Church acts as bridge between warring tribes in Congo

Tribal conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo have sent hundreds fleeing and left many dead.

The clashes are occurring between the Bashimbi (indigenous tribes also known as pygmies) and the Bantu, said the Rev. Joseph Mulongo Ndala, Mulongo District superintendent for the United Methodist North Katanga Conference.

He has taken 11 members of a displaced family into his home and said church members throughout the region are opening their homes to displaced people.

Mulongo said he has been holding meetings to train people to be peacemakers rather than joining in the fighting.

“It is great joy to see that people have understood the church’s call and are mobilizing to assist with food, etc.,” he said.

“Pygmies are not violent people, they live a nomadic life,” Mulongo explained, but added that the Bantu people, who are the majority, consider Bashimbi to be second-class citizens. According to Congolese history, the Bashimbi were the first occupants of the Congo.

The current conflict, dating from June 2016, began when the Bashimbi revolted against their treatment by the Bantu. “The pygmies are saying the Bantu are taking their land, making farms and imposing taxes. They want to be independent,” Mulongo said.

Bashimbi attacked the city of Manono on Dec. 20, using bows and arrows and killing a number of people. The Bantu responded by killing 18 Bashimbi, including burning three alive, Mulongo reported.

It is now a humanitarian situation because the survivors of the violence are not receiving any aid from anyone outside the country, he said.

In response to a request for aid from North Katanga Episcopal Area Bishop Nikulu Ntanda Ntambo, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries has approved a grant of $10,000 towards holding a peacebuilding and reconciliation seminar with two groups, said the Rev. Mande Muyombo, a director with the mission agency.

Pygmy tribes live in Central Congo, East Congo and North Katanga Episcopal areas of The United Methodist Church. The conflict happening now is in the North Katanga area, said Bishop David K. Yemba, leader for the Central Congo Area.

Gaston Nkulu Ntambo, a United Methodist missionary serving in Central Congo, said the Batembo, another pygmy ethnic group, reside in the triangle between the towns of Kabalo, Kongolo and Nyunzu. They are farmers who work for daily wages, but do not own the land. They, too, are involved in conflict with Bantu.

One major source of conflict is inter-marriage between the Batembo and Bantu. Bantus marry women from the Batembo tribe but forbid Bantu men from marrying anyone from that ethnic group.

“This was the source of all the conflicts and now the conflict has spread all around,” Ntambo said, adding that the Bantu who come in contact with the Batembo are being killed by the Batembo.

“The whole situation started more like a tribal conflict,” Ntambo said. He said the conflict was between the Baluba tribe, a Bantu tribe which is also his tribe, and the pygmies.

“They are also moving from village to village, burning it down and stealing whatever they find. The Bantu groups have all abandoned their villages for the nearby major towns as they run from the pygmies,” he said.

Reaching out to tribes

Judith Yanga, communications director of the United Methodist East Congo Episcopal Area, said clashes have been reported in the Abanga community 350 kilometers from the city of Kindu.

United Methodist Bishop Gabriel Yemba Unda, East Congo, has been working to evangelize the indigenous people as well as get them better access to education and health care.

“There are several pygmy sites in our episcopal region: Abanga, Balanga towards Kailo, Kambare towards the territory of Kasongo, Kongolo on the border with Katanga and more than 360 kilometers from the city of Kisangani to the province of Ituri,” Yanga said.

Because of the work of The United Methodist Church already underway, church leaders have been contacted by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to collaborate in aiding the tribes, Yanga reported.

Peace talks

A peace and reconciliation meeting was held Nov. 24-28 in Nyunzu, a district of the Tanganyika Conference in Central Congo. Nyunzu is located at the junction of five territories: Manono, Ankoro, Kongolo, Kabalo and Kiyambi.

The Rev. Betty Kazadi Musau, secretary of the Central Congo Conference and health board chair of the North Katanga Conference, said there are more than 12,000 displaced people in the area. She has been working to bring together United Methodist women from the Tanganyika conference with the indigenous people to dialogue about peace. They have met together for meals for the first time, she said.

“Now, every week, United Methodist Women call and update me about tribe members who attended the workshop and have become members of the United Methodist church in Nyunzu,” she said. They are learning sewing and knitting skills.

“The United Methodist women shared that if people are busy with their jobs for family subsistence, they will prevent and reduce conflict and manipulation by politicians,” she said.

Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].


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