Graduates in Action

Alumni envision an exciting future for The UMC in Burundi

When Africa University opened its doors in 1992, Zephirin Ndikumana left his native Burundi to study agriculture there. His bishop, John Alfred Ndoricimpa, told him, “God has trusted you with the responsibilities to go and study in his university in Zimbabwe. When you graduate, you must come back and demonstrate to your fellow United Methodists here at home that you were worthy (of) trusting. You must come back to participate in the development of the church.” Zephirin Ndikumana is the Conference Lay Leader for The United Methodist Church of Burundi.

Zephirin took the bishop’s words to heart. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources at AU and returned to Burundi to work in various capacities with World Vision International.

In 1994, Burundi was engulfed in civil unrest. Learning of the deteriorating security and political situation in Zephirin’s homeland, Africa University offered refuge in Zimbabwe. In the Faculty of Agriculture, Zephirin served as a science laboratory technician (1995-2010). While at AU, he was admitted to the Master of Philosophy program and earned that degree in 2010.

“Africa University,” Zephirin said, “offered me a learning opportunity and good preparation to handle church and life challenges. Among the greatest gifts is Vivian Johnson Ndikumana, the life partner I met on campus. We fell in love in 1997 and got married two years later. God blessed us with two children,” daughter Rosette Donate, now 17, and son René Nathaniel, 13.

Rev. Vivian Ndikumana, with daughter, Rosette, and son, Rene.Vivian had heard about Africa University at First United Methodist Church in Monrovia, Liberia. She enrolled at AU in 1995 and completed her Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1999. After graduation, she returned home to lecture at Gbanga School of Theology, where she eventually chaired the Department of Theology, Church History and Ethics. She received a Master of Theological Studies degree from AU in 2004.

While the couple was in Zimbabwe, The United Methodist Church in Burundi experienced a leadership crisis. Daniel A. Wandabula was elected bishop in 2006, and the church divided. One faction – with more than 70 percent of the church membership – was led by the Rev. Justin Nzoyisaba. This group rejected the fact that Wandabula, a Ugandan from a different cultural background, could be given authority over the Burundi church that had almost three-fourths of the members in the East Africa Episcopal Area. Leading the smaller group was the Rev. Lazare Bankurunaze, who supported and celebrated Wandabula’s election.

From struggle to success

“The rift resulted in a complete separation,” Zephirin said. “Nzoyisaba’s group lived in seclusion from the global UMC for 12 years, but maintained its United Methodist outlook.” When Nzoyisaba’s term ended in 2017, the Rev. Jean Ntahoturi, an Africa University graduate, was elected to replace him as church legal representative. Zephirin, who with his family had returned to Burundi, was appointed conference lay leader.

“We made a team that was favorable to church reconciliation,” Zephirin said. “Ntahoturi declared the spirit of oneness. Church reunification was our priority.” Part of Zephirin’s role was explaining denominational leadership structures to congregations, many of whom had regarded Nzoyisabla as a bishop, rather than as a church legal representative. They met with Bankurunaze. “The global church leadership was informed,” Zephirin added, “and this became exciting news to them and an encouragement to us.”

In August 2017, Ntahoturi, Zephirin and representatives of Bankurunaze’s group met in Harare with Bishop Gregory Vaughn Palmer, chair of the United Methodist Standing Committee on Conference Matters. “We had a very good time with the mediation team,” Zephirin said, “and reached satisfying conclusions.” They all signed a memorandum of understanding that signaled a new era for the Burundi Annual Conference.

Guiding the efforts, Zephirin recalled, were Jesus’ words in John 13:34-35, NRSV: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Rev. Jean Ntahoturi (left), legal representative of The UMC of Burundi, in a Global Ministries facilitated strategic planning session in Atlanta, GA.

“God has been very good to us,” Zephirin said. “All the targets we set for ourselves and all the promises we made to the leadership of the global church and the mediation team were achieved. Upon arrival back home, we moved through districts, especially those that had been severely affected by church conflicts, sharing the good news of unity and reconciliation.

“Both parties were determined to make things work. We believe this was an act of God, looking at the overwhelming positive response we received,” Zephirin continued. “I took on the responsibility of spreading the gospel of love and forgiveness, knowing this is the only way for the church in Burundi to be known as a follower of Jesus Christ.” 

‘The power of unity’

Zephirin said that his absence from Burundi during the church turmoil put him at an advantage during the reconciliation process. “I spoke of unity with boldness, and no church member had any grudge with me because I was not part of the various physical and verbal confrontations that took place during the time of disharmony.” During that time, he noted, people fought for worship space, church assets and church leadership positions. “They also fought for the church name brand. This was very good for the reconciliation team as it was an indication that no one wanted to lose their original identity. They all had something to cherish that they were not prepared to lose: the United Methodist name.”

As conference Christian education director, Vivian strives diligently to respond to a critical church strategic objective – to enhance The United Methodist Church in Burundi evangelism’s capacity and double its membership from 211,000 to 400,000 members; to prepare men and women with a call to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ; and “to organize afresh the Sunday school and consolidate training materials following the provisions of the United Methodist Book of Discipline.” At the United Methodist Theological Training College in Burundi, she is a lecturer, dean of students and chaplain. Zephirin oversees administration and finance; Ntahoturi serves as academic dean; and Patrice Nduwimana is dean of admissions and registrar.

Grateful for their Africa University education, the Ndikumanas fervently hope to revive the spirit of sending students from Burundi Conference to AU, a practice that stopped during the church split.

The Ndikumanas believe they have reason to be optimistic about the future.

“When Jesus Christ commissioned his disciples to go and declare the year of the Lord when captives are set free,” Zephirin said, “there was need to figure out what to do with the folks that would likely oppose the move to liberate them.

“This happened to us. In the United Methodist circles in Burundi, reconciliation was much awaited for some, especially those who were steadfast in prayer, while it was farsighted for others. After 12 years of separation, some church members had completely forgotten the joy of being together. When the good news of reconciliation started moving, some started dismissing it at first, but came to believe in it. They were fighting to remain divided, but could not resist the power of unity that was sweeping across our annual conference.”

Story by Barbara Dunlap-Berg, a freelance writer and editor.