“It is tough to see God’s goodness when you have not eaten in three days,” Msenwa Oliver Mweneake says, “when your parents may not be alive, your childhood village is gone and there are dead bodies all around.” But at such times, whenever a voice in his mind would say, “this is too much, give up,” he would gain a sense of greater purpose by remembering the voices of his parents saying, “You can trust God. God is faithful,” even in hardship.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), violence between various factions has been ongoing since war broke out in 1996. Mweneake was a 15-year-old Congolese student when the war began, and he tells the story of his own and his family’s experiences of that conflict in a new book, Still With Us: Msenwa’s Untold Story of War, Resilience and Hope.Still With Us was published last year by the Msenwa Foundation, a non-profit organization Mweneake started to provide a voice and hope to Congolese people in the Nyarugusu Camp in Tanzania and in the DRC. Proceeds from the book support the work of the Msenewa Foundation. Education is the foundation’s focus, because it is “one of the main ways to eradicate poverty for an individual and country” (260). In a recent interview with Christian Courier, Mweneake said education gives hope: “When people have education, they see possibilities and opportunities.”
In an endorsement of the book, Paul Stevenson, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Roberts Wesleyan College in New York, said, “Just as Job did not take the advice of his wife to ‘curse God and die’ when faced with horrendous adversity, the Mweneake family’s fiercely held convictions have brought them through a drawn-out nightmare to the other side” (xi).
Mweneake is now a Social Worker with the Durham Children’s Aid Society; he lives in Oshawa, Ontario, with his wife Miriam, and they are expecting twins. They are members of the FreeWay Free Methodist Church, the church which sponsored him and helped him adjust to life in North America when he immigrated to Canada in 2011.
‘Choosing peace over hatred’
Mweneake grew up in Lusenda, a Congolese village on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. As tensions rose in the country, he faced pressure to join the local militia, the Mai-Mai forces, which his parents did not want him to do. Mweneake’s parents sent him and two of his seven sisters, Furaha and Mapenzi, to live with relatives 60 km away in the village of Abeka, in the hopes of protecting them from the violence. When violence came to Abeka on October 25, 1996, Mweneake was abruptly thrust into the role of protecting and providing for these two siblings. He navigated scenes of mass murder and rape while seeking a place of safety.
Mweneake talked about the temptation to pick up a gun he found during this time of displacement. He chose to leave the weapon, as directed by his then-eight-year-old sister: “What would happen to me if I chose to take the gun? Choosing peace over hatred is the best thing anyone can do.” The fact that his sister’s voice encouraged him not to choose violence shows that everyone’s voice matters: “God can use anyone, even the little ones, the least.”
During those challenging days, Mweneake found strength through the memories of his childhood, such as the words of the song “God is so Good” in his native language, Ebembe. He had sung this song in the “inspiring and helpful” Christian school of his childhood, and he clung to these simple words and other uplifting words he heard from his teachers, parents and grandparents.
Relocation, education and immigration
Eventually, Mweneake and his sisters were reunited with his parents, and they escaped from the DRC to Tanzania as refugees in Nyarugusu Camp of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).Through fierce determination, he and his family ensured that he continued his high school education in a makeshift school held under a tree (when it was not raining!). The family paid his school fees through giving up some of their food rations as well as through money earned by gathering bamboo outside the camp in the early-morning hours.
After leaving the camp, Mweneake eventually earned a degree from Hope Africa University in Bujumbura, Burundi, and a Master’s degree from Pan Africa Christian University (PACU) in Nairobi, Kenya, through the help of an anonymous educational sponsor from the United States. He completed the requirements of this degree, as well as a Master of Social Work through the University of Waterloo, after immigrating to Canada.
Personal and communal resilience
Mweneake defines resilience as a “constant ability to accept challenges and strive.” Reflecting on his own resilience, he commented that it takes practice and has two aspects: personal and communal. The personal aspect is “the way you respond and interact,” including personal faith in God. The communal aspect involves family, friends and church communities: “We are not alone in this journey.” He said that family “has been key in my life,” and taught him to see opportunity in the midst of difficulty. Through his family, he learned that the fact that you experience suffering “doesn’t mean God doesn’t love you.”
Mweneake noted that not everyone who experiences trauma will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), attributing this resilience in part to the healing found in community: “When a problem is shared, it lessens stress and trauma.” He had support in his healing process through a professor who helped him process the flashbacks and vivid memories that would leave him screaming. The professor’s help reminded him of the words of his parents, who taught him as a child that, “Traumatic events often disconnect people from others. However, do not forget that there is incredible curative power in our relationship with the Creator and in our ability to connect with others” (17). Sharing stories of what is happening in our lives can be a means of finding strength and healing: “A huge part of resilience is how we care. We are not lonely. People are interconnected.”
Share stories, share hope
Before his current position with the Durham Children’s Aid Society, Mweneake was a bilingual Social Worker with the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre in Toronto, where he worked with youth struggling with ADHD, depression, anxiety and drug addiction. In this role, he shared from his own story to inspire hope, offer empathy and find points of connection with young people. To young people, Mweneake says, “It may seem that this is the end of your life – but it’s not, there is hope. You can be a part of sharing hope with someone else.” He believes that we need to “give everybody a chance to tell their story,” that there is great value in curiosity and listening, accepting people for who they are, and helping them to remember the stories of the things that have given them joy and strength.
Mweneake has observed in his work as a social worker that youth can feel isolated, and he believes that the church can offer hope by getting to know young people, building trust and living the good news that God is with us: “What we can do as a church is create a safe space for youth to connect with themselves and the world around them.” He sees in North America a worldview that “things are supposed to be easy,” a worldview which leaves young people without resources when they face challenges. In his words, “Things can be tough – it doesn’t mean that no one cares. We can rely on the Holy Spirit to help us. The Spirit is living in us.” He offered some suggestions for offering hope to others: “Just be you. Take a step of faith. It can be simple, a simple smile, letting other people know you appreciate them.”