Breaking the Cycle of Trauma in Congo

A letter from Jeff and Christi Boyd, serving in Congo

December 2017

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Write to Christi Boyd

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“We were sitting around in the village, when suddenly children ran by saying the chief’s sister had been killed. The chief’s supporters came and burned our homes. We then heard gun shots, and saw soldiers chasing people out. Bullets were flying around, and people were killed left and right. Most of our parents were in their fields at the time, farming. So, we joined others who were fleeing, even if they weren’t our family members. We hid in the bush for four days and then walked till we eventually arrived in Kananga. There, the mayor had us detained. We were separated from the adults and put in jail. The judge of the juvenile court then decided to place us here, in this Center. We don’t know where our parents are.”

This composite story is drawn from the accounts of 10 unaccompanied, internally displaced children, aged 8-12, who fled fighting that broke out in the small town of Dibaya last year and has since spread across the Greater Kasai, in the heart of Congo. The relative calm that had long characterized this tranquil buffer between the country’s volatile eastern borderland and the restive political hub in the west was shaken up by a violent sociopolitical conflict around a traditional chief who challenged the central government and was subsequently killed in a confrontation with security forces. The formation of his militia has been entrenched in cultural beliefs and mystical rituals that would supposedly render the fighters’ bodies impenetrable to projectiles. The uprising and ensuing response from government soldiers have resulted in horrendous atrocities prompting calls for a credible, independent investigation.

The cradle of Congolese Presbyterianism (born from the efforts of American Presbyterian mission pioneers who settled on Luebo as their first mission station in 1891), the Greater Kasai and its people were already in the early colonial era subjected to human rights abuses that were publicly exposed and denounced by Presbyterian missionaries. From slave raids and forced labor to the mutilation of children whose parents had failed to meet daily production quotas set by the Belgian King Leopold II for his rubber trade, the traumatic experiences from the past may well have been transferred inter-generationally to haunt Kasaïans in these modern times. Luebo is one of the towns from which the horrors of the recent conflict are only now starting to surface through eyewitness video reports.

The ten displaced children from Dibaya sheltered by the CPC.

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With congregations established throughout the Greater Kasaï, the Presbyterian Church in Congo (CPC) was not spared the impact of the conflict. Jeff and I happened to be in Kananga for a week-long planning event when the violence came to Nganza, a community on the outskirts of town that was gripped by fear. Worried church workers spoke of relatives who had gone missing or were reportedly killed. Workshops stopped early so participants could be home before the imposed curfew, while others played it safe and joined other guests at the crowded Protestant Center where the meetings were held. A few months later, Rev. Sylvain Kazadi, the CPC’s Coordinator for Community Development, shared with me the effects of the violence on his congregation in Nganza, where initially people had taken refuge but subsequently got caught up in confrontations between militia and government forces:

For three weeks, we had no worship service. Ninety percent of the families have taken refuge elsewhere. The remaining people didn’t have anywhere to go. Without choice, they stayed at home. Most members are back now, but found their shops destroyed and their goods stolen, even their livestock. They were already poor before, and now have difficulty feeding their families because of these losses and their depleted stocks. Even their seeds were stolen or have meanwhile been consumed. I have already buried two children because of malnutrition, and two adults who died due to high blood pressure. With my parish, we decided to organize a collection among people in other parts of town. With my friends, we pulled together $600, which allowed us to give just 10 kg of mais flour per family, even if it is insignificant.”

Because he lives with his family in another part of Kananga that was spared the atrocities, Pastor Kazadi was also at the receiving side of those seeking refuge. Overnight, the household in his modest home nearly tripled to 33 people.

While some children were silent witnesses to these events, others were recruited or forced to join as militia members and partake in the atrocities. The experiences of all have left deep wounds of trauma, the pain of which may eventually be expressed in violent behavior towards others or displayed in acts of self-destruction. Without appropriate ways to transform its impact, the burden of trauma may once again be transferred to next generations, with the thus established cycle of violence and trauma imperiling a peaceful future for all in the Greater Kasaï.

When a couple of years ago the Protestant Council of Churches in Congo (ECC) launched the Healing Hearts ministries in East Congo to heal children’s wounds of trauma, no one could have fathomed that the Council would seek to expand the ministry to the Greater Kasaï. With a holistic approach to help children understand the impact of trauma on their feelings, and to equip them to better deal with their emotions, the 10-lesson Healing Hearts curriculum grounds conventional principles of trauma-healing for children in the Christian faith, and weaves practical exercises, crafts and games into a framework of biblical and real-life stories. In a first series of two eight-day training sessions that each included a five-day children’s camp, the ECC collaborated with the Congolese Bible Society to prepare 30 Healing Hearts facilitators from five synods in Eastern Congo — representing 12 Protestant denominations — most of whom are now certified to train new facilitators in their own synods in the East. In light of the recent conflict in the Greater Kasaï, the ECC is urgently seeking to hold the second series of two eight-day training seminars there in efforts to prepare and certify Kasaïan Healing Hearts facilitators for the ministry so that it can permeate the areas most affected by the violence.

The ECC’s Healing Hearts program is an ecumenical reconciliation initiative to end the cycle of trauma in Congo. The successful launch of this ministry in East Congo was possible thanks to its warm embrace by Presbyterian Healing Hearts champions in the US, and the faithful sustenance of our mission service by congregations and individuals. It is our hope that the stories we shared during the past six months of our Interpretation Assignment will encourage them to continue walking with our mission partners and with us, and will inspire others who haven’t done so to join the efforts. I would like to use this opportunity to make a special plea for your help in launching the Healing Hearts ministries in the Greater Kasaï through making a gift to Healing Hearts online at pcusa.org/donate/e052171/ or by check to E052171 ECC Department of Women and Families.
Blessings and Peace,
Christi


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