Peace worker’s suicide a wake-up call for churches

Published October 1, 2000


DEATH is no stranger in Mozambique, the world’s poorest country, where the national health service covers only 15 per cent of the population. But the suicide last October of Jacinto Muth, director of the Christian Council of Mozambique’s Swords to Plough-shares Project dismayed a broad cross-section of Mozambicans and shocked Christian leaders across Africa.

The project was the council’s best-known and perhaps most successful program. African church leaders consider it a creative and exemplary response to the over-abundance of illegal weapons in the hands of civilians.

Building peace in a country torn by years of conflict is not easy. Millions of weapons poured into Mozambique during the decades of war that ended in the early 1990s. Many still remain, attracting arms traders from neighboring countries and encouraging violence. In Mozambique, emotional and physical scars need to heal, and mentalities need to change. The culture of violence created by war has to be dismantled and weapons handed in.

CCM placed this task in the safe hands of its Justice, Peace and Reconciliation Commission head, Anglican Bishop Dinis Sengulane, an internationally respected human rights activist, with Jacinto Muth as executive director.

Educated in England and fluent in several European languages, Mr. Muth moved easily among secular and church-related donor agencies and through conference halls in many parts of the world. He gave the project a high international profile.

In the process, he became one of Africa’s leading experts in micro-disarmament and on faith-based “peace mentality.” He was in high demand to share his skills and experiences throughout Africa.

The project collects weapons from Mozambicans, offering tools, seeds and other necessities in exchange. The arms are then destroyed, or transformed into furniture, sculpture and other works of art.

(A show of sculpture created from some of the collected weapons is being exhibited in Canada. For information, see the Web site, or e-mail [email protected].)

But running the project was stressful. Mr. Muth’s friends and colleagues at CCM, Canadian missionaries Karen and Bill Butt, say in a letter to the Inter-church Coalition on Africa that the program was labour-intensive and dangerous. “[It involved] dealing with a fearful range of informers, gun-runners, foreign donors, bureaucrats, police and nervous pastors.”

The trigger for Mr. Muth’s death was the news that a cousin and his only brother had been killed in a motorcycle accident, the Butts say. He came home, closed himself in his bedroom and drank battery acid.

The Butss do not believe that Mr. Muth took his own life because of personal problems alone. In their letter to ICCA, they described Mr. Muth as being “vivid, gregarious, well-educated, articulate and capable.”

They also speak of the difficult life in the Mozambican capital of Maputo, of the aftermath of genocidal war, of street crime, and of too much new money flaunted in too few new hands.

Mr. Muth worked to bring to Mozambique peace and reconciliation, the Butts say. “[He collected] guns to get them from wrong hands, trading [them] for bicycles, ploughs, sewing machines to build life instead of to destroy it.”

“But where was peace inside Jacinto Muth?” the Butts ask rhetorically. “In a Christian council, why could no-one help him find it, make him feel safe and loved, prevent his life from being destroyed?”

The council, and indeed most African church agencies, lack the capacity to respond adequately to the spiritual and psychological needs of their lay professional African staff. Few agencies are even aware that there is such a problem.

For such agencies, Mr. Muth’s death is a wake-up call; it is clearly a representative cry for help from this class of church workers.

The prophetic call is never easy or peaceful, but these African frontline workers are having a real tough time of it. They are in daily contact with the extremes of Africa’s afflictions: the brutal consequences of war, the ravages of disease, the misery of grinding poverty, and the suffering of the weak and innocent. Some are traumatized.

Then, many of them run programs which are over-hyped by fundraisers or micro-managed by foreign donors.

Mr. Muth’s program, for example, had improbable expectations. It was supposed to succeed where the United Nations, with $35-million, unlimited firepower and diplomatic resources, had failed. The estimates of the number of weapons in the country were as high as six million, but the UN collected only 189,827 weapons between 1992 and 1995 when the mission ended.

The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund contributed $15,000 to the project four years ago and an additional $15,000 more recently, said Charlotte Maxwell, Africa program co-ordinator for east and southern Africa.

The first phase of Mr. Muth’s project began in October 1995. It was scheduled to last two years and had an initial budget of $1.2-million (U.S.) provided by Germany and Japan. “I think the most memorable time was when a group handed over 500 guns they had discovered in a dump,” says Bishop Sengulane. “We gave them a tractor in exchange.”

But the second phase got underway with a grant of only $125,000 from the Swedish International Development Agency, and goodwill gestures from ecumenical partners and mission boards. As money dried up, so did attractive goods to exchange for guns. During the first phase, an average of 115 weapons were handed into the CCM monthly. Then it declined to between 15 and 20 per month.

The Butts say that shortly before he died, Mr. Muth had returned from a trip to Montreal, where he was the featured speaker at a conference on micro-disarmament. He had also just finished work on a documentary for Austrian television.

That could have been another trigger for his death. Preparing promotional materials can be stressful. Haunting pictures of dying African children do attract sympathy and donations; but for workers on the ground, like Mr. Muth, those haunting eyes have names and personal stories.

The project will miss Mr. Muth, but it will survive him. Mozambicans of all walks of life, including politicians, have welcomed the initiative. President Joaquim Chissano and opposition leader Afonso Dhlakama gave their official support. The ministries of Home Affairs, of National Defense and of Finance are working with the project.

Suicide, however, which is considered shameful in most African cultures, and sinful by most Christians, is inexplicable for a person like Mr. Muth. As the Butts say: “People looking from outside would say he had a better life than most.”

That Mr. Muth took his own life was perhaps a tragic personal failure, but it would be meaningless only if African church leaders failed to see the lesson in it. How many other workers out there, expected to live for others, are giving away more than they have? Was the worldwide spotlight on Mr. Muth too dazzling and blinding?

Among the many demands on the African church is the need to nurture and sustain its peacemakers and prophets. Odhiambo Okite is a Kenyan journalist writing on the role of the emerging African church in public affairs.


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