 statement by the former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, pointed to the international cooperation and reliance on science as decisive in her country’s battle with the Ebola virus which took 5000 lives during her administration.  Ms. Sirleaf described Liberia’s learnings with these words, “A mass mobilization of resources led by the UN, the World Health Organization, and the US followed. We defeated it together. As a result, today there are effective experimental vaccines and antivirals thanks to the collaboration of the best scientific minds around the world.”  Three months after this statement, the Trump administration declared the U.S. would leave the W.H.O., the only global health agency created by the United Nations.

In summing up Congo’s effective response to the Ebola outbreak in the country’s northeast, also plagued by civil conflict, the W.H.O. director general emphasized the important role of non-governmental actors.  “Engaging communities and influential figures, such as faith leaders and traditional healers, was critical. Communities should be respected as first responders, who can quickly detect cases and collectively work out how to isolate patients, even with minimal resources” Dr. Ghebreyesus wrote.  The example set by the leadership and health staff of the Disciples of Christ of Congo is noteworthy.  In the poorest province of the country, the DCC President Rev. Eliki Bonanga wrote three weeks after the first COVID case was detected on March 10 that the Church committed to “campaigning against COVID-19 through community education on what is COVID-19, how to contain it, how to avoid it, what to do in case the community identifies a suspect case.”



Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian President 2005-17, at the Obama White House with leaders from Sierra Leone (l) and Guinea (r) who collaborated with her and the U.S. on defeating the Ebola virus in their countries

The Congo Disciples’ health services have greatly benefited from aid from partner churches in Germany and the U.S.  International aid and cooperation were highlighted in former Liberian President Ms. Sirleaf’s analysis of her country’s success against Ebola. Commenting on Africa’s readiness to combat COVID, Ms. Sirleaf explained, “what most encourages today, is the opening up of expertise and the fact that knowledge, scientific discovery, equipment, medicines and personnel are being shared”.  She concluded her message transmitted by BBC News on March 30 with this eloquent plea, “As we all hunker down in the next few weeks, I pray for the health and well-being of our global citizens, and I ask that everyone remember that our humanity now relies on the essential truth that a life well-lived is a life in the service to others.”

The Global Message of a Congolese Christian

Rev. Dr. Micheline Kamba Kasongo of the Kinshasa Presbyterian Community of the Church of Christ of Congo addresses a recent session of the World Council of Churches (Photo by Peter Williams/WCC 2016)

Having overcome self doubt and social stigmas due to her physical disability, Congolese professor and pastor Rev. Dr. Micheline Kamba Kasongo emerged as a spokesperson for the marginalized in Congo and worldwide as a leader in the World Council of Churches (WCC).  In response to her death in Kinshasa earlier this month, numerous tributes extolling her outspoken advocacy were shared by academic and church leaders in many nations.

Born February 16, 1968 in Kinshasa, with the help of the Congo capital’s Presbyterian Community, she completed college.  In 1998, the Church of Christ of Congo named her one of the Church’s delegates to the Harare Assembly of the WCC.  During that Assembly she joined other attendees with disabilities in creating the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network. This forum enabled the Council’s member churches to enhance ministries with persons with disabilities in their work and that of the WCC.

At the 2013 Assembly of the Council in Korea, she shared the story of her awakening to her potential as a woman in leadership, “My experience as a young lady with disability influenced the most my spiritual life and my calling into the ministry. It was so difficult to be accepted as God’s creation. (…) I attempted many times to commit suicide but I had not succeeded.

One day my sister knew that and she came to me and said ‘my dear sister what you want to do is not a solution of your problems. Pray and ask your God what life means to you as a young lady with a disability and why God likes you to remain like this’. (…) My sister and I spent three days in fasting and praying so that God helps me. That time was really a healing time.

Since that time I have never prayed to God to heal me physically, because, I know as Paul recognized that ‘God’s grace is sufficient for you, His strength is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:10). Then I took courage and I believed in what my sister told me; she was inspired by Holy Spirit and since that time I am accepted as a woman with disability and knew that God had a good plan for me; this was in 1984.

Today, I understand my vocation concerning encouraging those who have physical impairments like me to ‘raise up and walk’ spiritually so that they can be independent, full of life for the transformation of their situation, both in church and society.”

Following her participation in the 1998 Harare Assembly, the Council sponsored Dr. Kamba’s work on her PhD in South Africa. During her PhD studies, she became the coordinator of the WCC’s Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN) for French-speaking Africa and in 2006 she began serving on the WCC Executive Committee.  That same year the Protestant University of the Congo (UPC) named her an Associate Professor in the School of Theology.  In that role, she created the Master’s in Social Transformation at the UPC and helped found a nationwide pastoral ministry for people with disabilities in Congo.

Dr. Kamba in 2006 when appointed to the Faculty of Theology at the Protestant University of the Congo (UPC) in Kinshasa

Her Master’s program at the UPC now includes classes in  leadership, human rights and gender violence.  Dr. Kamba described its aims for U.S. supporters of the UPC, “This Master’s program will change how people view their environment.” The Professor and ordained minister continued, “Kinshasa is not disabled-friendly. We must change attitudes towards people with handicaps, because all people have value.”

Dr. Kamba’s design for the Master’s at UPC also aims to change how Congolese and all of us view women and members of minority groups who have been subjugated and suppressed by thought patterns, customs and legislation.  Rev. Dr Kuzipa Nalwamba, WCC program executive for Ecumenical Theological Education described the UPC Masters in Social Transformation as “an admirable demonstration of the deep passion and concern she had for her people”.

The obituary on the WCC web site (https://www.oikoumene.org/en/press-centre/news/wcc-grieves-passing-of-rev-dr-micheline-kamba-kasongo

was made lengthy by the multiple tributes.  “Her voice was essential to our work to bring about justice and peace” the acting head of the WCC, Rev. Dr. Ioan Sauca, wrote about Dr. Kamba. The former general secretary of the WCC, Most Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, also praised her leadership,  “Our dear sister Micheline was a remarkable, brave women contributing to the Church and the ecumenical movement in so many ways”.  Micheline’s PhD chief advisor wrote from South Africa,  “As a student she highlighted a biblical perspective of the challenges of African women living with disabilities.. . The legacy she has left through her writings, sermons and the program she established will outlive her.”

In a paper she wrote for a 2018 WCC Conference on Evangelism, Rev. Dr. Kamba reflected on the Acts passage (Ac3:1-10) which describes the healing of the lame beggar at the temple gate.  Her words conclude the essay’s appeal to view healing of the lame, of ourselves and of society in a more holistic way.

“I speak as a person with a disability who has experienced failed physical healing. I demonstrated in my reflection that physical healing is not the only form of healing in this text, though initially, this story, in the Acts of the Apostles, aimed to supply many signs and miracles performed by the apostles. There are other forms of healing (emotional, social, and psycho-spiritual) that I described above which challenge people with disabilities as well as leaders of the Christian church, who think that when a person with a disability is not healed, he or she is being denied fellowship with God and fellowship with other people

 In conclusion, my reading of this text is as a church leader for effective awareness of the integration of persons with disabilities in church. I should recognize that they need assistance to discover their real identities so they can take leadership in their respective communities for a transformative church.”  When she wrote these words in 2018, Dr. Kamba had become more aware of how her work on behalf of the disabled was also a call to respect the dignity and worth of all members of society.  Her holistic view of healing of the disabled had led her to a vision of how her faith could heal and transform the whole social order.  “Social transformation” was an apt description of what her MA program at the Protestant University of Congo (UPC) prepared students for.

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NOTE: I am indebted to Ms. Linda James, consultant in the Development and Alumni Relations office of the UPC for her assistance in the writing of this post.

The Language of the Lokole Drum

Used for communicating over great distance by Africans for millenia, the
acoustic language of the lokole drumming is losing out to non-African written languages. Photo by Douglas W. Smith

“No consideration of the language of Central Africa would be complete if it neglected the highly developed ‘drum language’ used for purposes of communication from village to village” wrote E.R. Moon, U.S. missionary to Congo in the early twentieth century. Variously referred to by foreigners in Congo as the “talking drum”, “bush telegraph” and other terms, the “lokole” of the Mongo people of the Congo rainforest has served communities in many ways. Moon described its many uses in his book I Saw Congo, “The drum is thus telegraph, radio, telephone, orchestra, religious instrument, all in one. I have even heard men quarrelling by use of drums over a distance of several miles.” By the mid-twentieth century, the “drum language” of African cultures all over the continent was more widely recognized as the African form of “writing” and a transmitter of wisdom and history.

In his 1961 book Muntu, Jahnheinz Jahn affirmed, “Both western and African culture possessed writing, one an alphabetical script, the other a drum script.” Jahn went on to describe the relative advantages of each, “the alphabet can be used to preserve information longer, and the drum script can spread it more quickly.” Summing up the critical place of the drum and drum language in the cultures of West Africa Jahn states, “The official drummers were the historians of Africa”. Like other observers of African social change in the last century, Jahn laments the growing neglect of drum language instruction due to the new focus on learning the Western written script. An ironic testimony to the past importance of the “talking drum” in transmitting the history and wisdom of the ancestors is shared by Jahn in concluding his comments on the “acoustic” record keeping of the lokole. In Cameroun, Jahn notes, children refer to the blackboard as “that black wall where one speaks with the dead”.

It is a curious fact that even for Europeans fluent in the languages of West and Central Africa, interpretation of the drum’s messages has remained a mystery. A U.S. missionary to Congo, John Carrington, who devoted himself to learning drum communication and wrote several books on the topic never perfected his use of the drum language. Although Africans considered Carrington to be a black man reincarnated as a white, they attributed his drumming mistakes to his white upbringing. E.R. Moon, his fellow missionary of an earlier date, simply concluded, “This drum language is quite an enigma to the white man.”

Other Western travelers and expatriate residents of Congo marvel at the many uses and benefits of the lokole while conceding failure to understand how it communicates detailed information. Many writers content themselves with a description of how the drum is made. Moon, the Disciple of Christ builder of churches, schools and hospitals wrote, “(the lokole) is made from a section of a solid hardwood log. It may be two feet in diameter and about six feet in length. A slot an inch and a half or so in width is cut in the top side, running almost the entire length of the section of log. The ends are left solid, and through this one opening the inside is hollowed out. By cleverly shaping the cavity and leaving one lip thicker than the other, the drum is made to give two distinct tones as it is struck alternately on the two lips near the center of the drum.” As for its placement in the Mongo villages of the equatorial rainforest, Moon tells us, “a large drum is always to be found near the chief’s place, and a lesser drum in each section of the village.”

The lokole here began summoning Longa villagers to worship in 1910. Photo by Douglas W Smith

One of the earliest travelers in Congo, the Englishman Herbert Ward, adds that river side villages take their drums to the water’s edge to take advantage of water’s ability to transmit sound a greater distance. Ward also offers the important information, given Congolese rubber’s contribution to the growing automobile industry at the turn of the 20th Century, that the Congolese used the sap from the rubber tree primarily for wrapping the ends of the lokole drum sticks.

Ability of the Congolese to communicate over considerable distances by means of the lokole astounded many long term Western residents in the early twentieth century. In her memoir recounting her Congolese upbringing as the first child born to Disciples of Christ missionary parents, Polly Dye attributes her survival to lokole drumming. Her gravely ill condition was transmitted by drumming one village to the next from the Bolenge mission station to the older, better provisioned Baptist station over three hundred kilometers away. Shortly after the message had been delivered, the necessary treatment was on its way to save the infant Polly.

We will conclude this post by sharing the Congo drumming scene in the 1959 film “The Nun’s Story”. Unfortunately, the clip you will see below does not include the shots of the young men playing two or three lokoles in unison at a Kisangani mission station. You will have to rent the movie to see the entire segment, but the sounds of the drumming and their interpretation accompany the new missionary’s arrival (played by Audrey Hepburn). Go to this link for the brief segment:

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Congo Votes for Change

December 30 polling place in Mbandaka III church school grounds. Mbandaka remained peaceful throughout election day.

The fact there has been an election at all is a victory for and of the people of Congo. They demonstrated. They marched. They were arrested, beaten, shot. Some died and some are still in prison. As a result, the President of the country was forced to stop his efforts to change the constitution and campaign for another term. Then, when he maneuvered to delay them, the marches and the protests continued and he was forced to schedule the elections that just took place.

So regardless of the outcome, that there was an election, not just for President but for provincial and legislative offices as well, is a victory of and for the Congolese people. The December 30, 2018 election is yet another step in the long march of the Congolese toward self rule that began with the 1950’s struggle for independence from Belgium. It continued during thirty plus years of self dealing dictatorship followed by twenty years of plunder of the country’s vast strategic minerals resources by neighboring African countries and their foreign allies who have controlled Congo’s economy since independence. The faith, hope and courage demonstrated by the people over the sixty year long march toward self rule is represented for me by a small, heavily wrinkled woman I met in Congo in 2010.

She had walked over one thousand miles from her homeland in Bunia, Eastern Congo to Mbandaka, Equateur Province, where I met her. She had changed her name to Marie Sauve Vie or Mary “who saves life”. In an attack on her village, she was the only member of her family who survived. In Mbandaka she met the female Disciples of Christ pastor who had organized aid and a support group for women displaced from the East. When a Red Cross boat offered her and the others a return to their homeland she elected not to accept. There was nothing and no one there she wanted to return to. She had been able to survive in Mbandaka through sales of the mats she wove by hand. They are just the right size for doing yoga and remind me of Marie every time I use mine.

Marie Sauve Vie holds grass mats she has made with support of Revde. Madeline Bomboko next to her

The people of Congo will continue their march. They have not reached their destination. There remain many obstacles on the way to achieving a stable, effective government that serves the people. There remain formidable structures of power barring the way to the country’s control of its many, so much sought after resources. But the hope, the strength and the resolute will to live in safety and dignity that carried Marie from Bunia to Mbandaka has already brought change to all of Congo and the people’s long march will continue and bring about more and greater change some day.

The election was not the only victory for the Congolese people in 2018. There was the truth telling sermon of the Protestant pastor before the presidential family and entourage at the beginning of the year. In the packed national Protestant Cathedral, Pastor Francois David Ekofo stepped from his place on the long march to declare it was time for governmental rule that promised true progress and would make the people proud. In October, a Congolese Doctor was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his dedication to healing women horribly violated by the chaos in Eastern Congo. Before the elections, the unified Protestant Church of Christ of Congo leadership joined the Catholic Council of bishops in calling for a fair, transpararent voting process. Forty thousand “observers” were deployed by the Catholic Church to polling places throughout the country. It was the only nationwide oversight, domestic or international, of the electoral process. That it took place without widespread government interference or opposition can also be considered a victory.

There are signs that international pressures on the current administration are also having an effect. The government expelled the Ambassador of the European Union two weeks before the national voting. This move was undoubtedly intended to avoid greater foreign condemnation should the President’s choice of a successor win the election. His chosen, Emmnganuel Ramazani Shadary, former Minister of the Interior, is now on a list of aides who are banned entry to the EU for violating the human rights of their fellow Congolese.

Pre-election polling and initial reports from the polls have former Exxon Mobil executive Martin Fayulu, of the Lamuka Coalition, holding a sizable lead in the Presidential race. M. Fayulu posted to Twitter shortly after the polls closed, “After the three soundings yesterday, I would like to heartily congratulate all my countryfolk for their clear desire for change. We are going to begin a new era, one which will enable our country to regain its dignity and experience prosperity. Let us meditate on Ph 2:13.” The verse cited from Paul’s letter to the Philippians reads, “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure”. M. Fayulu might have also cited the verse from the Book of Revelation often quoted in the first years of Congolese independence, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rv 21:5).

Dr. Mukwege I Presume

We celebrate the co-awarding of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. Denis Mukwege of Panzi Hospital in eastern Congo.  See this blog’s 2016 post on Dr. Mukwege’s call for political change in Congo titled “From ‘Beyond Vietnam’ to Congo 2016” and found below here:

https://lokoleyacongo.wordpress.com/2016/05/01/beyond-vietnam-1967-to-congo-2016/

Congolese Threatened Most by “Country’s Own Security Forces”

Soldiers fire tear gas on protestors following worship in Kinsahsa January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe

“It is sadly apparent that the gravest threat to Congolese civilians comes from the country’s own security forces” declared the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches meeting on the occasion of the ecumenical movement’s 70th Anniversary. Along with welcoming the first visit of Pope Francis to its Geneva headquarters, the World Council singled out for concern and action the DRC as the nation with more displaced persons than any other in Africa due to the “deepening political, human rights and humanitarian crisis and escalating conflict”. In warning against further postponement of the presidential election now scheduled for December, the statement calls “upon the Government of the DRC to stop the killing due to political intolerance” and “to respect fundamental human rights to assembly and to freedom of opinion and expression”.

With over 90 % of the population now professing some form of Christianity, the Congo has the eighth largest number of Christians among the world’s nations. It has more Roman Catholic adherents than any other country in Africa and the Archbishop of Kinshasa, Cardinal Monsengwo, was considered to be a top drawer candidate in the last papal election. The World Council’s June 20 statement notes the significant role of the Catholic Church leadership in designing a process for peaceful, democratic political change while also deploring the firing by Congo security forces “into Catholic church grounds to disrupt peaceful services and processions following Sunday mass”.
The statement provides a comprehensive summary of the worsening crisis in Congo and closes with some calls for action. It is reprinted below in its entirety:

“Solidarity with the People and Churches of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (revised)

1. The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have already suffered so much for so long at the hands of so many self-interested actors from within and from outside the country. A deepening political, human rights and humanitarian crisis and escalating conflict are again afflicting the country and its people.

2. Some 4.5 million people – more than in any other country in Africa – have been displaced from their homes, and tens of thousands of refugees are again fleeing to neighbouring countries. DRC’s neighbours are already hosting approximately 600,000 people who have fled conflicts in the centre and east of the country.

3. More than 13 million Congolese affected by recent violence are in need of emergency assistance, including food, sanitation, shelter, and education – the same level of need as in Syria. The conflict and instability have been accompanied by exceptionally high levels of sexual and gender-based violence, and have entailed particular suffering for people living with disabilities. Well over half of the number of crisisaffected people are children. An estimated 2 million children are at imminent risk of starvation.

4. Despite its great wealth of natural resources, the DRC remains one of the world’s poorest countries due to endemic instability, conflict, corruption, poor governance and unregulated exploitation of its resources. Ten out of 100 children in the DRC die before they reach the age of 5, and more than 40% have stunted growth due to malnutrition

Detail of ironwood sculpture depicting women at the foot of the cross presented by Congo churches to the WCC

5. President Joseph Kabila has stayed in power beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, and elections have been twice postponed on questionable grounds. In the context of this constitutional crisis, dissent and opposition is being brutally repressed, and violence is being fomented in different parts of the country for political ends, particularly in the Djugu territory of Ituri province, the Kasai region, North and South Kivu, and Tanganyika provinces.

6. It is sadly apparent that the gravest threat to Congolese civilians comes from the country’s own security forces. According to the UN human rights office in the DRC, some 1,180 people were extra judicially executed by Congolese “state agents” in 2017, far more than those killed by any of the armed groups, and a threefold increase over two years.

7. Government security forces have even fired into Catholic church grounds to disrupt peaceful services and processions following Sunday mass, killing at least 18 people and wounding and arresting scores of others. Hundreds of opposition leaders, supporters and pro-democracy and human rights activists have been imprisoned, often without charge or access to family members or lawyers, and meetings and demonstrations banned.

8. The Saint Sylvestre Accord, a power-sharing agreement signed on New Year’s Eve 2016 following mediation by the Roman Catholic Church, allowed for President Kabila to remain in power another year beyond the end of his constitutional two-term limit on 19 December 2016, but included a commitment to organize elections by the end of 2017. However, in November 2017 the Electoral Commission (CENI) set 23 December 2018 as the new date for elections, but suggested that numerous “constraints” could result in further postponement.

9. This long-running political crisis is deepening the misery of the people of the DRC, and raising the spectre of increased regional instability with very serious effects for the whole Great Lakes region and beyond.

10. The DRC has been identified as one of the ‘stations’ – or focuses – for the ecumenical movement’s Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. The WCC central committee, meeting in Geneva on 15-21 June 2018, reflecting on the mid-point of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace between the WCC’s 10th and 11th Assemblies, and with deepening alarm and concern for the deteriorating situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

-Calls upon the Government of the DRC to stop the killing due to political intolerance, to protect its citizens from violent attack and harassment by state or non-state actors, and to respect fundamental human rights to assembly and to freedom of opinion and expression;

-Further calls on the Government of the DRC to uphold the constitution and refrain from worsening the crisis and provoking more widespread conflict and violence by further postponement of the elections;

-Appeals to all members of the international community, and particularly the Southern African Development Community, to strengthen their engagement for durable peace, stability, justice, development, and human rights in the DRC;

-Implores that countries and companies engaged in exploiting the natural resources of the DRC respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and the human rights of its people;

-Urges all churches and faith communities of the DRC to work together against politically-motivated violence and incitement to atrocity crimes, for a peaceful and fair election process, and for social and economic justice that provides a foundation for sustainable peace;

-Requests strengthened international ecumenical solidarity with the churches and people of the DRC in the midst of the current severe crisis, and support for their struggle for peace, for justice and for dignity.”

Kabila Regime Confronts the Power of the People and the Church

Priest and protestors January 21 in front of Congo Parliament Building Kinshasa

Pope Francis has called on the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to pray and fast for an end to the growing political instability and decades of conflict in Congo and the South Sudan. In his February 4 prayers on St. Peter’s Square the Pope declared,”I invite all the faithful to a special day of prayer and fasting for peace on February 23, the Friday of the first week of Lent. We will offer it especially for the populations of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and of South Sudan.”

The date selected by the Pope precedes the third nationwide demonstration organized by Congo’s Catholic Lay Committee to end the “dictatorship” of President Kabila. Anticipating a large turn out among Congo’s 40 million Catholics for protests following worship on Sunday February 25, the Pope proclaimed, “Our heavenly Father always listens to his children who cry to him in sorrow and anguish, who ‘heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.’ (Psalm 147:3) I make a heartfelt appeal so that we also listen to this cry and, each one of us in his/her own conscience before God, ask ourselves, ‘What can I do for peace?’

With the potential for violent repression by the Kabila regime of the demonstrators, the Pope also urged non-Catholics to join in prayers on Friday, the 23rd. “I also invite non-Catholic and non-Christian brothers and sisters to join us in this initiative in whatever ways they deem most appropriate”.

Without pledging to join in the prayer vigil and fasting or the nationwide demonstrations, the leading voice of Congo’s 26 million Protestants did respond to the Catholic-organized initiatives. The President of the Church of Christ of Congo (elected last August) Rev. André Bokondua Bo-Likabe addressed the nation’s growing political conflict in opening the meeting of the unified Protestant Church’s Executive Committee. “We are called Protestants because we always protest against what is unjust”, averred the President, who appears to be taking his Church in a new direction in opposing the regime in power. Quoting from Proverbs 29 :2 Rev. Bokondua added, ‘When those committed to justice are in the majority, the people rejoice ; when those who are evil dominate, the people groan.” Reflecting on recent events in Congo, he summarized, “the situation of the Congolese people today is a collective groaning”.

President Rev. André Bokundoa of the Church of Christ of Congo Ph. John Bompengo of Radio Okapi

The Kabila administration now faces the most serious threat to its seventeen year rule. Recognizing that his hold on power is weakening, President Kabila recently held his first ever extensive press conference, made a rambling two and a half hour defense of his rule, and named a new Minister of the Interior to take office five days before the demonstration on February 25. In another move to avoid the example of Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Zuma in South Africa in resigning, the President and administration officials have pledged that the election to replace Kabila will take place in December this year. But the regime’s violation of the December 2016 Saint-Sylvestre agreement terms for organizing elections and the brutal treatment of protestors by security forces loyal to the regime has increased anger and opposition to the government.

Summarizing the administration’s response to the two prior nationwide protests, the Catholic Lay Coordinating Committee has noted “the persistence of its arrogance, of its scorn and uncaring attitude. In brief”, the Committee went on, “its categorical refusal to take into serious consideration the protests of an entire nation”. The Committee speaks for the vast majority of Congolese in stating that the people desire “free, democratic elections organized in a transparent and inclusive manner but not fixed and rigged elections which will not bring peace either before or after the elections are held”.

In what can be seen as an additional move by the Pope this month to strengthen the position of the Catholic Church in Congo, an assistant and successor to the Archbishop of Kinshasa Cardinal Monsengwo has been appointed by the Vatican. Twenty years younger than the current Archbishop, an outspoken, severe critic of the regime, the Archbishop of Mbandaka-Bikoro in Equator Province Fridolin Ambongo helped negotiate the Saint Sylvestre agreement with the administration. Archbishop Ambongo still serves as Vice President of Congo’s Conference of Bishops which issued a statement last week defending the rights of peaceful protestors. The Bishops endorsed the struggle for “a lawful State in the Congo” and encouraged the population to “remain steadfast and vigilant in taking its destiny in its hands with prayer and initiatives to block peacefully all attempts to seize power by non democratic and unconstitutional means.”

Congo Protestant Pastor Speaks Truth to Power

Protestant Centennial Cathedral filled with the power elite to commemorate assassination of President Kabila’s father 16 years ago. John Bompengo

On January 16, the highest officials of the government and members of President Kabila’s family heard the pastor of the Protestant national cathedral in Kinshasa call for dramatic change in rule of the country . In a stunning reversal of the Church of Christ of Congo’s (ECC’s) prior support of the regime in power, Pastor Francois David Ekofo lamented the deplorable conditions and poverty in a nation so rich in natural resources. “I have the impression that the State does not really exist” Pastor Ekofo declared.

“What kind of country are we going to pass on to our children and our grand children?” the preacher asked those gathered to honor the memory of Laurent Désiré Kabila, the current President’s father. “We must bequeath to our children a country in which the State is a reality, a State that is trustworthy, where everyone is equal under the law” the Protestant Bishop proclaimed. “We must bequeath to our children a rich country, a country producing enough food to feed its people. I recognize that there is need to import technology” he continued. “But to spend the limited foreign exchange we have to import what we must have to feed ourselves, that is unacceptable for the Congo.”

The public criticism of the Kabila regime by a leader of the ECC’s sixty plus Protestant denominations signals a stronger Protestant movement under new leadership. Pastor André Bokundoa of the Baptist churches was elected last August as President of the ECC following Rev. Pierre Marini Bodho who had held the post for twenty years. Marini followed the example of the Disciple Pastor Jean Bokeleale who as leader of the Protestant denominations founded during the early days of the colonial era benefited from his unwavering support of the Mobutu dictatorship. Both the Protestant Centennial Cathedral and the Protestant University of Congo were granted land in the capital’s center by Mobutu. Like Bokeleale, Mobutu was a child of the Equator Province and saw the Protestant Christian minority as a force to counter the majority Catholic Church which emerged as the primary opposition to the dictator’s rule.

The Sunday after Pastor Ekofo’s sermon, Catholic priests in Kinshasa and in several provincial capitals led their parishoners and others into the streets to protest the extended delay in national elections. Since Kabila’s five year term ended in December 2016, the administration has pursued a strategy described by critics as “glissage” or “slipsliding” to prolong administration control of the vast wealth flowing from foreign exploitation of the nation’s resources. The UN reported at least five deaths at the hands of the regime’s security forces in response to the January 21 demonstrations in Kinshasa. Among the over 200 arrests were a dozen priests according to one report.

Peaceful protestors, here in front of a UN peacekeepers’ compound, were met by heavily armed regime security forces for the second time in less than a month

The Catholic Lay Coordinating Committee, headed by three notable Kinshasa based academics, noted that the number of parishes and members participating was larger than the December 31 demonstrations which also were met with bullets. The regime’s response to the growing protest movement has been met by increasingly fiery condemnation by the Archbishop of Kinshasa, Cardinal Monsengwo. “How can someone kill men, women and children, young and old while they are singing hymns, carrying Bibles, rosaries and crucifix?” the leading voice of the opposition asked.

In a country where education, health and community development services are largely organized and carried out by Catholic and Protestant churches, and where the civil society institutions are relatively weak, it is not surprising that church leaders have assumed the role of spokespersons for the masses of people. That a high profile Protestant pastor in Kinshasa has joined in calling for regime change is another sign that the Kabila administration’s hold on power is weakening. Impatience with the regime and its severe repression of dissent have resulted in more calls for immediate departure of the President and an interim government to take over and oversee preparations for the Presidential election.

Churches Commit to Congolese Development Process

Back yard processing of palm oil in village of Ikengo. Until gifting of Congo’s palm oil plantations to administration cronies in the 70’s, the country was one of the world’s leading producers.

Where is a church digging wells for clean water, organizing microcredit loan programs, educating the community in AIDS prevention, and training women and youth in productive, profitable agriculture? Why in the Congo of course where the role of the State in the economic and social development process has been limited to non existent in the fifty seven years since it became a new nation in 1960. Those who are disturbed about government involvement in the economy and even basic services in the U.S. might consider the effects of a “hands off”/”laissez faire” approach to governance in the Congo. One of the richest countries on earth in terms of natural resources ranks 176 out of 185 nations in the world in the most recent UN Human Development Index. The UN development study further figures that 77 per cent of the Congolese population live on the equivalent of less than $1.90 a day.
As a newly “autonomous”, self governing and self sustaining church body in 1965, the Disciples of Christ of the Congo included in its mission the economic and social development of its primarily rural membership in the poorest province of the country. Cattle raising in the fields of the Church’s first mission station, a youth agricultural training farm in the village of Ikengo, a cement block and sand dredging small business, training in sewing and tailoring had all been started and were managed by church staff and volunteers by the late 1960’s. In the early 70’s the Disciples churches had changed the landscape of the provincial capital Mbandaka with the house building program in the Bokatola quarter of the city. With the assistance of missionary couple Millard and Linda Fuller, over one hundred new houses were built using the “sweat equity” approach that became Habitat for Humanity in the U.S. and world wide.
A recent article by the Disciples Church’s Director of Communications updates us on more recent development projects and emphases of the Church’s Development Department. (read the article and others in French at http://natana.tumblr.com/ ) M. Nathan Weteto reports that the former Director of the Ikengo Agricultural Training Center M. Celestin Engelemba now serves as Director of the Department. Assisted by advisors M. Desiré Safari and Disciples missionary Paul Turner, M. Engelemba’s success in restoring and growing the training at Ikengo in the early 2000’s is likely to be duplicated across the vast reach of the Disciples’ churches.
What follows is a photo display depicting some of the current development programs of the Disciples of Christ in Congo. It should also be noted that the Disciples’ contributions to economic advance in the communities they serve has been supported by the Development Department of the Church of Christ of Congo. The Disciples are one of over 60 Protestant church bodies or “Communautés” (Communities) making up the union of Protestant churches in the country.

Lights in the Heart of Darkness

The Equateur and Tshuapa Provinces on the map are the heart of Congo's Equatorial Rainforest
The Equateur and Tshuapa Provinces on the map are the heart of Congo’s Equatorial Rainforest

At the end of 2016 two separate investigations revealed the extent to which Congo’s President Joseph Kabila and family have profited from business dealings and bribes during the Kabila administration. In a country where the average daily income was figured to be $1.90 last year, its President has wielded his authority to build a lucrative business empire managed by his wife, his children and siblings. Recently released reports confirm that the “kleptocracy” under Mobutu’s 32 years as the executive head of Congo’s government has been preserved by his young successor.

The first source of evidence of massive corruption focuses on bribes paid out to officials of the Kabila administration. In an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice signed the end of September 2016, the Och-Ziff Capital Management Group corroborated the payment of over $100 million in bribes between 2008 and 2012 to Congolese officials and the U.S. based hedge fund accepted a fine of $413 million for violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Further, the legal document detailing the agreement reports on $10.75 million paid out to a “DRC official 1” who NYU’s Congo Research Group reports is “most likely Joseph Kabila”.

The second source results from extensive research by staff of the Bloomberg News on the Kabila family business holdings in Congo. In the December 2016 article titled “With His Family’s Fortune at Stake, President Kabila Digs In”, three Bloomberg reporters write, “Joseph Kabila and his relatives have built a network of businesses that reaches into every corner of Congo’s economy”. Based on review of court filings, company documents and interviews with Congolese business persons, the Kabila family now own at least 70 companies in Congo.

One of the first actions of the new U.S. Congress was to help hide future deal making by the Congo President and the rest of the Kabila family. Less than two weeks after the Trump inauguration, the House struck down the Cardin Lugar Section 1504 “Transparency Amendment” of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. This means the payments by U.S. companies, such as those made by the hedge fund Och-Ziff, to foreign officials would no longer have to be disclosed. Should the Senate approve repeal of the Cardin Lugar measure aimed at helping protect countries burdened by the “resource curse”, bribery by U.S. multinationals of Congolese officials would remain business as usual.

While doubt rises regarding the Kabila administration’s commitment to the President election agreement of December 31, 2016, we take a tour of one of Congo’s poorest and most remote regions with Théodore Trefon. The tropical rainforest, our earth’s second largest, in Tshuapa and Equateur Provinces is where schools and health clinics maintained and supervised by staff of the Disciples of Christ Community of the Church of Christ of Congo offer the only social services.

With the photos below, we are again led to marvel at the resourcefulness, resilience, strength and beauty of the Congolese people. In spite of mounting evidence of Congo’s rule by a government dedicated to the most abject greed and self dealing, the people carry on their lives in what is one of the richest, most awe inspiring environments on the planet. For 25 years, Trefon has focused his research on Congo and now this U.S. born political scientist works at the Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. The photo gallery below is from pictures displayed at
http://congomasquerade.blogspot.com/
which is also the name of his latest book.

For a larger view of the photos in a slideshow format click on the first picture and scroll horizontally