David M. Nyiringabo is the first beneficiary of the Michael J. Sharp Peace and Justice Endowed Scholarship Fund for students studying in the graduate program at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP). The fund was established following the 2017 murder of Sharp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Sharp was working as a United Nations expert on armed groups.
Sharp’s coworker Zaida Catalán was also murdered. Their three Congolese drivers – Isaac Kabuayi and two unnamed others – are missing, as is Congolese interpreter Betu Tshintela, who has been implicated in the murders.
The scholarship provides need-based aid to graduate students at CJP, with priority given to students from the DRC.
Nyiringabo never met Sharp – but mutual friends have told him of Sharp’s life and passion.
“As a Congolese, I should live a life that honors his life and his sacrifices,” Nyiringabo said. “He gave his life for us, and for people he didn’t know. If foreigners can take risks, what about us? What about me? I have relatives in Congo, and am hoping that one day my grandchildren will live in Congo. Why should I keep quiet?”
Nyiringabo is the deputy coordinator of the Great Lakes Christian Peacebuilders Network and assistant coordinator of the Congo Peace Network. A graduate of the Protestant University of Rwanda, he was nominated in 2016 for the Inspired Individuals Program of Tearfund UK.
A ‘conflict background’
Nyiringabo describes himself as being “from a conflict background.”
The DRC’s civil war, which started in 1996, is in part fueled by the country’s vast natural resources including coltan, mined for use in cell phones and other electronics. According to the United Nations, over the past year fighting forced 4.5 million people to flee their homes, and “more than 4.6 million Congolese children are acutely malnourished.”
When he was one year old, Nyiringabo’s father was killed by rebels and buried in a mass grave; his family still does not know where that is. At age 14, he said, he became an internally displaced person for two months, fleeing 45 miles on foot.
In his DRC work now, Nyiringabo provides trainings on using active nonviolence to confront human rights abuses and enable people to stand up for their rights. To do so violently, he said, could be interpreted as “acts of terrorism or rebellion.” Nonviolent action, on the other hand, brings about sustainable change.
Although churches in the DRC often reinforce tribe-based discrimination and the leaders of armed groups are sometimes also pastors in those churches, and although his own church upbringing condoned violence, Nyiringabo said he came to believe that was irreconcilable with Jesus’ teachings about peace, love and nonviolence.
Inspired by a visit to South Africa to learn about the African National Congress and in his undergraduate studies, he gained new insights into nonviolent action and Biblical passages such as Romans 13, which he had often heard cited as reason to obey political leaders.
“But there are criteria for what kind of leaders we are supposed to obey,” he said. “Those leaders should be the leaders who pursue justice, who are able and willing to respond to people’s needs. As long as leaders do not pursue justice, I’m ready to protest and resist any kind of unjust law. And if a leader is pursuing justice, I will surely obey.”
Calling to return
A significant part of his calling, Nyiringabo said, is simply to return to his country.
The time at CJP, away from the conflicts and dangers of the DRC, means he has space to think, to prepare for his eventual return to his work. He feels safe in Harrisonburg – but “part of me is back in Congo,” he said. He communicates with his family daily to see whether they are doing well, including throughout the current electoral process during which several types of violence have occurred.
“Most people who come here don’t want to go back,” he said. “If you are living in this environment where there is almost no physical violence every day, and you enjoy life for two years in this city, and you are requested to go back to Goma, where you sleep without having hope that you will wake up, where you are drinking water without being sure it’s clean, where you are traveling without being sure you will arrive at the destination, it’s really a challenge. It’s really something that can show that you love your country.”
But young people are needed “to transform our communities,” he said. “My passion is to raise a generation of young peacebuilders. We have a generation of violent young people in rebel groups; I am looking forward to having a generation of young peacebuilders. Like a sickness takes time to lead to crisis, the existing unjust systems in our community took time to build up; so a generation of peacebuilders needs time to dismantle violent systems and lay foundations for sustainable peacebuilding.”
Nyiringabo would have preferred to be a civil engineer, or maybe a soccer player or pilot. But peacebuilding has become his calling – his lifestyle, he said – and he is devoted to working for peace with hope that for the DRC, “tomorrow will be better than today.”