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Bishop Katanda helps open door to democracy in Congo

Posted on: February 21, 2008 5:04 PM
Bishop Katanda and his wife Naomi, who has also had her own role to play in reconstruction
Photo Credit: Bryce Amner
Related Categories: Australia, Congo

Bishop Masimando Katanda and his wife Naomi, from the Anglican Diocese of Kindu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) visited Victoria in December as guests of CMS. They talked to Beryl Rule about the work the Church is doing there to repair the ravages of the 1998-2003 civil war.

Going into the forest to try to negotiate with armed rebels is not usually seen as part of Episcopal duties, but Bishop Masimando Katanda took the risk in the hope of bringing about peace.

Invasion by Rwandan and Ugandan forces, following the destabilisation brought about by a million Rwandan refugees, led to Congolese guerrilla fighters trying to over throw a government they regarded as being under foreign leadership. The Congolese based themselves in the forest and cut off main roads, hoping to starve out the Rwandan soldiers controlling the towns by preventing transportation of food.

It was a strategy which brought immense suffering to ordinary villagers, and that was one of the things Bishop Katando wanted to convey to the rebels.

“I did research into the rebel leadership and found most had some links to families in the Church,” he explained, “so I started working to form connections. The second step was to go into the forest and meet the leaders. I found two or three who were church attenders and asked them what was the problem? They said they were fighting the foreign-led Government – they wanted power to be more local. And I said to them that bullets can’t choose whom they kill and many innocent people were being hurt. I told them that cutting the roads wasn’t hurting the Rwandans, who were receiving food by air. It was the rebels’ own families – the Congolese in the villages – who were being condemned.”

As a result, the rebels decided to open the roads and so more food became available to the villages.

It took a month of talks, with both Bishop Katanda and the Catholic Bishop being involved in negotiations, but eventually a peace agreement was made. Some Congolese did not know and continued fighting, so Bishop Katanda went into the forest again to tell them.

“They wanted proof,” he said, “so I took some UN troops to show them that there was now UN control, and they finally surrendered their arms to UN troops.”

The war was over but it had left a legacy of devastation, with much of the country’s scant infrastructure destroyed, nearly 4,000,000 people killed, hundreds of thousands displaced, and countless thousands of women and children the victims of sexual violence.

Bishop Katanda served as a Senator on the Interim Government which had as its main task the drafting of a new constitution embodying human rights.

“We said that citizenship wasn’t just for Congolese,” he explained, “but for Rwandans who had been born in DRC and those whose parents had been here before independence.

“I had connections to the villages, and it was important that the constitution would be implemented in them as well as in the towns.”

With 40% of the population illiterate, the constitution and the referendum to approve or reject it had to be carefully explained.

“Those over 18 had to be taught how to say yes or no. The referendum result was that 90% said yes.”

Naomi, the bishop’s wife and the president of Mothers Union in the DCR, has had her own role to play in reconstruction.

A former teacher, she has been gathering women in groups to discover individual literacy levels, then putting those who cannot read and write into smaller groups with others who can teach them. Many of these women have been left widowed, disposed, rejected or traumatised; literacy gives them some empowerment and a better chance of finding employment.

“Many of the women doing the teaching are working voluntarily,” Naomi said, using her husband as an interpreter, “and they have no teaching materials – they have to write with charcoal on the floor. The Government has no money to pay teachers. Boys rather than girls get the chance to go to school, so MU is trying to help girls receive some education.”

Since no government help is available for the many women traumatised by sexual abuse during the war, MU is trying to help them too, by meeting with them, listening to their stories, praying with them and providing some trauma counselling. They are also being assisted to start small business ventures.

“Men often throw women who have been abused out of the family, and then they have no support at all.”

Naomi is the mother of seven children and has a household of 20 to supervise.

“It is not too big a house, so the sitting-room becomes a bedroom at night,” she said matter-of-factly.

This year the Diocese of Katanda celebrated its 10th anniversary, and Masimango Katanda his 10th as bishop.

He is grateful for CMS support and eager to increase Australians’ knowledge about his country and to urge them to visit it. The Anglican Church has 250,000 members in DRC and is strongest in the Eastern regions.

“Democracy is here at the door,” he wrote in his mid-year diocesan newsletter, “but the activities of the Government in its first term will determine whether people accept and understand democracy. Impoverished people are full of hope but if they don’t see positive change they will judge democracy as irrelevant to their lives.”

“Impoverished people are full of hope but if they don’t see positive change they will judge democracy as irrelevant to their lives.”

Article from - TMA: The Melbourne Anglican