Esther Sumner grew up in Kenya and attended school at Rift Valley Academy near Nairobi. She recalls a period of time when an influx of kids from Congo came to her boarding school. She would later learn the visitors fled their homes and school due to conflict and unrest.
Admittedly, Esther explained “besides that moment in my memory, I knew very little about Congo.” But, this would change when years later she would come to learn more about the challenges of DR Congo and the impactful work of Congo Initiative (CI) and Université Chrétienne Bilingue du Congo (UCBC).
How did you first learn about Congo and Congo Initiative?
Esther: I started going to a focus group at my church (Elmbrook Church) in Wisconsin. This focus group met once a month to pray and learn about the history and challenges of Congo. I also had a friend from my time in Kenya who lived in Congo and she suggested books to learn about the background and concerns for the well-being of the country. I had some vague knowledge that things were not good in Congo. But, it was really Congo Initiative that informed me about the realities.
What were your initial reaction and thoughts?
Esther: I think in the west you only hear bad news coming out of Congo all the time. The stories of people being raped, killed, and the dictator rulers. I definitely had a sense of sadness and empathy for those difficult challenges. Even in the books I read, you see the culture that grew out of a colonial history and Mobutu’s dictatorship. So, it makes sense to feel hopeless. But, I also knew there was more to the story and that is what I love about UCBC. There is hope, good things are happening, not just the fact people are resilient, but things are changing.
I’m reminded of a friend who worked in the south of Congo and she is really disillusioned by her experience there and lack of change. But when I share stories happening through UCBC with her, she is incredulous. Amazed by the stories like the two UCBC students who were stopped and harassed by customs in Congo, but ended up explaining to the officials how corruption is destroying the country.
People often see Congo as “tragic,” but there is an amazing resiliency to get through the difficult history and now you see these stories of hope.
What inspired you to become a monthly donor to UCBC?
Esther: This idea of training young people, that are not quite disillusioned – have the energy, and sending them out as leaders throughout Congo really resonated with me. It is really what will bring change and it is coming from the inside of Congo. Not another western program from the outside. I feel strongly that it is Congolese-led and that education is the way to empower people. But, not just that, I appreciate it is based in a Christian faith that is committed to service and a way of life.
I feel honored to be a supporter of CI and UCBC since the beginning, because you witness what is possible. It can seem impossible and there is fear that it may not go somewhere. But, to hear stories of transformation and even small changes, is incredible. And the anticipation that comes with knowing these new leaders are going out there to influence others around them in whatever field, testifies to the impact being made.
Why do you think it is important to support UCBC students? What makes UCBC unique in the eastern Congo context?
Esther: I just appreciate the history behind it – the founders being Congolese, asking a lot of questions to the community first. What is needed? That is where everyone should start. Then listening and coming up with a solution from grassroots and making it happen. I also found the triadic training to be unique. The emphasis on service in a context where a degree is often seen as bringing prestige and a mentality of “what can this degree accomplish for me?”
What encouragement would you give to the students at UCBC?
Esther: Though they are young, they have experienced so much. So, in many ways, they are older than I, and I feel inspired by them. And I know that as others hear their stories, they too will be inspired and encouraged.
Esther now lives in Atlanta with her husband and two kids. Besides raising her daughter and son, Esther also works in visual communications.