Category Archives: Congo

Hope that Won’t Die

IMG_3796Samson Muvunyi with Bob Morikawa and Corey Chin of Plant With Purpose

I had just spent two days on an airplane from San Diego, when Samson and Birori met us in Kamembe, Rwanda, so I wasn’t in a very chatty mood. However, about 30 minutes into the 3-hour drive to Uvira, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I began to realize that the story Samson was telling was extraordinary. Too late, I began to really pay attention.

Samson’s humility was disarming, but as I listened, my jaw began to drop. The narrative was too improbable. It began with prayer, was marked with unbearable tragedy, and exhibited a hope that wouldn’t be quenched.

I had always intended to get him to recount it again, when I was rested and had my notebook out. Sadly, that will never happen.

I will try to do it justice here, knowing that all of the details may not be right.

Back in the late 1990’s as the Rwandan genocide spilled over into what was then Zaire and led to civil war, Samson, a young pastor from the Assemblies of God, coordinated or was part of a fervent prayer effort for peace and reconciliation. In September 1997, after the fall of Mobutu and the founding of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he organized a massive celebration, prayer gathering and outreach in the remote community of Minembwe, where he was from and where there had been tremendous violence.

The journey overland is difficult, so many of the guests were to be flown in. At the last minute, Samson gave up his seat on the first plane to one of his speakers. Tragically, that plane with all of the guests and VIPs crashed, killing everyone aboard. The 22 passengers included the respected local director of Food for the Hungry, who was to have been the keynote speaker.

That tragedy and its aftermath led to the formation of Eben-Ezer Ministry International, with Samson as its director. Eben-Ezer was created to promote peace and reconciliation amongst the various tribes and share Christ’s love with all regardless of gender or ethnicity.

We first crossed paths with Eben-Ezer in 2008 when Plant With Purpose began working in neighboring Burundi. Lazare Sebiteriko, our founding director in Burundi, and longtime General Secretary of Eben-Ezer made the initial introduction.

In 2011 we were horrified to hear that a group of senior staff from Eben-Ezer were ambushed by Mai Mai guerillas on the road to the high plateau to work with the schools they were shepherding. Six of them were brutally murdered for nothing other than their ethnicity and efforts to bring reconciliation. The Guardian ran this story on the incident.

But hope did not die that day. Many organizations would have given up at this point, but this only seemed to strengthen Samson’s resolve and the commitment of his team. Even though guerrillas again attacked them only a few months later, they continued to serve and love villagers of all tribes.

Three years ago, when Plant With Purpose wanted to begin work in Congo, we established a formal partnership with Eben-Ezer Ministry. Although Birori Dieudonne directs the work of our pilot project in the Kakumba watershed, Eben-Ezer provides the legal structure locally. Samson has long been Birori’s mentor and boss.

Over the last thirty years, I have been privileged to meet some very remarkable people; people whom God has used in extraordinary ways. They include Don Solomon Hernandez, in Guatemala, Pere Wilfrid Albert in Haiti, and Sundar Thapa in Nepal. Heroes that have inspired me. Their examples of faith, love, sacrifice and courage have greatly strengthened my own faith. I realized that day on the drive to Uvira that Samson Muvunyi belonged on this list.

Later on that trip as we walked up the Kakumba watershed together, I got to know Samson even better. This was a walk that he did frequently, continuing on for days to minister to people who were even further from the roads. Sometimes he would spend a week or more on foot, traveling from village to village, despite danger from guerrillas and bandits.

In June 2017 he completed an 8-day reconciliation walk. On his way back to Uvira, he had two alternative paths. Things were tense near Uvira, so he prayed about which path to take, and then, against the advice of many, he took the more remote path. That same day on the other path, a community that he would have visited was attacked and four people were killed.

Unfortunately in early July he was diagnosed with a severe case of malaria, complicated by his diabetes. We got the word that he was in critical condition and to please pray. Just a few days later it looked like he was improving, but sadly on July 15th, Samson was received into the arms of his savior.

Despite his incredible accomplishments for God’s kingdom, Samson was only 57, and leaves behind a young family, and many people who depended on him, including several orphans that he had been supporting, and assisting with school fees. He also leaves a huge hole in Eben-Ezer Ministry and by extension in our work in Kakumba. But hope has not died. It is my prayer that once again, God will bring redemption out of tragedy.

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Filed under Congo, reconciliation

Standing in the Need of Prayer

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Members of the prayer group in Uvira

I am sad to admit that I am not always very spiritually sensitive. As a result, prayer often gets neglected. Cathi Lundy, who served as our board chair for a number of years, was of great assistance in this regard, always remembering to bring prayer into our meetings and planning.

However, over the years, as visits to the field have become more routine, prayer has often been forgotten. Every once in awhile, when our church sends out a short-term team to another ministry and supporting prayer teams are organized, I feel a sense of conviction, and remember how important that preparation was to my early travel.

As I wrote last week, my recent trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo was one of the most amazing trips I have taken in years. It is probably no coincidence that prayer played a big part in the trip preparation.

It wasn’t particularly part of my preparation. But when I arrived in Congo, Birori, our local director, told me that a group had been praying for our visit for weeks. The last night we were in Congo, he invited us to his home for dinner and to meet his wife and the prayer team.

As we were introduced, he explained to us that they were neighbors from many churches that he had gathered around him nearly a year ago, when he was first considering the position with Plant With Purpose. They had prayed for him and for the pilot project, and then the communities we would be working in. They had prayed for safety for the staff and for openness on the part of the villagers. They prayed for the success of the savings groups and farm experiments. Once Birori began working with us, they began to pray for the other countries and projects as well. On a monthly basis they had received prayer requests from Haiti, the Dominican Republic and other Plant With Purpose partners, and spent time together in fervent prayer for these brothers and sisters whom they had never met.

When they learned of our planned visit, they began to pray for the trip and for the safety and health of each of the four of us, by name. One young man, who works as the night watchman at the local office, had spent an entire day fasting and praying for the trip before we arrived.

After an expansive dinner with the group, we closed our time together with prayer and worship (which includes both singing and dancing). They assured us that they would continue praying for Plant With Purpose Congo and for all our partners. They also stressed that their prayers were not just for our existing programs but also that we would grow to serve many more countries. As we walked back to the guesthouse, I was filled with gratitude and challenged to examine the role of prayer in my own life and ministry.

By the way, if you are interested in joining us, we send out a monthly prayer letter with input gathered from our office and from all seven of our partners. We set aside part of the first Friday of each month in every office around the world to pray for one another and we would love to have you join us. Just email us at info@plantwithpurpose.org and ask for the prayer letter.

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Unexpected Peace

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Our long-time Technical Director, Bob Morikawa and I agreed we had never been on a trip like this one. Combined, we have over forty years of traveling for Plant With Purpose, and quite a few years of trips before that, yet this visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo stood out. It was amazing in every way. I might have thought it was because this was my first trip to the DRC, but Bob had been there four times previously. And it wasn’t just us. Local villagers felt something special was happening as well, saying to one another, “Is this a dream?”

Plant With Purpose has been working in the Kakumba watershed south of Uvira, in South Kivu, since July, offering the transformational Plant With Purpose package: agricultural training, reforestation, savings groups, and Christian outreach focused on empowerment and reconciliation. We have established a total of ten savings groups in four different villages and farmer field schools are working on locally chosen agricultural experiments all over the valley. Fifty thousand trees have been planted and farmer-managed natural regeneration of forest is being taught.

A number of things make Kakumba unique however. The DRC is our first new country program since we refined our watershed approach a few years ago. Focusing on the whole ecological unit has brought together communities that have been linked by conflict as much as geography. Indeed the history of conflict in the region is deeper and more horrible than is easily imagined making reconciliation a key element of our work. Our local partner, with employees and participating pastors from seven different tribes, is a living demonstration of this reconciliation.

A key part of this trip was a multiple day hike from the bottom of the watershed to the top. We would spend the first night at our field office in the town of Gomba near the midpoint, then visit another one of our participating communities before ultimately camping on the edge of the forest at the top of the watershed. As we learned in the baseline study last year, the higher you go in the watershed the poorer and more malnourished people tend to be.

The main “road” linking the top to the bottom is a six-inch wide trail that climbs 6600 feet alongside sheer cliffs and over rocky ledges and until recently, through several unofficial militia checkpoints. When hiking in the US we often curse endless switchbacks, but I quickly grew to miss them, since this road tended toward a much more direct approach.

We had hoped to visit all of our communities with savings groups, and then evaluate ecotourism opportunities in the Kirwa forest, where many of the locals have stories of mountain gorillas. However, it turned out the trip had a far deeper meaning than we had suspected. Community members saw it as a sign of a new day of peace. By the time we reached our campsite in the forest, 46 people were hiking with us, representing six or seven ethnic groups. There were ex-combatants, five village chiefs, government officials, several pastors and four wazungu.

In each community along the way, we were received with joyous welcomes. People would tell us about the changes they were beginning to see through the savings groups and the increased yields from the new farming techniques. Men spontaneously shared how our Biblical teaching on work had inspired them to get out of their houses and begin helping their wives with the farming. “Maybe if we work together we can do something great,” one man told me. And over and over, people remarked on what a miracle it was that such diverse people could sleep in the forest without fear. “Perhaps peace has really come.”

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Filed under Congo, reconciliation, VSLA

Send me to the Congo

KakumbaKakumba Watershed

Tomorrow morning I am off to visit our newest partner in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It will be my first visit, although we have had a team working there since July. Bob Morikawa and Christi Huizenga, from our office, made a number of trips before that, setting things up, conducting baseline studies, and laying the groundwork for what is happening now.

We are working in a small watershed the drains into Lake Tanganyika, south of Uvira in South Kivu. There are a lot of reasons that we chose to begin working there. The high level of need was one of the chief reasons. For example, in our baseline study we learned that 95% of the people in the watershed had gone at least twenty-four hours without eating in the previous month. On average people reported eating 1.3 meals per day.

Other factors in the choice of this area included the extent of the land degradation and the strategic location of the watershed. The existence of an effective local partner who could help to get Plant With Purpose situated and quickly up to speed was also important.

However, the fact that Uvira is so close to Bujumbura, Burundi, where we are also working, initially figured into the equation as well. Unfortunately, the current political situation in Burundi has made that much less convenient, so we will be taking a route that is a bit more convoluted, involving flying into Rwanda, taking a domestic flight across the country and then traveling overland through eastern Congo. These types of multi-day journeys wear on me more than they once did.

Still I am excited, because once there, we will meet Birori, who has been directing our pilot project and go with him to visit the savings groups that are already thriving and to see what the farmers are learning and applying. We know from our experience elsewhere that we should be able to very quickly improve crop yields and nutrition. We will also get to see how our Bible study curriculum is helping to empower the local churches and give people a sense of purpose and hope.

It has been a long time since I have had the opportunity to visit a program for the first time and I feel as excited for this trip as I did for trips 20 years ago.

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