Working for peace while exiled: Jean Claude Nkundwa

Exiled peacemaker Jean Claude Nkundwa

Adapted from news releases and article by Lauren Jefferson

Jean Claude Nkundwa. Photo by Joaquin Sosa.

Jean Claude Nkundwa works for peace in his native country of Burundi from exile in Rwanda. When Jean graduated with a master of arts in conflict transformation at Eastern Mennonite University in 2014, he thought finding work in peacebuilding in his native Burundi after graduation could be difficult.

He, his wife Francine Muhimpundu, and young son returned to Burundi, and Nkundwa renewed former contacts from working 12 years with partner organizations affiliated with Mennonite Central Committee and also Harvest of Peace Ministries. With Burundi International Community Church, he helped mobilize churches in community violence prevention training and began building an early warning system network.

However, his patient plan was sidetracked by a May 2015 political crisis, one which Nkundwa presciently predicted the month before in a New York Times op-ed titled “Burundi: On the Brink?”

The coup was precipitated by the decision of President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a controversial third term. Since his win in the election, hundreds of people were killed and more than a quarter of a million people fled the country. Human rights abuses are rampant.

“That article helped get my name out,” Nkundwa said. When he fled to Rwanda with his family and other civil society leaders, he was quickly back on his feet. With former classmate Katrina Gehman, MA ’15, he published a conflict analysis that opened doors to his inclusion in gaining support of leaders in Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa and Tanzania for peace talks.

Nkundwa says the strategic peacebuilding and negotiation practices taught at CJP have contributed to a unique skill set: “CJP taught me to think about who to build relationships with, how to work with influential individuals and groups who can facilitate your messages. As someone who works independently, that is one of my biggest skills. Now I support civil society groups in analysis, suggesting interventions, framing messages, targeting allies, networking, and process.”

From exile in Rwanda, Nkundwa is being called upon to help peace negotiations forward and to advocate for international intervention to prevent a situation that could turn swiftly to genocide, once again. In May, 2016, he was invited by Crisis Action to advocate before the United Nations Security Council with representatives of Burundi’s civil society for police intervention to protect civilians.

Disturbed by the lack of consensus among mid-level security council members, he then scheduled a series of meetings, facilitated by a U.S.- based student peace organization, in Washington D.C. He also met with the United States Senate and U.S. House committees on foreign relations, representatives of USAID, and non-governmental organization advocates.

At the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at EMU in 2016, during his final week in the United States that May, Nkundwa took Lisa Schirch’s course on peacebuilding approaches to violent extremism in anticipation of what he felt was likely to occur in Burundi.

Despite concerns about his future, Nkundwa is always pleased to be back at EMU. “Always moving from one emergency to another and constantly adapting leadership skills and language is exhausting. I need a break. This has been a good time to reflect. I’ve taken some good deep breaths here,” he said with a laugh.

In May 2017, Jean accepted the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding’s Peacebuilder of the Year award at EMU. Knowledge acquired in the SPI monitoring and evaluation course will aid his work as executive secretary of Burundi Citizen Synergy, a collaborative group of movements, media leaders and labor union groups, among others, on joint advocacy and communication strategies regarding peace in Burundi.

In his acceptance speech at a luncheon in his honor, Nkundwa pointed out that the award was for “involvement, not achievement,” and promised to work hard to bring about change in his country and the region.

“This award tells me that there is work to do, that I need to persevere until I reach the goal,” he said. “This is the beginning. This is a journey towards a dream that I want to see and that then I can call an achievement.”

He also acknowledged fellow Burundi citizens in exile such as Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, and those citizens who remain in Burundi who continue protesting human rights abuses. Nkundwa also noted deceased peacebuilding colleague M.J. Sharp, a fellow EMU graduate whom he had never met but heard many stories about while working Africa’s Great Lakes region. Sharp, a U.N. official, was killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo this past spring while on a factfinding mission.

“I accept this award in the names of all those people I respect so much,” Nkundwa said.

He also praised the academic and practical preparation provided by his conflict transformation coursework at CJP. “Our education is pushing us just to think one way – take notes from a teacher, memorize it, send it back. Thank you for teaching me to move from place to place, from class to class, from theory to theory. This education has helped me to be more and more useful.”

Now, when confronted with people who say, “[Transformation] is not possible,” he says, “We must make it possible.”
Adapted from a 2017 EMU/CPT news release, and an article in EMU’s Peacebuilding magazine, Oct. 2016. Used by permission.