One word, “Congo”, often conjures thoughts of a dark, mysterious place. Belgian occupation, King Leopold II’s greed and tyranny, human atrocities, independence, Mobutu, Western vs. Soviet, corruption, Rwandan exodus, genocide, multi-nation proxy civil war, worst human development index. Many descriptions and books have been written to attempt explaining the history and current despair of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (or DRC).
We have known sarcasm and insults, endured blows morning, noon and night, because we were ‘niggers’… We have seen our lands despoiled under the terms of what was supposedly the law of the land but which only recognised the right of the strongest. We have seen that the law is quite different for a white than for a black: accommodating for the former, cruel and inhuman for the latter. We have seen the terrible suffering of those banished to remote regions because of their political opinions or religious beliefs; exiled within their own country, their fate was truly worse than death itself…And finally, who can forget the volleys of gunfire in which so many of our brothers perished, the cells where the authorities threw those who would not submit to a rule where justice meant oppression and exploitation. – DRC Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba on Congo Independence Day 30 June 1960.
My wife, Heather, spent her first two years in the DRC, which was named Zaire at the time. Her parents, Ken & Elaine Dodd, were vocational missionaries with the Presbyterian Church and stationed near Mbuji Mayi, in the south central Kazai province. In 1975, political turmoil under Mobutu’s brutal dictatorship forced them to leave Zaire before their intended duration of service.
Seen as a pro-Western defense against Soviet ambitions, The United States, France and Belgium sent support to Zaire. Mobutu, on the CIA payroll, was given a command aircraft with its own Air Force crew. Funneling Congolese public monies into his own personal overseas accounts, Mobutu amassed enormous wealth, becoming one of the world’s richest men. In the 1980’s, his fortune was estimated to total $5 billion, including a villa on the French Riviera, a massive estate in Portugal, a Swiss chalet, a vast apartment in Paris, nine buildings in Brussels, and properties in Spain, Italy, Cote d-Ivoire, Senegal, Morocco and Brazil.
After fifteen years of the power you have exercised alone, we find ourselves divided into two absolutely distinct camps. On one side, a few scandalously rich persons. On the other, the mass of people suffering the darkest misery. – A group of fifteen parliamentarian’s 51-page indictment of Mobutu’s rule, arguing that he was the root cause of Zaire’s difficulties and demanding open elections in 1980.
Mobutu’s 32-year raping of Zaire did not come to an end until 1997.
With the end of Mobutu’s rule, many hoped the Congolese people would see the benefit of the country’s vast natural resources. Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse. Mass rapes by HIV-infected soldiers, looted schools and hospitals, ten-year old child soldiers with AK-47s, the Hutu militia responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide fleeing into the Congo, the Rwandan army carrying out a counter-genocide and a proxy civil war with troops from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Chad. The post-Mobutu chaos and lawlessness created a feeding frenzy for the Congo’s immense natural resources, like vultures fighting over a carcass.
The civil war raged in the DR Congo up until around 2005, leaving in its wake a staggering 5.4 million dead. This is the largest war-related death toll anywhere on earth since World War II.
Most descriptions of the DR Congo tend to rotate around words like ‘dark’, ‘despair’, ‘darkness’ or ‘hopelessness’. The DR Congo currently ranks last in the human development index of all countries.
A group of 13 Congolese Christians felt they had to do something about the state of their country. They wondered where the church had been through all of this and what they were going to do about it. A night of intense prayer ten years ago birthed the concept of the Congo Initiative. These Christians feel called to transform hearts as a means to transform their country.
A moment of great challenges is also a moment of great opportunities. The economic, social and political environments in the DRC provide challenges as well as opportunities for a pioneering yet innovative organization. – from Congo Initiative literature.
The Congo Initiative vision includes six areas of focus: 1. A Christian university, Universite’ Chretienne Bilingue du Congo (UCBC), 2. A Center for Development and Partnership (community transformation, skills training, business development), 3. A Center for Church Renewal and Global Mission, 4. A Center for Professional Development, 5. A Holistic Family Center (family rehabilitation), and 6. A Center for the Creative Arts and Vocational Training.
The Congo Initiative has been blessed with 85 acres of land on the outskirts of Beni in the North Kivu Province. Late in 2007, UCBC began classes in the first completed building. The years of corruption and war have left the city of Beni with no power, limited water and one paved road through the middle of the city. The limited infrastructure creates challenges in the development of a university campus. The Congo Initiative applied to eMi for design services to seek design solutions to their campus development challenges.
Our team of ten traveled from Kampala, Uganda to Beni, DR Congo to develop a campus master plan, and present potential solutions for power supply, water supply, and wastewater treatment. From left to right: Patrick Aylard – eMi team leader & civil engineer; Mark Boktor – electrical engineer from Alexandria, VA who grew up in Egypt; Me; Paul Berg – civil engineer from Corvallis, OR; Tim Ellis – environmental engineering professor from Iowa State University; Erland Mowinckel – civil engineering intern on his 2nd eMi EA internship from Mariposa, CA; Brittany Coulbert – eMi EA Office Manager; Bob Gresham – electrical engineer from Lakewood, CO who is also the chairman of the eMi Board; Elisabeth van Overbeeke – eMi EA intern architect from Toronto, Ontario and Eileen Gresham – team mom and women’s ministry. The Congolese pictured are part of the Congo Initiative ministry.
The transition from Uganda into the DRC seemed fairly abrupt, after a 2.5 hour border crossing through three separate immigration stations spread over about two kilometers. Leaving pavement, electricity, city water and fairly reliable mobile phone service behind, we ventured into the DR Congo we had only read about. Passed off to Congolese ministry drivers, we immediately felt the transition. Feeling more like a rally race in vehicles not equipped for rally races, we sped over rough dirt, sand and gravel roads with the horn in almost constant use. Crossing several rough wooden bridges, our van slid on the muddy slats coming within two feet of the unprotected sides. About halfway through our 2.5 hour trip to Beni through mostly virgin tropical forests, we stopped in a small trading village when one of the drivers was starting to get carsick…and, later, within about ten minutes of our destination, one of our team members was throwing up out the window of the van (fortunately seated next to a window).
Our first two days with the ministry were spent listening to the history and vision of the Congo Initiative, touring the property and asking many questions to better understand and create an architectural program for developing a campus master plan. I think we are still trying to figure out the complexity of their vision. With a current student body of 340, they have plans to grow to a university of 3,000 students, with half of those living on campus. Other programs include a three-stream secondary school, two-stream primary school, child care, recreation sports fields, and faculty and staff housing.
The ministry also feels strongly about the desire to be good stewards of the land and resources God has given to all of us. Our team was asked to speak to the student body one day about sustainability and stewardship. Patrick Aylard, Paul Berg and myself spoke about the Biblical framework of sustainability, water resource management and sustainable architecture. Congo Initiative is considering solar power, hydroelectric power, composting toilets, biogas, food production on campus and other methods to reduce their energy consumption.
Despite holding a PhD from Trinity University in Chicago, Illinois, Dr. David Kasali, along with his wife, Dr. Kaswera Kasali, felt called to return to their home in the DR Congo to transform society through the Gospel and Christian education of future leaders. Currently president of the university, his vision and leadership is contagious and Spirit led.
Eileen, our team mom, had the opportunity to minister to several local Congolese women, bringing gifts of love from women of her Colorado church and Mothers Of PreSchoolers (MOPS) group. I am often amazed at how God selects our team members and knits us together for His purpose.
Our final presentation to some 30 Congolese board members, professors, university staff and international staff, began with worship and praise, then a meal together. These project trips often involve working late nights, pressure to finish drawings and PowerPoint presentations at the last minute, sickness and other spiritual warfare. But, often, the most enjoyable part of the project is the ministry seeing their God-given vision taking form and color on the wall in front of them. As I began speaking to present the architectural campus master plan, I shared from 1 Cor 12, seeing our ministry partnership as a beautiful expression of the body of Christ where God gets to use our talents for His glory.
I think the most significant thing that impacted me was the hope, vision and excitement for the future I could see in the young university students despite their bleak and dark surroundings. I think of the UCBC University as a beacon of light in a dark place. The hope of Christ can penetrate any darkness.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:14-16