In DR Congo (DRC), Bisoke Balikenga is helping women whose lives have been shattered by violence.
BY JENNY MUSCAT, SENIOR EDITORIAL CONTENT PRODUCER
“Seek peace and pursue it.” So we are told in Psalm 34:14 – yet how much do we think about what that means in practice? Rev Bisoke Balikenga is pursuing peace in the most challenging of circumstances in an area of constant conflict.
When N arrived in Bunia, she could not read or write, and was traumatised by the sexual violence she had fled in her village. She resented her parents for not sending her to school and had little self-confidence after spending years unable to make her own decisions or develop practical skills. Yet after coming to the peace centre run by Bisoke and his team, she has found that she is not alone in her suffering, has had trauma counselling, has learned to read and write – and met Jesus. Now she can read her Bible for herself, help to disciple her children and has gained practical skills to earn an income.
Bisoke Balikenga is the provincial youth coordinator for the Anglican Church of the Congo (including DRC and Congo- Brazzaville) – and is Church Mission Society’s longest-standing local partner in Africa. He worked closely with former CMS mission partner Judy Acheson for many years, and took on his current role when she stepped down in 2009.
And if overseeing youth provision (including work with young adults and women) in 12 dioceses spread over an area the size of Western Europe was not enough, Bisoke also helped to set up and continues to run a peace centre near his home town of Bunia, capital of Ituri province in eastern DRC.
DRC is no easy place to work for peace, with a troubled and turbulent history since it became independent – and yet Bisoke’s work is having such an impact that he was recently invited by the governor of Ituri province to discuss ways to help young people and foster peace. Although he was slightly nervous on first being called to see the governor, Bisoke was able to participate in discussions with five others working for peace and reconciliation in Bunia across different faiths.
Place of refuge
Thousands of displaced people from surrounding villages have travelled to the town of Bunia amid violence between militias and rebels. When the CMS team caught up with Bisoke at a CMS-Africa ten-year anniversary celebration last year, he commented, “Maybe – we hope – after the election, then we will have peace.” Sadly, the violence continues. He describes the killing in DRC: “the killing of human beings is like the killing of insects in the forest”.
There were hopes that some of the displaced would be able to go home, but this has not been possible – killing continues in more remote areas, and Bisoke tells us that it is not even safe to travel by car in some places.
It can be deeply discouraging for Bisoke and his colleagues to see violence and trauma continue in DR Congo – and to be left asking the question, “When will we have peace?” There have been UN peacekeepers in DRC for 20 years, and yet killings continue. Bisoke is very aware of the need for collaboration if peace is to be achieved: “the local churches plus the international churches need to work closely with Congolese politicians and the UN as well in order to build a durable peace on the ground.” This awareness of the important role the church can play drives Bisoke to continue to seek God and to see him at work in individual lives even as the wider situation seems bleak.
Rape: a weapon of war
What have Bisoke and his team been doing that has brought about transformation amid such suffering? Bisoke has found working to support women who have experienced the trauma and displacement of war is a key part of seeking peace in his context. This includes offering training, counselling and the seemingly simple step of providing clean water.
Women in Ituri province have much to overcome both in daily life and as a result of ongoing conflict. Women and girls have traditionally not been given the same opportunities as men in terms of education and skills, so they may not be equipped to provide an income for their families or to engage with the Bible as they seek to follow Jesus. During conflict in this region of DRC many women have been raped or sexually abused, with nowhere to heal from this trauma. Indeed, even the basic task of going to fetch water can see women experiencing sexual violence, beatings and theft as they travel several kilometres each way. Compounding this, women who have been raped can be rejected by their families, leaving them to face the trauma alone.
The peace centre, 11km from the town of Bunia and built on land from the Diocese of Boga, is a place of calm and quiet, and of practical, spiritual and emotional support, for women and young people. There are eight staff and two volunteers, all counsellors with different skills – having grown from a team consisting primarily of volunteers. Part of their work is counselling traumatised women and girls – though this is in the face of overwhelming need. Bisoke is very aware that there is much greater demand than the centre can meet, yet their input is transformative for the women they do work with. Many women are also helped by the sheer fact of knowing that they are not alone in their experiences – and so can share with one another without shame.
Just as the town and the area have seen many displaced people in great emotional and physical need, so has the peace centre.
The provision of clean water there makes a dramatic difference for the 20,000 families who have access to it. Importantly, those who come to the peace centre to get water do not have to run the risk of violence as they undertake this routine task – an example of a very practical step with a wider impact.
Women who have fled violence are able to live near to the peace centre – some with relatives, some helped by local families.
They are joined in Bisoke’s programmes by local women – and by some who travel from villages up to 20km away. The local community have welcomed the centre as they see local women are learning there.
It offers a range of practical training – in literacy, discipleship and income generation skills. The core of the training to generate an income is a tailoring programme.
Women begin by learning to sew by hand, then progress to using sewing machines. They also learn to carry out basic repairs to the sewing machines. Despite having to share machines between the trainees, they leave the programme with the skills not only to make clothes, in particular school uniforms, for their families, but also to earn money through sewing. Some of the women stay in the area – others travel back to their villages to put their new skills into action.
The centre has also offered some basic agricultural training, enabling women to grow food on small plots to supplement their family’s meals. In the future Bisoke hopes that the centre will be able to expand into carpentry, hairdressing and computer skills training for women and men. The team also hope to build a house in the grounds of the centre so that there is more space for meetings, counselling and training.
Women leading the way
Offering dignity and empowerment to women is central to the vision of the peace centre – and the effects of their efforts ripple out through the community. Gaining skills in literacy, discipleship and other practical tasks helps women and girls to see their value in God’s sight and gives them hope in Jesus for their future.
As the women are trained, the centre sees how this training affects their families. As well as helping their families by making clothes, Bisoke explains that when women can read the Bible and help disciple the family, read and write letters and use a mobile phone to stay in touch, a new level of development is established in the family. This can also help to strengthen relationships if husbands have to travel, with couples more able to stay in touch once women can send and receive messages by phone.
One woman, Madame Birungi, did not know how to read and write when she first came to the centre. Now, after a year and a half of training at the peace centre, she can read the Bible and use a mobile phone.
Engaging with wider challenges
Alongside the practical training and counselling for women, the centre also works with young people. After a morning in his office, most days Bisoke spends the afternoon helping to run the discipleship, training and sports programmes. Four days per week there is spiritual teaching and prayer from one until four, which currently sees 78 women and 55 boys coming to the centre. After this, there is a sports session each day, and this programme currently has 35 women and 90 boys participating.
These sessions are not just about keeping fit, but rather to offer a space for building community. Bisoke and his team then pray with the young people and the wider community at the centre to finish each day.
And lives are being transformed – with knock-on effects far beyond the centre. One young man who has come to know Jesus through their work was a rebel in Ituri province and participated in theft and sexual violence and has turned his life around. Bisoke longs for more young people to see Jesus and become disciples and peacemakers.
Violence is not the only challenge that the team at the peace centre has been addressing. The spread of Ebola in eastern DRC has limited where Bisoke can travel, in order to avoid areas where there is known infection, and has caused widespread fear. Yet even as this new threat has arisen, Bisoke continues to equip others to work together for change. At a conference for 70 youth leaders in July, Bisoke arranged for doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres to deliver training on reacting to and reducing the spread of Ebola alongside the main programme on discipleship and peacebuilding.
Would you like to support local leaders like Bisoke as they seek to bring God’s transformation in their areas? Church Mission Society is privileged to support more than 70 inspiring men and women through our Global Mission through Local Leaders programme.