Gerard Nsabimana had nowhere left to run.
He and a cousin had hurriedly booked passage on a ship to take them across giant Lake Tanganyika in central Africa. They hoped to get into Tanzania and escape the war that had spilled from their native Burundi into the Democratic Republic of Congo, where both were university students. An ethnic Hutu, Nsabimana feared he would be killed by soldiers of the Tutsi ethnic group either in Congo or Burundi.
When they reached the shore of Tanzania, though, immigration officials refused to let them pass. Tanzania’s government, desperate to keep the war at bay, turned away anyone from Burundi or Rwanda. The ship’s captain said he would allow the two young men to stay aboard for three days. Then he would return to Congo without them.
“By the fourth day, he had to put us off the ship or he would be in trouble with the government,” says Nsabimana, who this spring completed his first year as an M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School. “We were just praying. We had been surviving on bread and sugar for three days, and we were ready for the captain to dump us into the lake.”
With God’s help, Nsabimana says, it never came to that.
Just before the ship left Tanzania, an immigration officer came to Nsabimana and his cousin with a plan. Throw away your passports, he told them, and say you have no identification. Soon the two were under the protection of the United Nations in a refugee camp, safe from the war — at least for a while.
A dozen years later, Nsabimana, 37, regularly recounts his struggles to survive the civil war that claimed the lives of two of his brothers and his father, who was both a United Methodist minister and a farmer. He does so willingly despite the painful memories, using the story to encourage understanding of the 15-year conflict in central Africa and the failure of the church to stop the bloodshed.
Ultimately, Nsabimana plans to combine his love of farming, which he learned from his father and later studied in Africa and the United States, with his call to serve the church in Africa. He envisions a ministry of reconciliation that would help his countrymen work the land together — no small task following the warfare and revenge attacks that claimed more than a million lives in central Africa in the 1990s and early 2000s.