The Last Survivor: Mambo Sawa Sawa
This is a story about hope.
Justin Semahoro Kimenyerwa is 25 years old. He is a Banyamulenge Tutsi – an African tribe that hails from the mountainous South Kivu region of Congo. Justin was born in the small village of Muzinda. He loves to sing, and has a laugh unlike any we’ve ever heard – it is deep and genuine and silent when it is heavy. Above all else, it is Justin’s ability to laugh – his insistence that life’s gifts not be overshadowed by life’s struggles – that inspires us most.
As a child, Justin loved two things: praying at church and tending to his family’s cattle with his father. He remembers the mountains that surrounded his village, paying little care to any world that might exist on the other side. Justin was fifteen years old when his small village in Congo was attacked in 1996. He can’t remember the date, but he remembers the time: it was around 5:00 am. He remembers the sound of drums and the shouts that were growing closer. He remembers his father’s voice: “We are finished!” And he remembers running. There was no time to say goodbye, no time to look back and catch one final glimpse of his parents – an imprint of their faces that could sustain him until the next time they might be together. Justin could only run.
When we first heard Justin’s story, what shocked us most is that we had we never heard anything about the conflict in Congo. Dubbed by many as “Africa’s World War,” the war in Congo has claimed the lives of over five million people in the past decade – a staggering number that does not take into account the millions, like Justin, who have been displaced from their homes and separated from their loved ones. In the aftermath of the 1994 Tutsi Genocide in Rwanda, the genocidal Hutus were forced out of the country and found themselves in refugee camps in neighboring Congo – a nation that, like Rwanda, is home to a prominent Tutsi minority. The arrival of the Hutus was merely the match in what was a powder keg of tribal tensions and warring factions. Twelve years after the attack on Justin’s village, the violence in Congo continues and the issues around international intervention are ever more complex – making Congo the latest example of the desperate need for a policy of prevention.
During the ten long years that Justin lived as a refugee, he journeyed – usually by foot – from Congo, to Burundi, to Rwanda, and then Nairobi. He often went without food or shelter. He remembers the hunger, the exhaustion, and the prayers he sent to God, asking Him to take his life. What hurt most were the unanswered questions that lingered in his heart: Where were his parents? Where were his brothers and his sisters? Would he ever see them again? Such questions still remain but this is a story about hope.
In Nairobi, Justin survived off the generosity of others. He was taken in for periods of time by fellow tribesmen and strangers who, in Justin’s words, were touched by God and moved to help him. It was in Nairobi that Justin met Sasha Chanoff, the founder of Mapendo International – a Boston based non-profit that assists refugees in Africa. It was Mapendo that helped Justin find a place to live in Nairobi; Mapendo that gave him the surgery he desperately needed but could not afford; and Mapendo that would eventually help Justin leave Nairobi and begin a new life in the United States.
To hear Justin speak of Sasha is a unique and intimate testament to the power of human connection. When Sasha is brought up in conversation, Justin’s tone takes on the reverence of one who speaks of the man he believes saved his life. And the quiet humility with which Sasha goes about his work speaks to his own gratitude – for all that he has and all that has been given to him by the refugees, like Justin, who have touched his heart. Watching Justin and Sasha together is indeed proof that one life can affect another.
Justin now lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He works at the largest hospital in the city as a translator – translating to English from any of the seven languages he speaks. He has started classes at the local community college and is taking driving lessons. He has recently taken to traveling – going around the country telling people of the violence that, to this day, ravages his homeland; sharing with them the beautiful culture and generous spirit of his little known Banyamulenge people; and offering them a tale of hope that was made possible by good-hearted people who were willing to help. He continues to laugh and, in doing so, spreads his unshakable faith to others.
The last time we visited Justin in St. Louis, he took us to his church, The New City Fellowship – a diverse congregation of people of all different colors and backgrounds, who come together each Sunday (and often during the week) to pray and celebrate all that they have in common. On that Sunday, like every other, Justin sang with the Voices Of Africa Choir, a choir which he leads in order to share his native culture with his new community.
In beautiful harmony the choir sang a traditional Swahili song, “Mambo Sawa Sawa.” The hopeful lyrics speak to the very faith that has allowed Justin to not only endure despite his circumstance, but thrive.
“Things are already better!” The song declares. “When the Lord is on His throne, things are already better.” It is a song about hope.
It has been twelve years since Justin last saw his parents and time has started to fade the cherished memories of his childhood – memories of a world from which he was unwillingly pulled. He now exists among all of us in the world beyond the mountains of South Kivu. It is a world that can be painful, a world that is all too often unfair, and a world that, at times, overwhelms each of us. What Justin has shared with us, and what we will forever be grateful for, is his faith that within each of us is the power to overcome, the power to recognize ourselves in one another, and the power to make things better.
And once we each recognize this power, things are already better.
Mambo sawa sawa.
Much more about Justin’s story will be featured in the 20-minute version of our film, The Last Survivor. The film will be available via webcast on April 2nd as part of the Genocide Prevention Month kick-off event. We encourage you to hold screenings at your home or at a community center on April 2nd or any time there after. Watch the film and subsequent panel discussion and host your own conversation on genocide awareness and prevention. For more information, please visit the Month’s official website, www.genocidepreventionmonth.org and sign the pledge to honor the six genocides commemorated in April by working to prevent future atrocities. This blog is part four of a multi-part series on survivors of genocides. You can read future posts of this blog series every Monday and Thursday on the Huffington Post and change.org