Learn more about Issa Ebombolo, founder of an MCC partner organization Peace Club, and how he has dedicated his life to working for peace among young people in Zambia. Read more about peace clubs in the Fall 2011 issue of A Common Place magazine.
I was born in Burundi in 1969, where my parents had fled to avoid violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When I was 7 years old, they returned to Congo for my education.
Soon after we returned, my parents divorced because my father was unfaithful. My mother raised me, my two brothers and one sister by selling used clothing with no help from my father. For many years to come, I resented my father for neglecting his family.
I completed high school in 1989. I did well and worked hard because my mother was working so hard to help us through school. I became a math and science teacher. I was able to buy my mother a house.
My mother and my brothers and sisters went to the mosque five times a day, every day. I went once a week on Friday. One night someone was preaching on the road. The preacher said that Simon Kimbangu (a religious leader in Congo), Mohammed and Buddha were all very important people, but when they died they remained in the grave. This other man, Jesus, died but was resurrected and went to heaven. Everyone will stand before Jesus at judgment.
I was afraid. When the man made an altar call, he said that all we needed to do was kneel down and pray to God. The next day I went to church. When it was time for introductions, I said I was from an Islamic background, but I was coming to join the church. Everyone clapped and cheered.
Before I even left church, my mother left a message on my phone, telling me to come home. She had already heard the news from other people at church. My mother, my siblings and my maternal grandparents tried to persuade me to change my mind, but when I would not, they told me I was no longer part of the family. I felt like I have lost the sense of belonging. I felt isolated, discriminated against, marginalized, rejected and distressed. Had it not been for the counsel I got from the pastor, I would have been very traumatized.
The pastor assured me that the church would be my family, but he said I should keep trying to show love to my (biological) family. During Ramadan, I bought my family expensive food which is easy to digest after a day of fasting. I also bought my family clothing for the last day of Ramadan, which is a day of celebration. I sent a message to my mother that I would pay for my sister’s education until she finished her nursing degree.
I knew my family was beginning to accept me again when they invited me to attend Laidi, the last day of Ramadan. It is from this experience that I developed a spirit of tolerance and acceptance of people from other faiths, beliefs and denominations.
In 1996 a war broke out between President Mobutu Seseko and Desire Kabila, a rival of Mobutu. The government army was capturing educated people, so I decided to run to Zambia before this could happen to me. I left behind a beautiful house that was well furnished.
In Zambia, I found myself in a refugee camp in the bush. I was given a tent, a machete and blankets. And then I was told, ‘This is your house – a tent folded in plastic. You are a man, go into the bush, cut trees, make a tent.’ Just that. This is the most depressed I have ever been in my life. I spent the night outside under a tree, covered in a blanket, thinking, ‘Is this real?’
I had so many questions about God. ‘Where is God?’ Then ‘Why me? Why not others?,’ followed by ‘What wrong did I do to others that God is punishing me for?’ I asked these questions without answers. Eventually I came to realize, without a test, I didn’t have a testimony.
While I was in the tent for six months, I was giving free extra lessons to students in the refugee camp. The students told teachers at the high school they attended about me. They said, ‘We are better off because we have a man who is giving us free extra lessons in science and mathematics.’
The school was in need of a science and mathematics teacher, so they employed me. That helped me to move out from the tent to government housing, where teachers lived. I met my wife, Annie, at the school. She taught in basic school. I taught in secondary. We had our wedding in the camp on Oct. 10, 1998. We lost our newborn son in 1999. Our daughter, Faraja, was born in 2004.
In 2003, I took a two-week class in peace education, part of an MCC project in the northwestern province where I was teaching. After that, I used an MCC scholarship to complete a three-month certificate in peacebuilding and conflict transformation through Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation in Kitwe, Zambia.
I loved teaching mathematics and sciences but peace training appealed to me as a way to pull together people from different beliefs, faiths, genders, tribes, tradition and culture, nationality and race to find a path to human security. Peace is about healing the wounds of the brokenhearted, and it is about restoring broken relationships. Peace deals with a human being as a whole.
With this training, I was hired by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). One achievement I will never forget during that period was a program I developed for ex-combatants, most from Angola, who were living in a refugee camp of their own. They were afraid to return home because of the atrocities and crimes they had committed.
I came up with a program called Healing of Memories. It included trauma workshops, training in job skills and sending a research group to Angola to determine the safety level for ex-combatants who already returned. It worked very well. They all went back to their respective countries and the camp was closed. This was in 2004-2005.
After that project was over, I joined the Peace Center, an organization working with refugees living in urban areas. I also attended the Africa Peacebuilding Institute that MCC sponsors. Kiota Mufayabuta, another Congolese refugee, and I were trying to resolve problems between refugees and Zambians. We formed a peace club in the community for adults where we taught peacebuilding and conflict transformation skills.
When we visited the community we could see problems with the children – children who had to do too much work and those who were enduring sexual advances from family members. We asked the Peace Center to give us a chance to go into school and carry out a survey to see what’s going on with the children. We found more problems than what we were looking for. It was an eye-opener.
The children were not safe at home; they were not safe at school. They were not safe in the community so something should be done which would cover everyone. So that’s where we came up with the idea of having peace clubs in school. (Read more about MCC-supported peace clubs.)
I consider myself a wounded healer. When I hear stories from young people who are victims of abuse, I see myself in those stories. This gives me a good understanding of the issues and the passion to address them in a peaceful way.
Two years ago, I returned to Congo and met with my father after 37 years without seeing him. My goal was to restore a relationship with him. I kept grudges against my father for 37 years, but when I joined peace education, I learned that forgiveness can lead to restoration and healing whereas revenge can lead to a cycle of violence.
I decided to work at being healed and tried to understand what happened to me. I had to admit to myself that the rejection I experienced was painful; I could not deny it. As I cried, my desire for revenge got smaller and smaller. I even started to see the hope of possibilities for a new life.
So when I met my father, I said, “Dad, I am sorry I hurt your feelings by staying all these years without coming to see you as my father. I will be grateful to restore my relationship with you as a father and a friend.”
My father, in response, shed many tears and admitted his wrongdoing. He said, “Let us choose the path of forgiveness.” Forgiveness takes us along a path of healing, which leads to reconciliation. In my peace work, I share the story of my trauma and pain to help others.
Myself, my hope is that I should live for the sake of others, ready to sacrifice my little time, my little energy, my little knowledge to help others who are in need, who are oppressed and who are abused.