When Swiss-born Nicole Thieke (74) helped found the German association ‘Hallo Kongo’ in 2004 to support local schools in Congo, little did she know that one day she would be awarded the Order of Merit by the German president. The story of her commitment to Congo is one example of how small decisions can move mountains and how ‘chance’ encounters can nudge us towards changing the world.
How does it feel to have been awarded with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany?
It was a total surprise. I knew that friends and members of Hallo Kongo had been thinking of putting my name forward to make my work known, but there hadn’t been any reply for a long time. Then, on 17 October 2018, I suddenly got this letter announcing that I had been awarded the Order of Merit by the President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier and that I would receive it from Baden-Wuerttemberg’s Prime Minister Winfried Kretschmann in Stuttgart (photo). One must be nominated by others. Communities and institutions in Germany encourage citizens and associations to nominate people who are particularly involved and committed to specific causes.
Tell us more about Hallo Kongo. When and how did you get involved with the association?
Hallo Kongo as an association was founded in 2004 in South Germany. We currently have 103 members and our aim is to support students of all ages in Congo. We also finance further training for teachers and support various other projects. However, our commitment to Congo goes back to 1980 when my husband and I were asked to urgently help find an apartment for a Congolese student and his family. The student had received a grant to study in our town in Germany but needed a place to stay in order to obtain a visa.
At that time the housing situation in the city we lived in was particularly tense. We thought it impossible to find an apartment in only one day but decided to apply something we had learned with IofC: we sat down, we prayed, and we reflected in silence.
Then suddenly my husband had the idea to ask a pastor who had previously worked in Africa and lived in a larger residence on his own. He called him, explained the situation, and the pastor immediately agreed to welcome the Congolese student and his family. Three days later, the Congolese student, Jean-François, his wife Lucienne and their children had arrived. This is when everything started!
How do the tools and ideas of IofC influence your life?
The purpose, the quality of life, and the tools I received through IofC made me free from self-centered fears. It gave me an inner quiet, trust, and a surprising boldness for concrete initiatives, for instance the one of Hallo Kongo. Honesty about myself also plays a big part: I sometimes must make important decisions and it’s essential to be able to look at myself and my motives with total honesty, which is a method I learned through IofC. By the way: being honest about yourself often helps to understand others and what is driving them better.
One of the focus areas of IofC is trustbuilding. Which role does trustbuilding play in your work with Hallo Kongo?
Trustbuilding is at the very core of our work in Congo. Lucienne and I can trust each other totally. Without this trust I would not get involved or invest another person’s money in Congo. The board of Hallo Kongo trusts Lucienne and her school because they know her. The board of Lucienne’s school trust me and Hallo Kongo because they know me. On both boards there are people with great qualities who might soon have to take over. Lucienne and I try and help them by giving them opportunities to get to know each other better and become a solid Congolese-German team. And because we were able to build trust between us and the German Ministry for Development, they agreed to finance the majority of our projects in Kinshasa!
Since Nicole's nomination, "Hallo Kongo" and Lucienne's team have continued to develop their projects. In August 2019 four six-day Peace Circles, facilitated by two East African trainers, were held in Kinshasa, as part of the projects financed by the German Ministry for Development and Hallo Kongo. Participants included the headmasters and their teams from four different schools, 16 former students of Lucienne's school who are now at university, and members of a women's organisation fighting for human rights. The Peace Circles had a positive impact on several of those present and helped change lives. Nicole is currently looking forward to spending November in Kinshasa.
Photo Nicole Thieke and Prime Minister Kretschmann: https://stm.baden-wuerttemberg.de