Breaking the Cycle of Violence and Poverty
Many corners of the world have seen their share of war and its aftermath, but few have experienced the depths of violence that have taken place over the past 20 years in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2002, The Economist magazine called it “the most miserable place on earth.”1 Confronted by the country’s devastation, one Christian scholar is working to show God’s love and care to the most vulnerable survivors.
Since 1995, when a coup ended Congo’s military dictatorship, the central African country has experienced war, government corruption, economic devastation, and widespread poverty. Between 1998 and 2004, during the Second Congo War, troops from Angola, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Namibia, Chad, and Zimbabwe all converged in Congo,2 along with rebel militias. Roughly 3.8 million people died—most from the starvation and disease that affect the innocent in conflict areas.3
The effects of long-term violence will last for generations, as deaths and injuries have fractured families. The ongoing U.N. mission to Congo is the largest in the world, but it has been criticized for being unable to quell violence from rebel groups. Additionally, 2017 reports on rape and sexual assault by U.N. peacekeeping troops around the world highlight the Congo mission as the center of the scandal.4
Pontien Batibuka is a New Testament and theology professor and director of research at Shalom University in Bunia, the capital of Ituri province. He says the violence in eastern Congo never really ceased.
“Even though we had elections in 2006 that gave legitimacy to the government, they were not able to halt the militia phenomenon that has caused so much suffering to people in eastern Congo,” he says. “They are really destroyers of life. More than 5 million people are estimated to have died, killed by rebel and militia groups. At every corner you meet widows and orphans. Another atrocity has been the rape of women—a lot of our mothers and sisters have undergone this terrible experience. And many who by God’s grace have escaped death and rape, have lost all their belongings, since rebels and militias collect everything when they invade a village. All these evil acts have made people very poor, weak, and subject to all kind of vulnerability.”
In 2010, during an outbreak of violence in eastern Congo, Batibuka was completing his doctoral studies at Middlesex University in London as a scholarship recipient of ScholarLeaders. He rushed home to Bunia to be with his wife and family, but militia checkpoints kept him from reaching his elderly parents living just 20 kilometers away. “I hadn’t seen them for years, and this was my last opportunity for my mother and I to meet in this world,” Batibuka recalls. His mother died before the conflict ended.
Personal distress and fear for his family’s safety was nothing compared to the shock of encountering refugees from the conflict. “People fled the rural areas, piling up along the main road, hoping that there, at least, U.N. troops could protect them. For a whole family, the only shelter was a simple hut made of branches—enough to provide shade from the heat, but no help against the heavy tropical rain that falls often in Congo.”
The displaced people Batibuka encountered had lost their land, crops, and livestock. They needed food and medical care, and many were left traumatized by violence. Batibuka was left pondering the causes of the conflict that had left so many people devastated.
“I realized that vengeance was a major cause. The 20 years that Congo has been in violence, it has been mainly a civil war. Each militia group is linked with a specific tribe. When a group attacks, very often it is against another tribe,” he explains. “Each community has suffered such attacks. As a consequence, young men and women are filled with hatred, ready to wage vengeance against the communities that once made them suffer.”
In 2013, Batibuka founded the Zarephath Program (ZAPRO), with an aim to interrupt the cycle of violence being perpetuated in Congo. The program funds education for children who have
lost a parent to civil wars; it also helps widowed women find employment. Batibuka says the ability to generate income makes a difference in the widow’s own life and in the lives of her children.
“This is to foster independence,” he says. “Here in Congo, widows tend to be people who are vulnerable to abuse (sexually, socially, etc.) due to their lack of something to live on. ZAPRO seeks to liberate them from that danger.”
Through the Zarephath Program, women are able to borrow money to open a stand at the local market or buy a piece of land to farm. They also have access to a cooperative savings account.
The ministry takes its name from the widow of Zarephath, who housed the prophet Elijah after he fled King Ahab (1 Kgs 17:8–24). In describing the program, Batibuka cites Elijah’s message to the widow
—that God will care for her and her son: “Don’t be afraid. … The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry” (17:13–14).
“For our widows, their plight has been imposed by militias who have killed their husbands and plundered all they used to live on. But in both contexts (Zarephath and Congo), God is ever present,” he says. “We usually read the Zarephath story in our gatherings, asking the women to take heart and believe in God’s love and care, shown in the example of Elijah.”
As a seminary professor, Batibuka has a special affinity for the writings of Paul, and his work with ZAPRO is fueled by his understanding of the church’s role in society. “Paul’s writings are an important source for understanding the church and particularly its nature and role, because he is the New Testament writer who has given his attention quite exclusively to ecclesiology,” Batibuka says. “He remains a great source for those who study the role of the Bible in society, because in his letters he is addressing issues of the church as a community.”
In Paul’s exhortations to the first-century church, Batibuka sees clear implications for the church in Congo today. Centuries of slave trading and colonial rule in Congo and other nations have given Africans a dark past to overcome, and Batibuka believes the church is called to help heal the divides in his country.
“From generation to generation, over centuries, people have been suffering, and they continue to suffer,” he says. “Our church is ministering to people who, deeply in their hearts, are broken and bitter, people who are in harsh poverty, people who are alive but without life. Gospel ministry in our continent has to focus on how to address this situation.”
Although tribal and ethnic animosities run deep, Batibuka sees ZAPRO’s care of widows and orphans as the kind of work the church should do to heal societal divides.
“By God’s grace, the time has come for us to raise our eyes to notice his own view of humanity."
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
2 “Congo” refers to the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). A different country called the Republic of Congo is located just to the west.