At the church I attended in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, we sometimes sang a song called, “Hakuna Mungu Kama Wewe,” a Kiswahili title that means, “There is No God Like You.”
Each verse is sung in one of Congo’s languages: Lingala, Kikongo, Tshiluba, French and many others. The song goes on forever, “There is no God like you, there is no God like you, there is no God like you,” over and over again in different languages and everyone dances in the aisles as the drums get faster and the women’s joyful ululations grow louder.
Singing that song always filled me with wonder. It is a picture of the kingdom of the God in whose image we are created. It shows us that God’s sovereignty and care is over every person, ethnic group, village and time in a vast, diverse world.
In a place like Congo, where divisions of place and ethnicity have caused and exacerbated wars, it is an act of humility and sacrifice to praise God in every language, even in the language of those who persecute you.
I’ve been wondering if my friends in Congo sang that song in church last week. On July 30, citizens of the DR Congo went to the polls to elect a new parliament and president. The elections marked the first democratic, multi-party vote in more than40 years, and came after nearly three separate wars and a five-year transitional period. The poll took place in the midst of continuing violence in much of the country’s east, where the central government exercises little authority.
The Congo’s political history is complicated, and the roots of the current crisis there stretch back to the colonial era. Simplified, it is a long story of those in power looting the country’s wealth and leaving the people to fend for themselves. This was true through the era of Belgian colonial rule, Mobutu’s 30-year dictatorship, and the subsequent period of unrest. The rich take what they can from the state’s enormous natural resources and other sources of wealth. The rest do what they must to survive.
The country experienced a series of wars beginning in 1996. The fights involved a number of other African countries and continue to spawn competing rebel movements, militias and warlords. The dispute is partly over resources, partly over guaranteeing regional security, and partly a simple power struggle. Sometimes it takes the shape of ethnic conflict; other times, groups that were once enemies discover they can work together to challenge a common foe.
While the conflict is officially over, armed militias and rebel groups still operate in the east, looting resources and committing atrocities against women and children. The daily fight against hunger, disease and insecurity is reality for the vast majority of Congolese. Four million people have died thus far, and 1,200 more die each day.
But last week they got to vote. The excitement about the elections bore little resemblance to voting day in the United States, where only about half of us can be bothered to vote in presidential elections. Turnout was high. Newspapers ran stories of old men dancing in front of polling places, jubilant that they got to choose. While expectations about the immediate benefits of multiparty democracy are perhaps unrealistically high, most Congolese understand that holding elections was a major step toward creating stability and the opportunity for prosperity.
Even though the elections were peaceful, it’s hard to be hopeful about Congo. One opposition candidate who led a rebel movement before becoming a vice president in the transition government has already declared his intention to contest the results, which won’t be known for several weeks. A militia in eastern Congo attacked army soldiers in a small town near the eastern city of Goma less than a week after the vote. Many leaders who might lose still have military forces at their disposal, and no one knows what will happen when election returns are finally announced.
But the Congolese got to vote. They exercised a freedom that few have known in their lifetimes. When the Bible talks about freedom, it tells us that the truth sets us free, and that, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Certainly the Bible refers to something broader than political freedom, but when you’ve lived through incomprehensible suffering, an act as simple as voting can take on profound spiritual significance.
And so I choose to hope for Congo, because the people whose genuine desire is for peace are the same brothers and sisters with whom I worshiped each Sunday morning there. The truth of God’s love liberates us to worship in every language and to know that peace is possible, most especially in the midst of poverty, weariness and a deep longing to be free.
Laura Seay is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and member of First Baptist Church in Austin, who has studied and lived in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict and development, with a focus on central Africa.