In 1996, Mulanda “Jimmy” Juma knew that Laurent Kabila was mounting an armed rebellion against the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo, then Zaire). Juma didn’t know that Kabila’s fighters were coming to Mboko village until they began shooting randomly in all directions.
The 23-year-old university intern ran for Lake Tanganyika. He knew that dense trees and foliage along the lake offered hiding places because, when he was a child, his family would find safety along the lakeside when armed groups attacked.
“I could see people falling down, people who I knew, as I was running away,” says Juma as he recounts his life story. Two of his uncles and their families were already at the lake, so he hid with them. “When I came out in the evening, the water in the lake was red. People who took boats to escape were shot in the water.”
Under the cover of darkness, they boarded one uncle’s narrow fishing boat, about 15 feet long, and rowed south, away from the rebels. The waves were so big and the boat so full, it almost capsized even though they threw out everything they carried, even Juma’s prized textbooks.
And so Juma’s journey as a refugee began—one of pain and suffering, but one that eventually, along with encounters with MCC staff, would lead him to years of studying, teaching and practicing peacebuilding.
Today as representative for MCC in DR Congo, Juma’s own experience gives him empathy as he works with church partners to help people in need, including many displaced by violence throughout the country.
In multiple locations, MCC supports food distributions, education and health care and provides opportunities for families to earn money until they can return home. While these interventions are essential to survival, Juma believes that the long-term solution to the suffering in DR Congo is to bring peace.
With peace, he says, no one is forced from their home or separated from their family. With peace, people can use the rich resources of DR Congo to develop their lives and support themselves and others.
Growing up amid violence
Juma’s experience with violence as a young adult was far from his first. Before he was 10, his family lived in the bush along the lake, near the village of I’amba, an area that was frequently attacked by armed groups seeking supplies or exerting power.
The area was so unstable that Juma’s parents designated a safe space for the family to meet if their village was attacked. The children knew not to use the same path twice because the soldiers or rebels might lay in wait.
“We were fleeing all the time when rebels came … to steal or to loot or whatever. We were used to it,” Juma says.
Despite this environment, Juma says he felt secure in his parents’ love. From his dad, Juma Lubambo M’sambya III, who was the traditional chief in the area and a self-made businessman, Juma learned about ingenuity, persistence, integrity — and the importance of education and relationships.
His mother, Mwangaza Lotombo Wa M’landa, a leader of women in the church, taught him the importance of faith and going to church, even though attending meant walking through dangerous territory.
“The other thing I learned was service,” Juma says. “Whenever my father would catch fish, one of them (mom or dad) would come to me and send us into the community to share the fish, just to give. Go to this family; now go to a different family. They really were teaching us a heart of service.”
Juma thrived in school, despite attending sporadically because of the violence. At the top of his class through every level, he was able to attend university in Bukavu, where he studied regional planning.
During Juma’s junior year, he was doing an internship with young people to strengthen development in Mboko, a town close to I’amba. That’s when the shooting began, and he left everything behind.
Life as a refugee
After living in a refugee camp in Tanzania with too little food and too much disease, Juma returned to DR Congo, but the fighting showed no signs of abating. Unable to study and unwilling to fight or recruit others to fight as village leaders asked him to do, he fell into despair.
“You think you have a clear idea of what you’ll do next. All that is shattered,” Juma says. “I lost hope. Lost direction. I didn’t know what to do. We had to run away.”
He and a friend started walking — through Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique. For more than a year, they endured being hungry, penniless and lost, but they survived because of the kindness of strangers, short-term jobs and stints in refugee camps.
During his journey, he heard that his father died during a 1998 massacre of more than 1,000 people in the town of Makobola, where he attended secondary school. He sent letters to his mother through the Red Cross, but heard nothing back. So he lived with the uncertainty and a growing desire to avenge the deaths of those he had known and loved.
Eventually Juma’s journey took him to Durban, South Africa, in 1999. He found a home among many other refugees. But, in the racism that continued in the post-apartheid era, refugees often were targets of harsh treatment.
Using his leadership skills and proficient English, Juma began to advocate for better treatment of refugees with government officials, church leaders and influential members of political parties. “I was not trained, but I was creative enough to use any opportunity,” he says.
At a conference where he spoke, a participant told him about MCC, an organization that trained people in peacebuilding.
“I was like, ‘Study peace? Is there such a thing as studying peace?’”
Trauma and peacebuilding training
At the MCC office in Durban, where Juma came to inquire, Suzanne Lind, an MCC representative, told him about ways to study peace with MCC. She was impressed by Juma.
“I was surprised by the gentle spirit, the shining eyes, the ease of conversing with Jimmy,” she writes in a recent email. “I was impressed by Jimmy’s insistence on learning more about peacebuilding and about helping those who had been traumatized.”
As she learned to know him, she realized he was hesitant to talk about his own trauma, so she invited him to go to an MCC trauma healing program in 2001.
“I came to discover that I was carrying this baggage of trauma for a long time,” Juma says. “Literally, I really cried in that training as I shared my stories, painful stories. The whole group came to me, really embracing me and giving support. I felt relieved from there, really feeling like some weight is gone – less heaviness about some things that happened in my life.”
The following year, MCC sponsored him to go to the African Peacebuilding Institute (API), a training institute for Africans who want to learn more about how to build peace in their communities and address trauma.
“I learned about new ways and approaches of dealing with violence,” Juma says, explaining that those allowed him to let go of his plan for revenge. “I also learned an eye for an eye will only make people blind. I don’t want to make more people blind. I actually want more people to see.”
Helping people to see
Using every opportunity, Juma continued to study and promote peacebuilding even while he worked various jobs to support himself.
He believed the refugee youth in Durban needed to experience peace, so he carried out several peacebuilding programs over the next four years, one in cooperation with MCC. For it, he selected the most troubled youth, teaching them how to resolve conflict, manage their anger, communicate nonviolently and understand their trauma.
“There were really changes in the lives of young people who did the training,” he says.
He also saw that people who attended his predominantly white church needed peace because racism against Black congregants was blatant. Although many of his Black friends left the church, he chose to stay after each racist incident, believing that transformation could happen.
As he worked with pastors to address the injustice, persistently built relationships, invited Black speakers and encouraged social interaction between races, attitudes changed. Smiles became genuine, hugs among Black and white people took place and by the time he moved to Zambia in 2006, he felt loved and accepted.
Photo # 111246: In 2015, African peacebuilders gather in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the Africa Peacebuilding Institute, coordinated by Juma, to strengthen their skills for use in their home communities. Photo courtesy of Mulanda Jimmy Juma
Juma saw that peace could spread if people knew how to resolve conflicts and work for peace in their communities. So when Carl Stauffer, MCC’s southern Africa peacebuilder, invited Juma to lead trauma healing groups and teach peacebuilding skills at API and other MCC-sponsored trainings, he eagerly agreed.
In addition to his own experience and MCC training, he used the knowledge he gained from a master’s degree in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution he earned from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.
He found more of his own peace when, in 2005, he learned that his parents were still alive. They reunited after he did an MCC training near DR Congo.
In Zambia, where he worked for Dag Hammarskjöld Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, he saw that refugees and Zambians needed peace because resentment and conflict were growing between the two groups. In his free time, he and two other Congolese refugees, Kiota Mufayabatu and Issa Ebombolo, started a community peace club in the capital city of Lusaka.
As refugees and Zambians came together to study peace, tensions eased between the two groups. More community peace clubs were formed, supported by MCC, and then spread to Zambian schools, under the leadership of Ebombolo.
Juma moved on to become a professor, to get married and to complete a doctorate in Italy. When MCC invited Juma to replace Stauffer as MCC’s southern Africa peacebuilder in 2012, he accepted.
In this role, he mediated conflict within organizations, helped peace clubs to spread to South Africa and Nigeria, and coordinated training for many African peacebuilders at API. As he traveled around southern Africa, he encouraged API graduates, many whose training was sponsored by MCC, as they started peacebuilding projects wherever they lived.
“For me, seeing these peace initiatives bubbling in the southern Africa region was joy,” Juma says.
Stauffer, who is now associate professor of Justice Studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, says Juma is a model leader.
“He has overcome incredible obstacles in his life and has done so with godly ambition, integrity and great faith. He has exemplified the best of what MCC can offer in the realms of trauma healing, nonviolence, peacebuilding and justice work.
“With all his accomplishments, he could be working anywhere in the world, and yet he has intentionally and on principle decided to stay and give his time and energy to building ‘just-peace’ in Africa. His commitment to his people and the continent of Africa is unwavering.”
Back to DR Congo
In 2017, Juma decided to return to DR Congo as an MCC representative, turning down a position he had been offered with the African Union.
“The reason I came back to Congo was to have an opportunity to contribute in a small way to peace and development here,” he says.
Very quickly he had the opportunity to offer both, even while his wife gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, in South Africa.
A violent conflict in the Kasai region in 2016 and 2017 had uprooted more than 1.4 million people, including about 50,000 Mennonites. Three different Congolese Mennonite denominations located in different parts of Kasai helped provide food, clothing and shelter, but they needed assistance.
As Mennonite organizations around the world collected money to help them, Juma began to prepare the denominations to carry out large distributions. He soon realized that there were long-standing resentments among the denominations that discouraged their ability to work together. Peacebuilding had to be part of the process.
“So I began to organize workshops for members of the relief committees from the three denominations to attend the same workshops and learn the same things together,” Juma says.
The subject matter was practical — how to organize an assistance project so the implementation goes smoothly. In the process, however, a lot of anger and criticism was expressed toward MCC and each other. Juma responded peacefully.
“The attitude of not pushing them back, not being angry at them and allowing them to speak their mind and feeling safe as they speak their mind, somehow began to create a relationship between me and the Mennonite churches,” he says. And through interaction among the three relief committees, relationships were strengthened.
Over time, the three denominations conducted multiple distributions in the Kasai region and two continue to carry out farming projects with displaced people and trauma healing workshops today.
Juma can relate to the pain he witnessed in Kasai and he longs for an end to it.
“Sometimes I look back on my own experience of the situation I went through, and I don’t want to see any other person going through it. I don’t want anyone suffering the way I did. I don’t want my children to suffer. I don’t want women raped,” he says.
So, he is always asking himself what he can do to bring healing, to bring peace.
While doing a needs assessment for MCC in 2010, he remembers asking a man who was living among rebel groups what the community needed to survive. “Give us peace, and we’ll do the rest ourselves,” the man told him.
Others in the community explained that they know how to grow crops, but when it comes time for harvest, the rebels and the soldiers take the crops for themselves.
“So I feel like I need to work for peace because that is what people really want. They don’t want food. They don’t want clothes. They want peace because with peace, they can take care of themselves and meet other needs,” Juma says.
Those words encourage Juma to continue what has become a lifelong work of training peacebuilders and working to give people tools to resolve conflict. “Maybe one day, if many people are doing what I’m doing, we could have peace.”
Linda Espenshade is MCC U.S. news coordinator.
Video available for download: “A new perspective on violence” features Mulanda Jimmy Juma talking about his experience with becoming a peacebuilder and why he remains motivated to teach and practice peace. Contact ElizabethDerstine@mcc.org if you have difficulty downloading the video.
Mennonite Central Committee is a global, nonprofit organization that strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development and peace. MCC is committed to relationships with their local partners and churches. As an Anabaptist organization, they strive to make peace a part of everything they do.