My heart went out to Ziki. Ten days ago, I saw a special CBS news report on child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Ziki is an eleven-year-old boy who mines cobalt along with 40,000 other children in the Congo. His parents died, so he has to work to support his grandmother and younger siblings. His only dream in life was to go to school.
The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, despite its vast natural resources. The DRC mines over 50% of the world’s cobalt, which is a critical component for electronic devices such as cell phones, lap tops, and electric cars. However, mining cobalt is dangerous, especially for children, many of whom breathe in toxic fumes and perform backbreaking work rather than attend school. Ziki’s only desire was to go to school and receive an education.
The DRC has been in the news lately because of a very serious and ongoing humanitarian crisis. The United Nations Security Council has expressed great concern over the deteriorating political and economic situation, with at least 13.1 million Congolese in need of assistance out of a population of 30 million. More than 7.7 million people are experiencing severe food insecurity. The UN also expressed concern over the extremely high number of internally displaced persons in the DRC. That number has doubled in the last year to more than 4.49 million. There are also more than 714,000 refugees from the DRC who are now living in neighboring countries because of internal fighting.
The strife is not new, however. According to a video produced by Save the Congo!, over 5.4 million Congolese were killed between 1998 and 2008. Save the Congo! is a Congolese-led campaign group that has been working since 2008 to help end the wars that are destroying the country and its people. The video also states that the DRC is the rape capital of the world, with a woman being raped every minute of every day since 1998. Around 1,500 people are killed every day in the DRC by wars, famine, and diseases.
Last Friday, The European Union, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and the Kingdom of the Netherlands co-hosted the DRC Humanitarian Conference in Geneva. $528 million was raised at the conference by international donors to mobilize resources to respond to the crisis in the DRC. Unfortunately, President Joseph Kabila of the DRC refused to participate in the conference, insisting that there is not a humanitarian crisis in Congo at all. Kabila’s mandated two-term limit expired on December 19, 2016, and by refusing to cede power, he is denying the country’s Constitution.
Plans to organize governmental elections have been stalled, and security forces have sought to suppress dissent by human rights activists, journalists, and civilian protestors. Catholic bishops had sought to mediate a power-sharing agreement to hold elections by the end of 2017, but it hasn’t happened yet.
According to news reports, six people died on January 21 in Kinshasa after Congolese security forces used violence to disperse protestors who were demanding that President Kabila step down and that new elections be held. Ahead of the protests, the government also cut internet and SMS services (text messaging) across the country.
The United Methodist Church has a long-standing presence in the DRC, particularly in Katanga Province. There are three million United Methodists in the DRC, more than in any other country in Africa. Since fighting originally erupted in 1999, local United Methodist churches have been involved in the peace process and have assisted refugees from other countries as well as internally displaced persons. The United Methodist Committee on Relief has had an office in the DRC since 2001.
Last week Rev. Kiboko Kiboko, who is a district superintendent in the Iowa Annual Conference and is from the DRC, shared his country’s struggles and told about his brother Vano’s leadership in the midst of the violence. Vano gave me permission to tell his story.
A few years ago, a woman named Ms. Mule was killed trying to protect her land. At the time, Vano, who was a former Congressman and also represented Kiboko’s tribe, the Sanga tribe, and other tribes residing in Kolwezi, took a stand. He pleaded for Congolese to work together and said that whoever was responsible for this woman’s death should be brought to justice. Vano also protested the non-revision of the Constitution by President Kabila.
When a reporter asked to speak to him, Vano replied that he was flying to Houston the next day for surgery. Vano’s passport was subsequently confiscated at the airport. The next day he received his passport back but disappeared for six hours and was taken to a maximum-security prison. Vano was confined to prison for 492 days and began to share his faith and evangelize the prisoners. He started a ministry in the prison to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, take care of youth who were imprisoned, bring doctors for the sick, and find teachers to create a school system.
Every day, more than thirty people gave their lives to the Lord through Vano’s ministry. After the first sixty days in prison, Vano had a congregation of four hundred people! He called his United Methodist bishop and said, “People here want to be baptized.” The bishop gave Vano permission to baptize those who had confessed their faith in Jesus. In 492 days in prison, Vano converted more than 1,500 people and baptized more than 700 people.
More than that, Vano taught the values of being United Methodist to those who had been imprisoned. When people asked, “Why are you not upset at the government?” Vano said, “God placed me here to make a difference.”
Vano was set free on May 5, 2016, the day before the 2016 General Conference began, with advocacy from the General Board of Global Ministries. When asked about the courage he demonstrated in prison, Vano said, “I am afraid of being afraid. They need my voice.”
Imagine. Eleven-year-old Zikki is now going to school because of the generosity of donors. He says that his only dream now is to become a minister when he grows up so that he can help other people.
Imagine. Vano Kiboko had the courage to be a voice for the voiceless and stand up to injustice. From the pain he experienced through his imprisonment, Vano’s only dream became sharing the word of God with those who do not know Jesus, ministering to the needs of the other prisoners, and celebrating God’s grace with them through the breaking of bread and the sharing of food. In Vano’s words, “When the pain turns into praise and adoration of the Lord, everyone is filled with joy and happiness.”
The only dream of United Methodists in the Congo is to resist injustice and oppression wherever it is present, provide assistance to those in need, and embody the good news of Jesus Christ. If you feel led to help, you can support UM missionaries in the DRC by clicking here, and you can contribute to Advanced Special UM projects in the Congo by clicking here.
Thanks be to God for The United Methodist Church, the United Nations, the European Union, CBS, Save the Congo!, and all those who are helping to make the dreams of our Congolese brothers and sisters become a reality in their beautiful and broken country.