Silhouetted within the doorway was a group of street children drawn there by the pulsing music of the church’s young musicians and dancers. The sight of the children saddened me because they reminded me of the countless numbers of children I saw roaming the streets of Bunia and the countryside—victims of a corrupt government system that was robbing them of a proper education that could lift them out of their country’s poverty.
Watching them in that doorway, I wondered if there was any hope for the children of Bunia to have a better life.
By the time our mission trip ended, two things gave me hope.
The first is the way in which God is using the Bunia Francophone Evangelical Church and other churches in the area to bring healing, reconciliation, and positive change to the people in the region through evangelism, discipleship, education, and in challenging leaders in politics, business, and the armed forces to serve with justice and mercy. Transformation is happening, many people are coming to Christ, and the swelling ranks of children, teenagers, and young adults in the services and youth groups are strong indicators that lives are being changed.
The second is the amazing story of one of our team members, Neema Paininye Banga, who started life in a tiny, remote Congolese village to very poor parents, yet, by the grace of God, she grew up to earn a Masters degree in psychology at an American university, and returns to the Congo each year to minister to the people of her village.
Neema’s story began when her own mother, Julienne, was a child in the village of Gwane, and an American couple came to the neighboring village of Assa, and established a mission church where they taught the people to sew and crochet, and shared the Gospel. Curious about them, Julienne went to meet them in Assa and heard the stories of Jesus. Julienne accepted Jesus as her savior, then brought her mother, Ziana to hear the Gospel stories. She, too, became a Christian.
Ziana, who was one of the wives of the Gwane village chief, was ostracized by the chief and his other wives for converting to Christianity and forsaking their witchcraft practices and worship of dead ancestors. So she and Julienne fled to Assa and took refuge in the mission, where they stayed for many years, learning the various crafts of needlework. It was there at the mission that Julienne met and married one of the young men, Jean-Christophe. They had seven children, of which five survived, Neema being the fourth.
However, Jean-Christophe died of a lung disease when Neema was one year old, so Julienne stayed in the mission to mentor the other widows of Assa. To earn a living, she worked the fields of a farmer. The missionaries gave Neema and her sister school uniforms and allowed them to attended the mission school for free. After school, the sisters walked several miles to help their mother work on the farm until dark, after which they would return home to gather wood and fetch water before doing their homework. Neema was five years old at this point.
Neema’s 13-year-old sister, Eugenie, was sent to Bunia to stay with a family and attend high school. She finished high school and started college, but dropped out to marry Idi Taban, a business owner.
When Neema was ready for high school, Eugenie sent for her to come and live with her family in Bunia. Neema babysat, cooked, and did other household chores for the family, and Idi paid for her high school tuition.
In 1997, as the civil war was about to break out, Idi moved his entire family, including Neema, to Nairobi, Kenya. He paid for Neema to attend an English school, and she did so well in her studies there that he later paid for her to attend a Christian university in Nairobi.
Neema became close friends with her American roommate who was there on a study-abroad program. When the roommate returned to America, she persuaded Neema to transfer with her to the same university—Eastern University in Pennsylvania. Again, Idi paid for her travel, tuition, and board to attend Eastern University.
Still, Neema worked in the student cafeteria and as a nanny to earn extra money while carrying a full credit load, and earned a bachelor degree in psychology. She then enrolled at the University of Georgia in Atlanta to pursue a Master’s degree in psychology. It was there that she met and married Dhego Banga, a man from Bunia who was working on his Ph.D. Neema subsequently dropped out of her graduate program to have the first of their two children.
When Dhego finished his Ph.D., he moved the family to San Francisco to start a new job. Once they were settled, Neema resumed her studies and earned a Master’s degree in psychology at San Jose State University.
In 2013, Neema was burdened for the people of the Congo, especially those in the village of Ango where Julienne and many of the villagers had fled when rebels invaded Assa during the civil war. Neema realized that the necessities of life—clean water, affordable health care, and good nutrition—do not exist for the villagers of Ango, who live hopeless, helpless lives, and wake up in the morning not knowing when they will have their next meal.
So once or twice each year, she leaves San Francisco and flies to Bunia with basic supplies such as hygiene products, clothes, and nonperishable nutritional foods. She then travels for four days by bus, truck, and “budda-budda” taxi bikes over bone-wrenching dirt roads and in dug-out river canoes to reach Ango.
Once there, she meets with family members and villagers, provides them with needed supplies, and shares the Gospel with them, leading some to Christ. There is no longer a mission church for the people, the missionaries having had to return to America when the civil war started. With no one left to carry on the ministry, the villagers slipped back into the old ways and beliefs in witchcraft and worshiping dead ancestors.
So Neema fights back the darkness by teaching the villagers about Jesus, healthy living, and by starting a charity in America to benefit the people of Ango and the region of Bas-Uele. She knows that hers is presently a one-woman struggle to sow the seeds of progress in Ango, but she believes that this is a task that God has entrusted to her and that the harvest is in God’s hands and timing.
The image of the six silhouetted children is fixed in my mind, not with the sadness that I initially felt when I took pictures of them, but now I view them with hope—hope nurtured in prayer that, like Neema, God will lead them on their own redemptive journey in which they will grow up to serve his Kingdom and bring change to the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.