Top photo: In February 2020, Chrispin Esse Swedi (left), Anna Johari Etabo (middle) and M’mandama M’mbelwa Ilelo (right) talk about peacebuilding in the South Kivu province of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. MCC photo/Matthew Lester
Ever since 1964, neighboring Kabela and Kalunja villages in South Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) had fought over the location of their border.
The decades-long grudge caused arguments and disputes that sometimes led to violence. Young people were not allowed to intermarry, and villagers would not work together or share land and clean water. A lack of resources led to hunger and the spread of cholera.
During more than 50 years of conflict, many leaders had attempted to reconcile the villages. Finally, peace was achieved in November 2018 through a local group of female peacebuilders established by Oasis de la Culture (Oasis of Culture or Oasis), an MCC partner organization.
This was an unexpected route to greater harmony.
Traditionally, women don’t hold leadership positions or decision-making power in villages or on the national level in DR Congo.
But Mulanda Jimmy Juma, representative for MCC in DR Congo, saw opportunities for women to play a key role in bringing peace in South Kivu Province, where people deal with normal conflicts of daily life along with warring armed militias and years-long grudges.
During a peace training Juma organized for the Church of Christ in Congo in 2017, he introduced the concept of organizing Women’s Situation Rooms, women-led groups in a certain area who are trained to de-escalate crises, resolve conflicts, mediate and prevent violence.
Participants from Oasis, who attended the training, adopted the idea and currently have implemented 15 Women’s Situation Rooms with 300 members throughout South Kivu Province. MCC has supported the efforts with funding and peace training since 2018.
“There is a saying that if you educate women, you educate the whole community.” - Anna Johari Etabo
In 2018, Women’s Situation Rooms were formed in both Kabela and Kalunja villages and began setting the stage for resolution.
Women brought people from both villages together and began to educate them about the importance of peace, says Anna Johari Etabo, Oasis’ Women’s Situation Rooms coordinator and leader of the mediation between Kabela and Kalunja.
They reminded the villagers of the suffering that people from both villages faced, and explained how peace would improve their lives together.
During the conflict, people from Kalunja were suffering a lot, recalls Chrispin Esse Swedi, a man from Kabela. “Children were dying of cholera because they were getting dirty water from the lake.”
When there was an outbreak of cholera, some Kabela community members were moved to pity and shared clean water with those on the Kalunja side.
Kalunja community members were also tired of the conflict, says M’mandama M’mbelwa Ilelo, a Kalunja man. “People in Kalunja were saying, ‘Let’s help our brothers and sisters to grow food on our side.’ But the elders (chiefs) said, ‘We have to keep the border.’”
The next step, then, was to convince local leaders. The Women’s Situation Room invited local chiefs to a meeting, where they discussed the benefits that peace would bring to both villages.
“Of their own accord, the different chiefs said, ‘We have to resolve this conflict,’” says Etabo. “They decided together they should find a solution, so people in Kalunja would have access to water, and people in Kabela would have access to land.”
The question of the border’s location was never resolved. That quarrel was the result of turmoil and displacement during the Mulele Rebellion of 1963 to 1965, which forced people from Kabela to flee their land. When they returned, they believed that Kalunja had moved the border and taken part of their land. People of Kalunja disagreed. After 54 years, the details were too complicated to unravel.
Photo courtesy of Oasis
But it didn’t matter, says Etabo. “The role of the Women’s Situation Room was not to decide the place of the two communities. What I did was to mobilize them to see the need for peace.”
Although Swedi had rarely seen women lead in political matters, he said he welcomed the intervention of the Women’s Situation Room.
“Women have mercy, and they encourage people to have mercy. . . . Women are not the ones who are causing conflict and who are carrying on conflict where I come from. It is the men who are causing conflict, not the women.”
Etabo says one of the principles of the Women’s Situation Room is that if women can become involved in working for peace in DR Congo, the whole country can one day experience peace.
“Women have mercy, and they encourage people to have mercy. . . ." - Anna Johari Etabo
“There is a saying that if you educate women, you educate the whole community. The number of women in the country is larger than the number of men. That’s why we see the Women’s Situation Room as a tool through which women contribute to peace in our country.”
In Kabela and Kalunja, peace has improved residents’ health and happiness. People in Kabela have better crop production. Kalunja residents have access to clean water and have built water taps. Kabela and Kalunja people can safely travel between villages and even spend the night on the other side.
After the reconciliation, Ilelo’s daughter came to him with news. “I’m in love with a boy from Kabela,” she told him. Today, she’s married to the boy from Kabela — a marriage that would have been impossible just three years ago.
Go to mcc.org/fisherman-peace to see a video about how women solved another conflict between a fisherman and village chief in DR Congo.
Emily Jones is a writer from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Linda Espenshade is MCC U.S. news coordinator.