Faith: How my mother’s faith in God helped my family escape genocide in the Congo.

 My mother Bernadette, brother Vinny and I in the Congo.

My mother Bernadette, brother Vinny and I in the Congo.

I cannot write about my experiences and not talk about faith. My introduction to faith in God came from my mother. My mother came from a devout Christian household and practiced her religion vigorously. My father was Catholic but was not very observant. Faith in God was infused into every part of our everyday life through my mother. We prayed before breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and before we went to sleep. Being younger, I learned how to be grateful for all I had. We attended church every Sunday and participated in other church activities. In the society I grew up in the Congo, spirituality was a big thing. Either you were a Christian, a Muslim or a practitioner of witchcraft. Witchcraft was infused into the Congolese ethnic tribal practices with certain rituals that were performed in order to make an offering or have healing. Most of the practices were part of tribal traditions that were passed down over many centuries. Christianity and Islam were very influential in the Congo as many missionaries made their way into central Africa. The two religions became dominant and influenced how people viewed witchcraft and tribal traditions. Outside perspectives denounced and rebuked the witchcraft practices.

Spirituality was visible and prevalent in how people carried themselves in the Congo. One time, an aunt on my father’s side of family was very sick, even becoming paralyzed. The family debated whether to bring her to a physician or a witch doctor, and opted to try the witch doctor first. My mother was not too happy about it. I remembered her fighting with my father and his siblings about it. It is hard to put that choice in the context of the American culture today, but that was the reality of my cultural environment. My aunt got better for a few weeks but eventually things deteriorated. The family decided to bring her to a doctor, but by then it was too late and she ended up dying. It was a devastating experience for the family. I remember times when people in our community saw witch doctors for different conditions and they were supposedly healed.

 My mother and my father's family in the Congo.

My mother and my father's family in the Congo.

The spiritual warfare was constantly frictional where I lived in. Witchcraft was so deeply ingrained that it was common to see people gathered in communities and claim to have caught someone practicing witchcraft by trying to cast a spell on someone. I never understood what things convinced people that this was exactly what they were doing. It was humiliating, disrespectful and sometimes life threatening to those individuals who were caught. Sometimes opponents would beat them up, throw rocks at them and occasionally burned them alive. I witnessed many of these acts in public displays while living the Congo.

As a child, practicing Christianity and following Jesus’s teachings were instilled in me by my mother. It was fun going to church and having a church community. Church services were very long and were big celebrations, with music, singing and food. The importance of my mother’s faith came in handy when things took a turn for the worse after my father was assassinated and we lost everything. The more we lost our physical resources—money, our home, our friends and family members—the more I saw my mother gravitate towards her faith and Jesus. Faith in Jesus was the only thing left. She needed to actualize her faith and bring it to life in order to have hope and persevere through very challenging situations. The more the external reality tested her, the more she channeled her internal faith to strengthen her through believing and acting on the impossible, through listening to her soul which is where she believed God was talking to her. My mother went through so many situations where her life was on the line. One time the situation was so intense, we thought it was over for us.

The civil war occurred in the Congo in 1997. The rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, got to the capital fairly quickly and took power. Most of the hard fighting happened outside the capital. That is when people fought back against the rebel military in order to protect their land and freedom. Once people started to lose hope in the then-president, Mobutu, they chose not to fight but to welcome the rebel military. My father worked for Mobutu at the time. When the rebel soldiers eventually reached the capital, many government officials fled the country. Those who were left were betrayed by Congolese people who were themselves seeking vengeance and justice. My father was hiding for several days after Mobutu was overthrown and the capital was taken. The rebel soldiers were patrolling our neighborhood looking for ex-mercenary child soldiers hired by the previous government to fight the war. They were hiding at a local church near our home. My mother decided that it was important for her to be outside while the rebel soldiers were roaming around.  Most of the first round of soldiers who landed in the capital were a mix of Rwandan, Burundian and Ugandan soldiers aligned with the rebels. A group of rebel soldiers with rocket propelled grenades and AK-47s surrounded our property. Neighbors who saw the soldiers in front of my house thought we had been ratted out, and that the soldiers were there to look for my father and execute us. My mother started praying under her breath as the soldiers approached our gate. She realized that the soldiers were definitely not Congolese because she heard them speaking Kinyarwanda, a language spoken in Rwanda and Burundi. Using Kinyarwanda, my mother asked them if they wanted a drink of water and if they needed something. The soldiers were pleased to hear my mother speak their language. She was half Burundian and half Congolese. She grew up in Burundi, where she learned to speak Kirundi, which is similar to Kinyarwanda. They asked my mother if she knew where the mercenary soldiers were hiding. My mother said she was unsure, that she had been inside most of the time because of the state of the country. They thanked her and went on their way. When I witnessed that event, I was moved and very impacted. I had foreseen our lives ending when the soldiers approached our home. Nobody in our neighborhood ran up to the rebel soldiers to rat us out. Our lives were spared. That is when I started to respect my mother's faith and started to trust her intuition. I never trusted it a hundred percent though.

My mother’s faith and trust in God were at a different level at this point. She believed she was going to listen to and trust the voice that was guiding her thoughts. She activated the voice by praying and believing in it. Logic had no role in these harrowing situations, so she trusted the inner voice, which spoke to her clearly. By surrendering everything she felt was a distraction, she was able to listen and make bold moves to help keep my family alive. Believing and acting this way made her feel untouchable and fearless, able to take on anything.

Fast forward three months to when my father is assassinated. We had nothing. My mother was selling cassava powder at a local market, barely making enough money to provide food for us. We were given a small section of a room where a woman and her child were also living. My mother had a four-month old infant and three other kids. The room had a tin roof with holes in it. The electricity in the room only worked 35 percent of the time. The compound we lived in had some extended family members on my maternal grandfather’s side of family. About 30 people were living there in four different houses. All the cooking was done outside on a charcoal fire. We were scared that the Congolese government was going to find us and send soldiers to kill us. But living in the compound was our only choice for the time being.

Some of the compound members treated my mother horribly. They were happy we lost everything and in a desperate situation. They harassed my mother for being Burundian, and sometimes would go so far to say that they were protecting a Rwandan here. At the time it was dangerous to be associated with either. You did not have to wait for the police or government officials to come. People were taking the law into their own hands and would kill people in public just for being Rwandan or Burundian. I was very scared that we were not at all safe. My mother would always tell me, “Deo, God has a plan for us. Do not lose faith, my son.” The more the situation worsened, the more I saw my mother press on even more with her faith. I would be woken up in the middle of the night by her singing and praying to God. That made the other compound members very frustrated and mad. My mother had a nice singing voice; she would always start by singing and then go into praying. I was embarrassed. I thought my mother had gone crazy. I did not want to offend the people we were living with because I feared they would betray us.

 My mother and my brother in 1997.

My mother and my brother in 1997.

I often heard my mother pray, “God, I know we are at our worst, but I trust in you. I know you have a plan for us. I trust in you that you will open new doors for us. Thank you for keeping us alive. As long as I have my feet to walk, my hands to work, and my lungs to breathe, I will not give up and lose faith. Thank you for always providing food for my children.” I heard her offer this prayer all the time. She did not just pray it. She proclaimed it with conviction and confidence. There was power in this declaration. It liberated her to know everything was under God’s control. Even if God did not listen to her prayer or did not care, the thought and belief of it gave my mother hope and tremendous strength.

The more I realized that we always had food and were still alive, the more I started to support my mother with her praying. I remember times when she felt great pressure from the people we were staying with. They suggested that she become a prostitute and find a man to take care of her. My mother would sit there and cry as she prayed to God for a better situation. She was humiliated but never allowed it to defeat her. The more she was attacked verbally and emotionally, the more it strengthened her trust in God. No matter how difficult our existence, I never saw my mother lose her faith or denounce God. This is where I saw the power of faith come to life. It allowed her to focus on the goal and be creative in how to support us. She listened and came up with creative ways to multiply our meager provisions.

 Photo sourced: https://hiveminer.com/Tags/african%2Ccassava/Recent

Photo sourced: https://hiveminer.com/Tags/african%2Ccassava/Recent

As I mentioned above, she started off by selling cassava powder. A cassava is a vegetable that resembles a potato. It can be dried up and ground into a powder like flour, and then it can be made into fufu, a popular food in the Congo. My mother would wake up early in the morning and walk for 6 to 7 miles to buy the sack of cassava powder. She would bring the sack back, stir it with a strainer to remove impurities, and then go to the local market where 20 other women were selling the same thing. She would stay there until she sold most of the cassava, or until it started to get dark, and then she would return to us to cook us food. We survived on that for a few months. The commute was a heavy burden on my mother. Her feet were blistered, and her back and neck were bruised from carrying the heavy cassava powder on her head.  It was physically draining. She decided she was going to save up and buy a waffle maker and start making waffles to sell at a local school. The waffles were a hit. She was very successful at selling waffles and that became our income stream. She started making enough money to support us and put away a little in savings. She even lent money to trusted people in our compound. I was dumbfounded by this. But I could not doubt my mother’s faith and how it was keeping us stay alive and providing for us.

My mother’s faith in God gave us hope and allowed her to bring ideas into reality by following her heart and the creative thoughts on new ways to provide for us. The fact that we were still alive months after my father was assassinated and that my mother was earning enough money to sustain us was enough for me to start believing in God. It did not matter if God was real or not. Filling my brain and thoughts with Christian teachings was enough to distract me from the severity of my reality.

My mother started writing letters to different organizations to inform them of what happened to my father. A guy by the name of Crispin decided to help connect my mother with different NGOs in Kinshasa, the capital of the Congo, where we lived. My mother came to me after one of her meetings, and said, “Deo, the Red Cross and International Office of Migrations (IOM) have been looking over our files and are interested in helping us to get out of the Congo.” This is when I thought she had gone too far with her faith in God. I thought, this is impossible. How are we going to get out? My mother continued to say this for a few weeks. Sometimes she would get dropped off by a white Land Cruiser that said “Red Cross” on it. It was still hard for me to believe her. One time my mother returned from her meeting and said, “Deo, we have an answer from God.” She told me that the Red Cross found a Catholic organization in Belgium that wanted to adopt us (the kids). She said that the Red Cross was going to help her move to Kenya or Tanzania and eventually she was going to reconnect with us. She said, “Deo, this is a true answer from God. We are getting out of the Congo.” I thought she went crazy. I thought, how is it possible that we were given an option to move to Belgium? My mother told me we had three weeks to prepare for the trip. I was very confused. We were going to move to Europe first and eventually she was going to reunite with us. My siblings and I did not want to be separated from my mother. But I did not worry about it much, because I thought it was not going to happen anyway.

 This is a photo of Crispin, he helped my mother tell our story to different NGOs

This is a photo of Crispin, he helped my mother tell our story to different NGOs

I noticed my mother’s prayers starting to change. She was still waking up in the middle of the night to pray. Her prayers were more joyous and thankful than before. She would thank God for all the doors that have opened for us and for the trip that was coming up. I was a little confused when I heard her pray these prayers. I did not see any doors open and did not see anyone promising us anything. I was happy to see my mother more at ease and optimistic but I was also concerned that she was deluding herself with something she wanted very badly and thought was a reality when it really was not.

A week and half before the so-called trip, she came home and said “Deo, Deo, Deo, I have very good news. We are going to the US. The US government is taking some Rwandan and Burundian refugees and we are going to be part of this group.” I was completely at a loss for words. She said, “We are going to stay together as a family. This is awesome news. God is so good.” She said, “This will happen very soon.” I gave her a hug and told her I was happy. Meanwhile, I really thought my mother had lost it. First, we were being adopted by a Catholic organization in Belgium, and now we are moving to the US. Okay, Mom.

One of the guys who lived in the compound with us owned a paint shop up the street. I used to work there sometimes. I did whatever I could around the compound to make a few bucks. I used to go around and pick up fish heads from the trash to feed the guy’s three pigs . I did my fair share of hustling too. One day I was working at his paint shop when my friends from the compound ran to the store screaming, “Deo, your mom is looking for you. She said you guys are leaving. Run home.” I ran home very fast. When I got there, my mother was hugging people. Someone asked her, “Bernadette, where are you going?” My mom said, “We are going to United States.” My mother saw me and said, “Deo, pack your clothes quickly please. We are leaving, it is happening. A car is coming to pick us up.” I moved quickly and packed my stuff. I was so confused. It was midday and many people were at work and not at the compound. Some people gathered around my mother and us kids, and gave us hugs. The car pulled up in the front and my mother said, “It is time to go.” We got into the car, which drove us to the Red Cross and IOM building in downtown Kinshasa. We stayed in the car while my mother went in and grabbed some paperwork. The driver told us to keep our heads down on our way to a secret refugee camp in Kinshasa where we were going to stay for a few months before leaving the country. Things were moving in slow motion for me. I could not believe what was happening. We pulled up in front of large, gated doors guarded by soldiers wearing UN tags. The neighborhood, from what I could see outside the windows, was well kept with nice houses. The doors opened and we found ourselves in this massive yard with kids playing, with some people walking around and others looking at us. We got out of the car and people came to greet us. A European gentleman wearing an IOM shirt approached us. He showed us to our room. We had two large mattresses. We were upgraded from sleeping on a 6 x 6 sponge mattress for 5 people to 4 spring mattresses.

 Photo of the secret Refugee Compound in the Congo where we stayed. Photo from Sasha Chanoff of Refugepoint.

Photo of the secret Refugee Compound in the Congo where we stayed. Photo from Sasha Chanoff of Refugepoint.

I was so pleased that we moved away from the family compound to a nice secured room with walls and no leaking tin roof. It was very surreal to me, as if I were dreaming. My mother’s faith, trust in God and obedience to listen and act on the words of the inner voice helped us get out of the compound to this secret refugee camp with our own room, comfy mattress and security. I could not doubt her faith. This strengthened my own faith to believe in my mom and trust the direction in which God was leading her.

In the camp, we went through a lot of interviews by the staff from different NGOs. My mother kept it to herself. My mother was coached carefully by the NGOs who were helping to make sure she had a consistent narrative that would keep our family safe from the Congolese government. The government had full access to the camp, sending officials to interview people to make sure there were no enemies of the state trying to escape the country in this way. There were about 170-200 people living in this camp, mostly of Rwanda and Burundian descent and who had been brutally persecuted by the Congolese people. As we got to know some of the families, we heard their devastating stories. Some were coming straight from jail and were able to get released and brought to the camp with the help of the NGOs. Many witnessed their family members beaten and assassinated.

We had to hide our identity and go by the narrative of my mother’s Burundian background. That was the only way we had a chance to stay alive. Every time my mother was to be interviewed by the Congolese government, we were scared they were going to deny us and arrest us. That never happened. During one interview, the person repeated our last name several times to my mother, “Mwano, Mwano, Mwano.” Mwano was my father’s family name that my mother did not want us to change. My mother used Uwimana, her family surname that was predominantly a Rwandan or Burundian last name.

 Departure time at the secret refugee compound. Sasha from IOM and Congolese policeman. Photo from Sasha Chanoff Refuge Point.

Departure time at the secret refugee compound. Sasha from IOM and Congolese policeman. Photo from Sasha Chanoff Refuge Point.

I started to lead all our prayer sessions. I was so grateful for what God was doing and for the opportunity to move to another country. The prayer became reality when the NGO announced we were among the first families selected to resettle in Benin and then eventually in America. We celebrated and cheered when we saw our names on the list. I thanked my mother for her hard work. The day came, and we got into large bus with a presidential security convoy that escorted us to the airport. The ride was about an hour long. It felt like 10 hours. The entire time on the bus my mother had her arms around us, praying. The bus was very silent, everyone was praying for our safety. Earlier that morning, the BBC radio in Kinshasa announced that there was a convoy of Rwandan refugees being transferred to a Benin refugee camp. The Congolese people were not happy about the government giving immunity to Rwandan refugees. Our convoy was easy to spot with UN and Congolese Army protecting us. We got to the airport safely. People were looking at us, asking, “Are those the Rwandans?” We went through the UN checkpoints and we were given our tickets while Congolese Customs checked us out. We walked up the airplane stairs. The entire experience was surreal. Everything was happening so fast but also happening in slow motion. We sat in our seats, and my mother wrapped her arms around us and continued to pray. The entire airplane was silent. The only people who spoke were the NGOs who traveled with us. They were saying, “We are leaving, guys.” The pilot started the engines. The plane started moving on the tarmac. It got into position. It started moving faster and faster. The front wheels lifted off the ground. The back wheels lifted off. And the airplane was in the air. My mother held us tight. The entire airplane ride was silent until we reached Benin a few hours later. Everybody cheered and clapped. Benin was an answer to a prayer, a miracle, unbelievable.

 Refugees from the Secret refugee camping arriving to Benin. Photo from Sasha Chanoff Refuge Point.

Refugees from the Secret refugee camping arriving to Benin. Photo from Sasha Chanoff Refuge Point.

Going through this experience transformed my perspective on having faith in God. I witnessed my mother countless times fully believing in something that was a far stretch. Her wish and desire to get my family out of the Congo was ignited by her faith. She took ownership of this belief even though her external situation said otherwise. She turned her hopes and wishes into something that was obtainable. She reinforced this belief by relying on her faith as the driver of it. Her faith also became the backbone of everything she did. She knew she could not just live by the hopeful thinking and wishes. She made it tangible and took action on ideas that were generated deep within her. She was obedient and she executed without looking back. She did not have time for that; she needed to try as many different things as possible in order to maximize the chances for us to stay alive and improve our situation. The conduit of her faith was prayer,. the ultimate connection to God. That was how she expressed her hopefulness and sought out guidance, and it surrounded everything she had. The more she surrendered her worries and concerns, the stronger she became and the more untouchable she felt. Because of this, we were able to get out of our situation.

Having faith and believing in something is very important and beneficial for our mental ability to persevere through adversities and maximize in our potential. Religion has a bad rap in the western world. Those who are against religion are still driven by other ideologies that tap into the same part of our brain where faith gets ignited. The driver is influenced by something else, but holding onto something and actualizing it as a conduit of what drives you is the same thing as allowing your decisions to be influenced by a certain belief or religion. The rules and regulations are different but the act of following and pursuing the belief is the same. It takes a lot of faith to believe in something you cannot see, touch or feel. But the obedience and commitment to the principle is what gives us focus and discipline to pursue that thing. In my mother’s situation, her faith lead to creative ideas and discipline, and it transformed her into a super woman, making her fearless and able to tackle every challenge we faced. She was able to persevere by actualizing and trusting her faith in God. She also trusted the voice she heard, cutting off all distractions, and becoming super in tune with her internal being. She tapped into her reasoning and rationality by allowing the voice (God) to seal her doubt and distract her insecurity. Many people say that following God—in this case Jesus’s teaching—takes away from being human, and you replace yourself with many beliefs and teachings that manipulate your actions. My experience has been the opposite of that. If we are all created uniquely in God’s image, than we all have a piece of God in us that is different from others. On top of that, we are given free will to choose how we live our lives. Most people, when they think of God, envision a prescribed path that will solve all your problems in the way you want them to be solved, and you will experience no suffering. But because of free will, we will never be shielded from pain and suffering. Our perspective of pain and suffering changes with the tools we are given to endure and persevere through them. Our mind, soul and heart are powerful tools given to us to tackle the challenges and maximize how we live our lives and contribute to our surroundings. I found more freedom the more I trusted in God. It makes me a better person and makes me treat others better, and it helps me prioritize what I yearn for. The more you get to know God, the more free and unique you become in discovering who you are and what your abilities are. Spirituality is in us regardless of whether we are religious or not. It just manifests differently in different cultures and places. In some cultures it is more evident, and in other cultures it is hidden behind other things. In the Congo and certain parts of the world, it is seen directly through tribal practices, witchcraft and the practice of medicine. In Western countries like America and the Europe nations, it is hidden behind materialism and entertainment. 

My family escaped death and the horrible living conditions due to my mother’s obedience and trust in God and her fearless approach to life. What do you have faith in that you will hold on to and activate to escape adversities or bring your dreams to reality?