Today’s “Church of the Week” is not a group or a building, but a person. Daniel Ntoni-Nzinga is not only highly accomplished; the way he has invested his time demonstrates extreme dedication and strength of character. His home country is Angola, a southern African nation that has been repeatedly torn apart by war, and Ntoni-Nzinga has worked tirelessly to promote peace and stability.
Daniel Ntoni-Nzinga holds a bachelor’s degree in theology from Institut Supérieur de Théologie de Kinshasa, a bachelor of social sciences degree in Social Anthropology, and a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Leeds. He is a Christian leader, peace activist, an ordained Baptist minister, and a respected member of the Angolan Civil Society. Ntoni-Nzinga co-founded of the Grupo Angolano de Reflexao para Paz (also called GARP, which releases publications, organizes marches and prayer gatherings, and advocates for an end to the use of child soldiers). He also served as executive secretary of the Inter-Ecclesiastical Committee for Peace in Angola (also called COIEPA, which trains peace activists and partners with WHO’s Safe Injection Campaign), and executive secretary of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Angola, secretary general of the Angolan Council of Churches. He also speaks five languages: Kikongo, Portuguese, English, French, and Spanish.
Daniel Ntoni-Nzinga was born in 1946, in the municipality of Uíge (“Weej”), in the province of Damba, in the nation of Angola. His birthplace has long been witness to Angola’s complex and turbulent history.
Before the arrival of the Portuguese, the region that is now Angola was home to a number of centuries-old African kingdoms, living in pretty close proximity to each other. The largest of these was the Kongo Kingdom, which was spread over much of central Africa. Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, Ntoni-Nzinga’s hometown of Uíge was at the heartland of Kongo.
The Kongo Kingdom was heavily involved in trade with other kingdoms up and down the western and southwestern African coast, but not with countries further across the ocean. When the Portuguese first arrived, they were relatively peaceful. They traded with the kingdoms of the region, taught literacy, spread Catholicism, and sometimes even reindorced the dominance of the Kongo Kingdom over its neighbors. Power in the Kongo kingdom was held by aristocrats, who answered to no one but the king. Most of Kongo’s wealth came from trade, as it was a productive site for agriculture and minerals. Kongolese traders gave the Portuguese slaves, ivory, and minerals in exchange for firearms and other technology.
In that part of the world, a ruler was called a “ngola,” much like a ruler in central Asia might be known as a “khan,” or a Russian ruler might be known as a “czar.” When the Portuguese first arrived in southwestern Africa, they misunderstood the title of the ruler, ngola, with the name of the country. That is why the region is still known as “Angola” today.
But it wasn’t long before Portugal became interested in more than trade. In 1575, the Portuguese colony of Angola was established. Paulo Dias de Novais, an explorer and a fidalgo of the Portuguese Royal Household, established himself as the first Captain-Governor of Portuguese Angola. He brought with him a hundred families of white colonists, as well as 400 soldiers. They established themselves in Luanda, a former so-called trading post that was quickly becoming a city.
The region of Angola was very economically dependent on Portugal, making it was very sensitive to fluctuations in Portugal’s economic and political situation. The abolition of the slave trade (and later, a slump in the value of rubber) seriously upset traditional social orders, as formerly aristocratic traders were forced into cash crop agriculture as migratory workers. The most prominent of these cash crops was coffee.
One thing that colonial governments in Africa were very good at was stirring up ethnic tensions. In Angola, the Portuguese privileged the Bakongo people (heirs of the now-defunct Kongo Kingdom) over people descended from other kingdoms. The Portuguese also succeeded in creating rigid ethnically-based social structures. Only the subjects that were legally considered “assimilado” (“civilized”) were granted the rights of full citizenship. All other subjects were considered “native”. A “native” subject of Portuguese Angola could apply for assimilado status, but that process required proof of some rudimentary Portuguese education and the keeping of a European lifestyle. The Portuguese also brought large numbers of white settlers into Angola, inciting greater anti-white and anti-mestiço sentiment in a situation that was already very tense.
This brings us to the lifetime of Daniel Ntoni-Nzinga. When he was born, in 1946, Angola was not yet an independent nation. Uíge was a center of coffee production. Most of the people of Uíge were of Bakongo descent, spoke Kikongo (the language of the Kongo Kingdom) or Portuguese, and were largely Catholic. Because of the relative wealth of Uíge’s residents, the inaccessibility of its location, and its rich pastoral soil, Uíge was becoming a hub of rebel activity.
Detailed information about Ntoni-Nzinga’s life has been hard to come by. For instance, I have been unable to find information on when he graduated from college, or any English-language personal accounts of his experiences during Angola’s wars. However, I can cobble together a picture based on accounts of Ntoni-Nzinga’s career and historical data about Angola.
We know that Daniel Ntoni-Nzinga was 15 years old when the Angolan War of Independence began, when a group of Angolan peasants boycotting the cotton fields where they worked, demanding better working conditions and higher wages. The protestors burned their ID cards and attacked Portuguese traders, and the Portuguese retaliated by bombing villages in the area using napalm. The revolt quickly escalated into an all-out war, with Portugal struggling to maintain control of the colony, and rebels struggling to shake them off.
Three key rebel groups emerged in this struggle. The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) was ostensibly a Leninist group that appealed to the young nation’s urban intelligentsia, and which was supported by the Soviet Union. The National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) was a center-right group that espoused an ideology of civic nationalism and Christian democracy. The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), based among the Ovimbundu workers, presented itself to foreign powers as a Maoist alternative to the Leninist MPLA and the right-wing FNLA.
It was during this time, when Ntoni-Nzinga was 21 years old, that he began to work in conflict situations. And when the War of Independence ended in 1974, the 28-year-old Ntoni-Nzinga was ordained as a Baptist pastor, and secured a position as the first Executive Secretary of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Angola.
In 1975, no sooner had the War of Independence began than the Angolan Civil War began. Many different ideologies fought for control of the country. The Leninist MPLA, the conservative FNLA, and the Maoist UNITA were among them, but there were many, many other political parties that jostled to make their voices heard. Angola was quickly becoming a surrogate battle field for the Cold War. Nations like the Soviet Union, the United States, Cuba, South Africa, and Namibia, all of whom had a stake in the fate of Angola. The war also became entangled in the Second Congo War and the Namibian War of Independence.
Two years into the Civil War, Daniel Ntoni-Nzinga resigned his position as executive secretary, instead becoming General Secretary of the Angolan Council of Churches, a position that he held for eight years.
Though the war was long and bloody, there were periods of progress. In 1989, all foreign forces withdrew from Angola. From 1991 to 1992, there was a brief period of peace, during which Angola began to transition towards a multiparty political system. FNLA’s armed forces disbanded, and UNITA and FNLA became legitimate political parties.
During all this time, Ntoni-Nzinga continued to write, march, organize, pray, and appeal for peace. In 1996, he wrote a book called Democracy and the Ethics of Good Governance, and in 2000, he began to serve as Executive Secretary of the Inter-Ecclesial Committee for Peace in Angola.
The MPLA achieved victory in 2002 when UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi was assassinated. But the war had lasted for 26 years. In that time, 500,000 people had died, and 4.28 million people were displaced.
Ntoni-Nzinga continues to call for peace in his country. In an interview with Ofeibea Quist-Arcton for AllAfrica.com in 2005, he said,
“We need to disarm our minds first. We need agreement on what kind of life we want to live, what kind of society we want, what kind of nation we want to be… So it is important that after silencing the guns, we get to the stage where we can talk about the real issue[s] that brought conflict between us. Many Angolans, especially those younger ones who were born in the 70s and 80s, know nothing else except the war… we have to make sure that people don’t think that that is the normal way of life, that there is a proper way of living without conflict.”
In a bio written for internationalpeaceandconflict.org, Ntoni-Nzinga said,
“My work over the last 20 years has made me wonder about the paradoxical role of Religion in Conflict development and Resolution in Africa, which has resulted in my interest in anthropological research on these spheres of life and their impact on life today. Related to this, are questions about the discourses on peace and sovereignty often associated to conflict resolution and peace-building exercises. Experience shows that these discourses have often played in the hands of those who benefit from the conflicts rather than serve the common cause, as pretended. With this comes as well the issue of identity in conflict and post situations, especially when the victims of the atrocities committed during the conflict are urged to fasten their belt while seated in the just boarded “plane of peace”, as it takes off in a flight piloted by the very “war lords”, who made them starve and bury their love ones, striving hard to consolidate their positions using slogans that promise democratic rules with no means for check and balance by the sovereigns they pretend to serve. My interest here is to research the role that religious values can play to contribute to conflict resolution and building processes that enable the Africans exercise their power of sovereignty, trust and use effectively the offered political options as instruments for the achievement of the common for all.”*
I find politics interesting as a Christian. I feel that my job is to be as Christlike as possible, within my human limitations. While Jesus definitely did and said inflammatory things in his lifetime, he wasn’t the political leader that others expected him to be. So, how are we as Christians supposed to participate in politics? What must we do when there are unacceptable things going on in our governments, whether that’s an unjust war, or racism, or child abuse? What if we, like Ntoni-Nzinga, are trapped in a dynamic where there are no obvious “good guys?” Some have criticized the organizations run by Ntoni-Nzinga as ineffective. Should we speak up for what we know is right, even if we seem to be fighting a losing battle? And to whom are we responsible? Is it just to our families, or just to the people in our community? Are we responsible to the entire world, or perhaps to whomever we feel called to serve? Those aren’t rhetorical questions, by the way. Let me know in comments.
* This comment has been edited for spelling and grammar only.