Watu Wa Amani Conference

I was invited to attend the Watu Wa Amani (People of Peace) conference in Limuru, Kenya, at the Brakenhurst Baptist International Conference Center from August 8 to 14. "People of Peace" is the Swahili equivalent of "Historic Peace Churches." I like this much better since "history" is already over and no new churches can join this exclusive club. People of Peace allows new denominations to enter the club, and I have found that almost all churches have a peace witness (although for some it is much hidden) and it would be nice if they joined us. Historically the peace churches are Quakers, Mennonites, and Church of the Brethren. This conference was for Africans from these churches, since the first conference in Bienenberg, Switzerland, in 2001 of the Historic Peace Churches was mostly American/European participants. This conference was part of the World Council of Churches’ Decade to Overcome Violence. About three-quarters of the participants were from Africa.

The first interesting point is that, while all three denominations had missionaries who came from the United States, all now have more adherents in Africa than in the United States. The Church of the Brethren is only in northern Nigeria (160,000 members) in the area of Christian/Muslim conflict. Mennonites are in Bukino Faso, western Congo, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Kenya (2,000), and Tanzania. Quakers are mostly in Kenya (130,000), Burundi (13,000), Rwanda (5,000—all since 1986), Uganda, Tanzania, and eastern Congo (1,300).

The Church of the Brethren in northern Nigeria does not consider itself a pacifist church. It defines "pacificism" as "passivity"—nonresistance to evil. It does not seem to have the concept of active nonviolent action. Some of its speakers spoke for a conspiracy theory that the Muslims have a grand plan to convert all the world (or at least Africa) to the Muslim faith. This theory is strongly adhered to by fundamentalist Christians in the United States. I have heard this theory in Africa before—but in the 1960s and 1970s, it was the godless Communists who were trying to take over Africa.

A pastor from the Nigerian Brethren talked more of their peacemaking efforts. The best example was when one of his churches was burned down by the Muslims and the hotheads wanted to burn down a mosque; he asked, "Then what will happen?" and got the people to agree to take the Muslims to court to pay for the damages.

Two of these Nigerians were in my small group as was Sizeli Marcellin from Rwanda. I spoke of how his son had been saved during the genocide by a Muslim who hid him in a mosque. I asked the Nigerians how they responded to that. They answered that during times of violence many Muslims hid Christians and many Christians hid Muslims.

The Mennonite church in Zimbabwe is called the Church of the Brethren in Christ and I am not certain how it is different from other Mennonite churches. It is almost exclusively in the Ndebele area of southern Zimbabwe. This is the minority tribe that was attacked in 1981-82 by the Shona Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe in a reign of terror that could be considered genocide.

Their first speaker emphasized this slaughter and the danger their church members were in due to the current conflict in Zimbabwe.

I asked another Zimbabwean participant if they had any Shona (the majority tribe) adherents and he said, "Less than 50," but that they were going to try to establish churches in the Shona areas.

The Mennonites from Ethiopia were interesting. When the Ethiopian Socialist regime took over in 1974, all churches were banned and the Mennonite church had to go underground. At that point it had 9,000 adherents but when this regime was overthrown 17 years later, it had 50,000 adherents. It is still discriminated against in Ethiopia as it is not an official religion (Coptic, Catholics, and Muslims are the only official religions) and therefore not allowed to build churches. It must have more than 50,000 members now and they all meet in homes.

The Mennonites from the Congo (Kinshasa and western Congo) were much more like average Quakers doing peacemaking as they felt that they were able. Some had gone through extensive looting in Kinshasa and they were promoting the testimony that a good Christian does not participate in looting during a time of unrest.

The Friends presented their many peace activities in their conflict-ridden countries. Ann Riggs from Annapolis (Md.) Meeting, Baltimore Yearly Meeting, and the National Council of Churches (USA) gave a presentation on Quaker peace witness that was full of quotes from George Fox, William Penn, John Woolman, and relations with Native Americans. Malesi Kinaro, from Nairobi Yearly Meeting, Kenya, followed with a history of Friends in all of Africa and an overview of their substantial peacemaking work on the continent. She concluded, "The Friends Church is one of the fastest growing churches in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, and the DRC [Congo]. If a true culture of peace is practiced by these churches, great strides can be made in peace work. Together we must reexamine our theology so that there is rooting of what we believe, then resolve to practice it."

David Niyonzima from Burundi Yearly Meeting gave the major theological address for the Quakers. He gave many concrete examples from Burundi from his work with the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services.

Each denomination was given four slots for storytelling. The Quaker presenters were from the eastern Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, and Kenya. Representatives from the first three countries gave summaries of the work they are doing—trauma healing, Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), peace schools, reconciliation activities, work with orphans, hiv/aids program, and relief for widows and others impacted by fighting and disease. The Congolese Quakers have a program putting people of various ethnic background in peace cells and having the members sign a pledge that includes not harming people of other ethnic groups and not looting. It also encourages positive relationships between members of various tribes. The Kenyan speaker was Norah Musundi, who during the ethnic clashes in the Rift Valley of Kenya in 1991 organized a prayer group of women who went to the relief of those who had been attacked. This was quite moving because it was an example of how a small group of people can pray together and do peace work. Her group continues today but focuses now on hiv/aids work.

The best sermon/meditation was given by Cecile Nyiramana from Rwanda. She was the leader in forming a widows’ group in Rwanda consisting of Tutsi survivors of the genocide and the Hutu wives of genocide suspects who have been in jail for up to ten years. Her meditation was a clarion call to become peacemakers: "Thus, like the early churches, we are going to be able to attract peacemakers to us. We will have gathered a large army to build, promote, and maintain peace in our respective countries, in our Africa, and in the whole world. Why not?"

The Quakers carried out another one of our testimonies. Although almost half the participants were women, there were only five female presenters in the whole conference and four of these were Friends. I also noted that the women from the three denominations from all those various countries quickly developed a rapport that the men never seemed to accomplish.

The Quakers in Rwanda are confronting the aftereffects of genocide, those in the eastern Congo with continued ethnic violence (about a month before the conference 250 Quakers had to flee Bakavu along with thousands of others when fighting broke out there). In Burundi, violence has continued with ebbs and flows since 1993, and in Kenya a politics based on ethnicity makes the nation always a tinderbox for violence. The Brethren and Mennonites in Africa also confront the issues of stability and violence in their communities. The purpose of the conference was to raise up the peace witness among the historic peace churches in Africa. Hopefully this will be used to encourage the other mainstream churches to remember and focus on their peace testimonies so that the people of peace can increase throughout Africa and the rest of the world.

David Zarembka

David Zarembka is coordinator of African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teams. A member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting, he is sojourning at St. Louis (Mo.) Meeting.