. sand . . . . sand, blood and sand, oil and sand. It
was a refrain running through my head as I dozed in the giant plane.
The engine droned on and I awoke with a start. It was past midnight
on Good Friday for we had left Paris at 8.20 the previous Thursday
evening of April 18th. We were flying over that sea of sand: the
Sahara Desert. I thought of the first missionary attempts to cross
it: the fathers setting off disguised as Arabs on their camels with
the Touareg guides; the long silence that followed their departure
and then the news that they had been massacred by these same Touaregs.
On we flew into the night. Below us the place names would stir
the heart of any son of Lavigerie (founder of the White Fathers
and White Sisters). Biskra, where Lavigerie used to walk in the
evening and look out over the sands of the Sahara and hear, so he
said, the wailing of the slaves in the breeze through the palm trees.
Laghouat, Geryville, Metlili, Wargla, El Golea, a lovely litany
of names all carefully placed stepping stones to the heart of the
Sahara, to Timbuktu itself.
Somewhere below, in the middle of an ocean of sand were oil wells.
Bishop Mercier, W.F.*, the Bishop of the Sahara, has said for years
that there is no hope for the poor Arab of the Sahara short of a
miracle, a miracle which will bring food to his half starving people.
The miracle has happened: oil in the desert. Another miracle too
is happening, according to the Bishop. After nearly a hundred years
of patient apostolate, a change of heart is coming among these Moslem
people, a growing sympathy for the Christian missionary.
I dozed on, then my African companion stirred at my side and we
started to talk.He complained bitterly to me "Europe has been
in Africa for so many years and has done nothing for my country.
Europeans have taken all and given us nothing."
I asked him from where he was returning to Africa, and he told me
that he had just qualified as a doctor of medicine in Paris. I thought
of what that supposed on the part of Europeans in Africa and in
France, the whole back- ground of education, hospitals, and the
corresponding benefits that go along with such things. But when
I put this to him he fell silent and I could not persuade him to
explain his thought - if it was a thought and not merely a prejudice.
Our plane travelled faster than telegrams in Africa. We had sent
one days before, asking to be met at Wagadugu. It reached its destination
five days after us, and so we stood very forlornly on an airstrip
in the wilds in the evening of Holy Saturday, as the sun was going
down, looking in vain for a cloud of dust that would herald an approaching
car, wondering where we should eat and sleep. Some Africans taking
pity on our helplessness, produced a lorry from somewhere and drove
us helter-skelter through swarms of hens and goats that seemed to
have gathered to welcome us in the streets of Wagadugu. We were
grateful for the ride and more thankful still to pull up safely
at this great mission of the Upper Volta.
The first thing I noticed was the heat. Late in the evening I looked
at the thermometer104 degrees Fahrenheit, and it was like
an oven in the vast cathedral as we entered later for the Easter
Vigil. There were four-thousand people packed together under a corrugated
iron roof. The walls, the altars and altar rails are made of dried
mud and empty oil tins served as flower vases. My mind went back
to LondonI thought for a moment of the marble and mosaic of
Westminster Cathedral. Here was a fact of the missions: the loss
of much that is enjoyed by cultured man.
But here in this Bethlehem of a cathedral were all the essentials,
and whatever may have been missing in beauty was made up for a thousandfold
by the enthusiasm of the people.
There were no poky bits of charcoal but a glowing brazier was ready
at the cathedral door for the blessing of the Holy Fire. The cathedral
was pitch-black within and it could have been empty for all I could
see: but when the deacon with his newly lighted candle entered,
calling out "Lumen Christi", the expectant silence was
broken by a tremendous roar from four thousand voices: "Deo
Gratias". Then, as we walked slowly up the aisle, there was
an excited scramble of children bringing all manner of ends of candle
to light for themselves and pass on to the grown-ups who could scarcely
move. The Lessons were read in Mossi and all the people joined in
the Litany and Prayers, taking part in the worship of God risen
from the dead. Everything seemed larger and more real at Wagadugu.
It may have been the setting that impressed me so much: perhaps
it was the very absence of all but the essential; but whatever the
cause, I never before enjoyed a ceremony as much as this.
heard the celebrant smash his hands into the waters and saw him
splash them to the four corners of the earth, and I realised the
perfection of water as the symbol of cleansing, and refreshment
and, in this heat, of life itself. There were no baptisms that night,
but 291 adults had been baptised a fortnight before. There are good
practical reasons for this for some of the old people have such
a deep sense of reality at their baptism, that they step from the
strict words of the ritual and express their true feelings in their
"Do you wish to be baptised?" reads the priest from his
"And what do you think I am standing here for?" will reply
an indignant woman.
"Do you renounce Satan?" asks the priest.
"A silly question," may reply an old man, "what could
I want with that old devil?"
The renewal of our baptismal vows in Mossi was so impressive but
it was nothing to the singing of the Alleluia. The "ouuuu"
whistled and rolled down the cathedral like a mighty wind; the wind
Four of us distributed Holy Communion for thirty-five minutes while
the congregation prayed aloud in Mossi or sang hymns to the accompaniment
of the organwhich was an accordion! It was a moving scene:
old men and women, young boys and girls, the newly baptised, conspicuous
in their spotless white robes, the crippled, the lame and the blind.
The bare feet of the altar boys rustled along the mud floor, the
tiny babes wailed or gurgled on their mothers' backs. Through the
wide open shutters and doors, I looked out into the African night
and back to the burning Paschal candle, and thought of the darkness
of paganism found here by the first missionaries fifty-six years
before, and of the wonderful resurrection with Christ that was now
giving such joy to me, a visitor, and such consolation to these
Fathers who were tasting the fruits of their sacrifice and His.
The African priests, Brothers and Nuns all testified to the unity
and catholicity of the Church in that cathedral as they mingled
with the white priests, the white Sisters, and the de la Salle Brothers.
The Easter Vigil was an inspiring experience and I shall never assist
at it in future without recalling Wagadugu; the splashing of the
waters and the intense participation of the African congregation.
The ceremonies of the Vigil went on until two o'clock in the morning
and the Community had a "sleep-in": till 5-30 a.m.! The
night was noisy with the rain pounding down so hard that I expected
the roof to fall in at any moment. Next morning when I spoke of
the terrible storm, people raised their eyebrows and said: "Storm?
Oh yes, we did have a little rain."
I said my Mass at a side altar. The two candles bowed over in the
heat as though in adoration, and two tiny dusky servers answered
me in perfect Latin. After my Mass I blew out a candle, then I saw
four great eyes looking up at me in dumb appeal. I understood. I
reached over and passed the other candle to the boys who, with one
unanimous, satisfying puff, blew it out.
In the afternoon we had Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament with
the hymns in Mossi. I wish the Holy Father could have heard these
thousands of his African children asking Almighty God to protect
him; the crescendo of Bond Ba Papa, Our Father the Pope, was a mighty
roar that went crashing through the roof to the heavens.
During supper al fresco a cloud of flying ants joined us. They stewed
themselves in the soup and explored every opening in our clothing.
"It's all right," said the Superior calmly, as he saw
me squirm, "they won't hurt you. Our people eat them."
And he continued to scoop them up with his soup as though they were
not there. I am afraid the ants had more supper than I had that
evening. I noticed two clever scorpions, installed beneath a lamp,
dining in comfort on the ants that fell into their laps. I had been
back in Africa only forty-eight hours, uncomfortable hours, most
of them, but all full of happiness as the atmosphere soaked into
me. It is impossible to explain it, one must just experience the
unique charm of this continent, at least its unique charm for any
Return to Top