Photo Courtesy of Rev. Joseph Mulongo
Congolese residents displaced by armed conflict between ethnic factions shelter in a church in Manono, Democratic Republic of Congo.
An intense effort is under way by United Methodists in southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanganyika to halt recent violence between two warring ethnic groups and build peace and community between the factions.
Thousands of people in and around Manono, DR Congo, have been killed, injured or displaced because of armed clashes between two ethnic groups, the majority Bantu and the minority Bashimbi (also known as Pygmy, considered a derogatory term).
United Methodists are caught directly in the conflict, both as victims and as caregivers and peacemakers, said the Rev. Joseph Mulongo, superintendent of the Mulongo District of the North Katanga Annual Conference, where much of the fighting has occurred.
On Jan. 12, the Mulongo District leadership asked the superintendent to meet with local officials regarding government plans to help victims of the violence and to begin peacemaking efforts.
“Sixteen of the 20 members at the meeting have a displaced family,” Rev. Mulongo said in an email. [District board member] Melanie Lwangu said, ‘We will continue welcoming our brothers and sisters because we were received in such situation[s].’ I am glad to see that our people have heard the call of hosting displaced from Manono.”
Rev. Mulongo also spoke on Jan. 12 to 47 nursing students in the town of Mulongo, a regional hub for medical training.
“I told them about what was going on to Manono and how crucial it was,” he said. “I asked the students to be kind with all those coming [from Manono for medical treatment]. I asked the students not to become involved in the militia movement, and to try to make others understand that we are called to build peace.
“The church is engaged to spread a message of peace and reconciliation to all the communities.”
Base Map Courtesy of Nations Online
This map shows the location of recent ethnic violence in and around Manono, Democratic Republic of Congo. The inset map shows DR Congo's location on the African continent.
Discrimination fuels violence
The latest major incident occurred Dec. 20 when a Bashimbi militia attacked Manono, a main town on the western bank of the Lukushi, a tributary of the Luvua River in the Tanganyika Province of DR Congo. The two groups encounter each other there regularly, since Manono, a river port, provides supplies for both bush-dwelling Bashimbi and Bantu farmers.
The Dec. 20 attack resulted in six deaths and 150 people wounded, according to a report from Reuters news agency. Another attack happened Jan. 6 in the village of Piana Mwanga, where reports differ regarding the number of deaths and injuries, according to PressTV. Local government officials put the death toll at 15, with some 37 people wounded, but a civic leader, Modeste Kubali, said 17 people were dead and 47 villagers wounded. Some 65 homes were reportedly torched.
“The village has been emptied of its population and the injured have been abandoned to their sad fate,” Mr. Kubali was quoted by PressTV.
Rev. Mulongo told United Methodist Insight via email that church members and some pastors are still missing after the most recent incidents. People are sheltering in churches and local schools, afraid to go to their own homes.
“According to the health zone statistics, we have 1,779 displaced families, 2,180 men, 2,252 women, 3,664 boys and 3,662 girls, a total of 11,718 [people],” Rev. Mulongo said in his email.
“When Bashimbi attacked [Manono], the police, UN peacekeeping troops and the army were in [the town],” said Rev. Mulongo. “None of them could stop the killing. In response to the attack, the Bantu killed 18 Bashimbi; three were burned.”
Nomads battle farmers
Recent attacks are the latest flare-ups in generations of conflict between the two ethnic groups. “The situation we have is an intercommunity conflict between the Bashimbi and the Bantu,” Rev. Mulongo said in his email.
“According to the Congolese history taught at school, it is said that the Bashimbi were the first occupants of the Congo,” Rev. Mulongo explained. “In the Katanga province, the Bashimbi are found in Manono, Nyunzu, Ankoro, and Kabalo. [In their own lifestyle], the Bashimbi are not violent; they have a nomadic life. Most of the time they depend on the Bantu people for most of their needs.”
“Manono. Nyunzu and Kabalo are agricultural territory. As Bashimbi live in the bush, the Bantu cannot go to harvest in their farms. Being hunters, the Bashimbi are attacking the Bantu with fleche [bows and arrows]. [The Bantu] are killed.”
Wikipedia confirms long-standing conflict between Bashimbi and Bantu: “Historically, the Bashimbi have always been viewed as inferior by both colonial authorities and the village-dwelling Bantu tribes. This has translated into systematic discrimination. … Bashimbi are often evicted from their land and given the lowest paying jobs. At a state level, Bashimbi are not considered citizens by most African states and are refused identity cards, deeds to land, health care and proper schooling.”
Rev. Mulongo said that the system of discrimination has been so ingrained into Congolese society that even simple gestures of hospitality are rebuffed. He explained: “The Bantu consider the Bashimbi to be [second class] citizens. The Bashimbi [also] consider themselves to be second [class]. I invited one Bashimbi to share food at the same table, but he didn't accept.”
News reports say ethnic clashes have troubled eastern DR Congo since 2013. Rev. Mulongo said the latest round of armed violence started in June 2016 in the Nyunzu area, with the Bashimbi rebelling against Bantu discrimination.
“They [the Bashimbi] are claiming to be the owner of the Nyunzu area and do not want to be under Bantu control anymore,” Rev. Mulongo said. “[The Bashimbi] want to be considered by the Bantu as equal to them. They say, ‘Why do the Bantu people take our girls in marriage and do not [allow] us to take theirs?’ The Bashimbi are saying, ‘The Bantu are taking our land, making farms and … imposing taxes.’ The Bashimbi say, ‘We want to be independent. We want to be chief in their supposed territory.’”
Bishop Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda (North Katanga Conference) has requested aid from the General Board of Global Ministries and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), according to Rev. Mulongo. The Rev. Dr. Mande Muyombo, Global Ministries’ executive director of Global Mission Connections, responding to United Methodist Insight’s inquiry about the status of the GBGM request.
“Global Ministries has just approved a grant of $10,000 towards a Peace-building and Reconciliation Seminar between the [Bashimbis] and the Bantus in the Tanganyika Annual Conference in the North Katanga Episcopal Area,” Dr. Muyombo said in an email. “These funds will be disbursed … in the next few days so that they can implement this very important seminar.”
Dr. Muyombo said that Bishop Ntambo “continues to be in conversation with key partners, seeking to respond to the needs of communities that have been affected by this crisis.”
Meanwhile, the UMCOR request is reportedly still moving through its application process.
In order to speed relief to the region, the Rev. Bob Walters of Friendly Planet Missiology said his independent mission will dedicate donations received in January to help the victims of Bashimbi-Bantu violence. Friendly Planet Missiology is an Advance Special project of the Indiana Annual Conference. Rev. Mulongo said immediate needs include food, cooking utensils, and medicine.
United Methodists in Indiana may donate through their churches or via the Friendly Planet Missiology website. Those outside Indiana may donate online or send checks to Friendly Planet Missiology, 402 East Main Street, Plainfield, IN 46168.
Cynthia B. Astle serves as Editor and Founder of United Methodist Insight.