Chapter 1


SAND … . 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 thermometer—104 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 London—I 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.

I 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 own way.

"Do you wish to be baptised?" reads the priest from his book.

"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 of Pentecost.

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 organ—which 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 missionary.

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*Bishop Mercier :

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