A vision of peace: Stories from the Democratic Republic of the Congo
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — The sun rises in the Congolese village of Ditalala, and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee fills the air. For generations, the people of this village have been drinking coffee, which they grow themselves, before heading out to work on their farms.
Over the past few years, this morning tradition has come to take on a deeper significance. Many families in the village have been inviting their neighbors to join them for coffee and prayers before starting the day.
“They’ve transformed that simple act of having a cup of coffee in the morning,” says a recent visitor to Ditalala, reflecting on her experience. “It was truly a community-building activity. Friends from the neighboring houses would gather while the coffee was being made, say prayers together, then share the coffee while laughing and discussing the issues of the community. There was a sense of true unity.”
The central African nation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has experienced, for over a century, a series of violent struggles. The most recent war from 1998–2002 is estimated to have claimed over 5.4 million lives, making it the world’s deadliest crisis since World War II. For the last two years, it has been the country with the highest number of people displaced by conflict—according to the United Nations, approximately 1.7 million Congolese fled their homes due to insecurity in the first six months of 2017 alone.
Yet, there are communities throughout the country that are learning to transcend the traditional barriers that divide people. Inspired by Baha’u’llah’s teachings, they are striving for progress both material and spiritual in nature. They are concerned with the practical dimensions of life, as well as with the qualities of a flourishing community like justice, connectedness, unity, and access to knowledge.
“What we are learning is that when there are spaces to come together and discuss the teachings of Baha’u’llah in relation to the challenges facing their community, people will come and consult about what we can do together to find solutions to our problems,” reflects Izzat Mionda Abumba, who has been working for many years with educational programs for children and youth.
“When everyone is given access to these spaces, there is nothing that separates us—it’s no longer about who are Baha'is and who are not Baha'is. We are all reading these writings and in discussing them we find the paths to the solutions for whatever we are doing. Inspiration comes from these writings and directives,” he says.
The story of this country is a remarkable one. The process which is unfolding seeks to foster collaboration and build capacity within all people—regardless of religious background, ethnicity, race, gender, or social status—to arise and contribute to the advancement of civilization. Among the confusion, distrust, and obscurity present in the world today, these burgeoning communities in the DRC are hopeful examples of humanity’s capacity to bring about profound social transformation.
A path to collective prosperity
The village of Walungu is in South Kivu, a province on the eastern side of the country, bordering Rwanda and Burundi. In recent years, a spirit of unity and collaboration has become widespread among the people of Walungu. They pray together in different settings, bringing neighbor together with neighbor, irrespective of religious affiliation. This growing devotional character has been complemented by a deep commitment to serving the common good.
At the heart of Walungu’s transformation has been the dedication of the village to the intellectual and spiritual development of the children.
Walungu is a remote area of the country. Years ago, the community was not satisfied with the state of formal education available for their children. In response, a group of parents and teachers established a school in the village with the assistance of a Baha'i-inspired organization that provides teacher training and promotes the establishment of community-based schools.
Distinct from traditional educational institutions, community schools, such as the one in Walungu, are initiated, supported, and encouraged by the local community. Parents, extended family, other members of the community, and even the children have a deep sense of ownership and responsibility for the functioning of their school.
When the school opened in 2008, it was comprised of only one grade taught by a single teacher. After a year, the community was able to add another grade and employ a second teacher. Gradually, the school grew, adding more students, grades, and teachers. Today, it is a full primary school with over 100 students.
However, the community faced certain challenges as the school began to grow larger. They did not have the funds to pay the teachers a salary or take care of the school. Realizing that something needed to be done to support the school financially, they called a meeting with all the parents and others involved. At the meeting, the director of the school suggested that he could teach them how to weave baskets, and that if they could sell the baskets in the market they would have some funds that could be used to pay the school fees. Sixty-seven parents signed up, happy at the prospect of learning a new skill and being able to support their children’s education themselves. To this day, all of them are still weaving baskets, which are sold in the markets of the surrounding villages.
Basket-weaving has remained a collective activity—typically, the parents gather to work on them together, sometimes teaching each other new weaving techniques. And these gatherings have become something more. They are a space to talk about spiritual and profound matters as well.
“The women and men are not coming only to weave,” explains Mireille Rehema Lusagila, who is involved in the work of building healthy and vibrant communities. “They begin with a devotional meeting, they read holy writings together. They are improving their literacy, teaching each other how to read and write. The people there have told me that this activity is helping them not only to progress in a material sense but also on a spiritual level.”
Towards unity, youth lead the way
Along the eastern border of the country in the Kivu region, young people are taking ownership of the development of the next generation. In the village of Tuwe Tuwe, there are 15 youth working with some 100 young adolescents and children, helping them to develop a deep appreciation for unity and navigate a crucial stage of their lives.
For several years, youth have been at the vanguard of transformation in this community. In 2013, a group of young Baha'is and their friends returned from a youth conference with a great desire to resolve the tension and hostility between their villages.
“We believe that our villages are capable of...living like the children of one same family.”
— Youth in Tuwe Tuwe
At the conference, the group studied themes essential to a unified community, such as the importance of having noble goals, the idea of spiritual and material prosperity, the role of youth in serving and improving their localities, and how to support each other in undertaking meaningful action.
In reflecting on the experience, Mr. Abumba, who travels often in the region to support Baha'i-inspired educational programs, shares a story about how these young people became a force for unity.
“When these youth returned to their respective communities they saw that hostilities were increasing between their two villages because of conflict over their agricultural fields. The youth asked themselves: ‘what can we do to find a solution and help the adults understand that we should live in harmony?’ And they decided to take action together,” says Mr. Abumba.
“The idea they came up with was to organize a football match involving the youth of both villages and to hold it in a field between the villages, in the hopes that the parents would come and watch. For them, it was not about who would win or lose the match. Their goal was to bring a large number of people from both villages together to the same place and to try to give a message about how to live in unity.”
These young people prepared for the match—they bought a football and created the teams of each village with members of different tribes. Finally, the moment came. Quite a big crowd from both villages turned up because it was a Sunday. Those watching were impressed by the way the youth played for the joy of the game.
“Then at the end of the match, the youth spoke to the crowd,” explains Mr. Abumba. “They said ‘You have seen how we played and how there was no conflict between the youth of one village and the youth of the other village. And we believe that our villages are capable of this, of living like the children of one same family.’ Then the chiefs of the villages took the stage and told those gathered that it was time to turn a new page and start to live and work together.
“In these villages, there are different tribes who are often in conflict,” Mr. Abumba concludes. “The people there are drawing on the teachings of Baha’u’llah to find ways to address these deep-rooted problems. And the Baha'i-inspired educational programs are giving youth in particular a voice to be a force for positive change in their communities.”
A village named ‘Peace’
A remote village in the central part of the country, Ditalala is connected to the closest town by a 25 kilometer path, sometimes travelled on foot, sometimes via off-road vehicle.
Susan Sheper, who has lived in the DRC since the 1980s, recalls that on her first visit to Ditalala 31 years ago, some Baha'is had come to meet her at the train and walk with her on the five-hour journey by foot to the village. “We got off the train and were just enveloped by this group of singing, happy Baha'is, and then they said to us, ‘Can you walk a little bit?’”
And with that Mrs. Sheper was on her way, with an escort of singing Baha'is, walking 25 kilometers through the night.
“It was an extraordinary experience,” Mrs. Sheper recalls, “and they never stopped singing, they would just move from one song to the next. You know, they have that experience of having to walk long distances, and it’s the singing that keeps you going because your feet just move to the rhythm.”
Although at that time there was a vibrant Baha'i community in the village, which used to be called Batwa Ditalala, there were distinct barriers between different groups, including the Baha'is.
“So flash forward 31 years, and I went back to Batwa Ditalala,” says Mrs. Sheper. “And one of the things I learned very quickly was that it was no longer called Batwa Ditalala.”
The term Batwa refers to the Batwa people, who are one of the main “Pygmy” groupings in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They have been marginalized and exploited because of discrimination against them based on their hunter-gatherer way of life and their physical appearance. This has created a complex reality of prejudice and conflict wherever they live in close proximity to settled agricultural populations.
“But today, those barriers have been so broken down by Baha’u’llah’s teachings of oneness and the elimination of prejudice, they no longer call the village Batwa Ditalala. They just call it Ditalala,” Mrs. Sheper explains.
The word ditalala means peace in the local language—and the village itself has been transformed by a vision of peace.
“The people there told me that there used to be very distinct divisions between them in the village, but that because of Baha’u’llah’s teachings they don’t see themselves as different tribes anymore, they see themselves as being united,” Mrs. Sheper relates. “They told me that life is much better when there is no prejudice.”
Baha’u’llah’s teachings have reached almost everyone in Ditalala and their influence is evident in many dimensions of the lives of the population. Today, over 90 percent of the village participates in Baha'i community-building activities, ranging from coffee and prayers in the mornings to spiritual and moral education classes for people of all ages.
Ditalala’s chief often supports the activities of the Baha'i community. He encourages the community to gather for consultation, a central feature of decision-making for Baha'is.
The people have also undertaken a number of endeavors to improve their social and material well-being, including agricultural, maternal healthcare, and clean water projects; constructing a road; and establishing a community school.
A luminous community
Throughout the DRC, tens of thousands of people have responded to the message of Baha’u’llah. The celebrations of the 200th anniversary of His birth in October were extraordinarily widespread—countless numbers participated in the festivities held across the country. It is estimated that as many as 20 million people saw the television broadcast of the national commemoration, attended by prominent government and civil society leaders.
The country has also been designated by the Universal House of Justice as one of two that will have a national Baha'i House of Worship in the coming years.
Amidst all of its recent developments, what stands out so vividly about the community is that it is moving forward together.