MUD AND MOSAICS

Chapter 13

JESUIT MISSIONS



ON SATURDAY, June 22nd, we drove a hundred miles to the great Jesuit mission at Kisantu. On our way we made a detour in order to see the boarding school at Mbonza — which means "Snakes" — run by the Sacred Heart nuns. I noticed some African faces framed by the familiar wimple. This is an African school with four hundred girls.

At Kisantu we met Jesuits, both black and white, and African secular priests, with the Auxiliary Bishop, Monsignor Kimbondo, also an African. The population is very scattered in this area and the Jesuits have established an immense boarding school to solve the problem. They bring the children in to the mission instead of trying to have numbers of small schools all over the area, There were more than two thousand boarders. Kisantu is a wonderful place with its Agricultural School and its Technical School for carpenters, tailors, metal workers and motor mechanics. It was extraordinary to find so many children together in the Bush.

The cathedral which will hold four thousand people is a fine large building with bricks of three colours. Although built long ago, it looked as though it had been put up yesterday, the air is so clean. The church was crammed at 5.30 in the morning and the singing at Mass was splendid. In this area eighty-seven per cent of the people are Christians. The Jesuits have the Marist Brothers to run the school here. There are nine Brothers assisted by twelve African teachers. The Sisters of Namur look after the girls.

When we asked the way to the convent we were told: "Go as far as the statue of the Sacred Heart and turn right and you will come to the Sisters' village".

It was a village indeed! There were seven African nuns there — out of thirty belonging to the Sisters of Namur in the Vicariate. There were six hundred boarders and five hundred day-scholars at the school, and at another only a mile away there were five hundred more. I met some of the forty African women teachers working in the school. They are very much sought-after as wives, and I was told that the number of letters received asking if the nuns had a teacher for sale as a wife was unbelievable. There were so many letters that the Superior had reply cards printed; all saying the answer was in the negative !

The morning after my arrival a retreat for mothers was held in the cathedral. Six or seven hundred, most of them with cooing, crying babies on their backs, listened to the preacher. Poor man! He did his best against the opposition ! One certainly must articulate well to be understood in an African church when the young mothers are present.

In the afternoon we went off to visit the seminary at Mayidi which had produced one hundred and twenty African priests since it began in 1937. From there we went to see the Teachers' Training College with two hundred and thirteen students at work. Nearby, I saw twenty-three young tailors learning their trade. Three Jesuits, three Africans and a large group of laymen from Europe were in charge of this College and Technical School. We also visited the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Kisantu — African nuns of whom there are sixty in this district. They are truly African and how lovely it was to hear them humming an African tune as they did the laundry.

After a pleasant few days we set off back to Leopoldville. We had offered a lift to Bishop Lefebvre, S.J. of Kikwit: he paid his fare handsomely by pushing with the rest of us when our car stuck in the sand, as it did five times.

It was the feast of Saints Peter and Paul the day we flew on to another Jesuit diocese at Kikwit. We were warmly welcomed by the Jesuits but we had hardly said "Hello" before we were saying "Au revoir". A three-ton lorry, fully loaded, was about to leave for a mission station at Totshi where my companion had a Jesuit cousin; he thought the opportunity of seeing his relative too good to miss. It was only one hundred miles away. The journey took us six hours !

After bumping and rocking for a long time the lorry began to pant and we rested it and our sore backs for half an hour while we ate a sandwich. Then we crossed the River Lutchina on the ferry and came into a country of palms. They stretched out in all directions like a sea. We began to climb leaving the palms behind and reached the high plateau. Along this we bumped through nothing but dry grass and potholes for a couple of hours, then suddenly, we saw the mission. It is a sight I should like everyone to see . . . a mission in the Bush, untouched as yet by materialism. As we approached, the mission was gradually revealed. We first caught sight of the tower of the great church, partly hidden amongst the trees, and as we drew nearer we saw the hospital and schools and soon the convent and workshops also came into view.

In this comer of the Bush, where the Church is at work, we found a different people; women in gay dresses; men seriously at work; but most striking of all, healthy children in school uniform. I was tired and weary after the hot bumpy lorry but the sight of the young Church growing in Africa made the journey seem very much worthwhile.

Father de Decker, S.]., the builder of this mission, stepped out to greet us. He was a model of neatness and trimness in his white cassock. He gave me a little guest-house to myself some distance from the mission house. There, to the sound of the distant rapids of Kwili, I fell asleep. I had a lovely night and woke up to the sound of the "Kyrie Eleison". It was 5.40 a.m. and a sung Mass was being celebrated in the church. There was another at 6.30.

A closer view of the mission showed me fine brick buildings in a setting of palm trees. Father de Decker, who planted the trees and put up the mission, had been out here for thirty-three years. "Now," he said, 'I must hurry to get these buildings finished in my time. In two years we hope to hand it all over to the African clergy." Surely there is something great, something magnificent about this son of St. Ignatius Loyola. It needs a great deal of detachment to build an entire mission and then, as soon as it is complete, to hand it over to someone else. Six years ago Father de Decker saw his eight school buildings burned to the ground. They are now all rebuilt and full of pupils.

We went down the hillside to the rapids of the Kwili and crossed the river by a perilous looking rope bridge, and as I gazed apprehensively down into the water, I was told that the next day I should have the great fun of "shooting" the rapids. It did not look much like fun from the rope bridge! Once over the bridge I knelt down to take a low angle photograph and then made the highest jump of my life ! There were red hot needles in my legs ! At least, that is what I thought until I saw that I was invaded by thousands of red ants. Unwittingly I had knelt in a line of them on the march. Everybody helped me to get rid of them but my life was a misery until I was able to strip in the privacy of my room . . . Did I say privacy? I looked up to see two pairs of eyes glued to the window: two little piccaninnies!

Father de Decker was using his Technical School to build this mission, thus teaching his men a trade at the same time. He had twenty-five carpenters' benches at which his pupils were making all kinds of things. He had to bring his wood from Kikwit, one hundred bumpy miles away, as the sores on my back from the lorry drive testified. He had fifty students doing a two-year course of masonry, cement-block making, and brick laying . . . and so on. All this, of course, was extra. For he was the Superior of this mission with four thousand Christians and a population of thirty thousand to evangelise. I met the six nuns who have two hundred girls in their boarding school. We saw these children coming back from a weekend at home, which they have every fortnight. They carried great loads on their heads. It was their food supply for the next two weeks at school. Father de Decker explained to me that the only way he could keep the school going was to send the children home each fortnight to collect food.

Water had to be brought by lorry from the river three miles off : but, for the house, Father de Decker had managed to instal running water from several forty-gallon drums he kept filled up on the roof. Drinking water came from a nearby spring.

It seemed to be that this was an ideal mission and the ideal missionary. The people of Totshi are lucky to have him. He said he sometimes feels tired now; he is over 60. He told me how he had come home one evening tired out after a long trek. To his horror he saw a small black snake curled up on his pillow. He crept out of the room silently, found a boy, took him quietly into his room, told him to pull back the mosquito curtain very carefully. Then he took a heavy stick and brought it down with all his strength on to — his rosary !

Next day I awoke with some apprehension in my heart. We were going to return to Kikwit by boat to save us the painful journey by lorry. And — such fun — we were going to shoot the rapids! I had been told to be at the Palm Oil Factory by eight o'clock. The Palm Oil Factory turned out to be two hours away by lorry! We got to the Factory by a quarter to eight, feeling very pleased with ourselves. Then we sat down to wait for the boat which was ready at eleven o' clock! While we waited, without being asked, an African brought us a bottle of Coca-Cola each. Another went to his house for some chairs to make us more comfortable. Half a dozen of these men stood with us to keep us company during our long wait. It was delightful to see the politeness and courtesy of these simple Africans to us strangers. Not far off a white man was bawling his head off, bullying some Africans working for him.

Eventually our boat cast off. It was a twenty-two foot whaler— just a metal hull with a 30 h. p. diesel engine in the stern. It was loaded with empty oil drums. Conversation was impossible and so I just prayed to St. Christopher as those rapids drew near. A short distance ahead we could see the broken water. As the swift current gripped the boat, our skipper throttled down the engine and you could hear the roar of the water. Then we shot down, straight at a wicked black rock sticking up out of the water; we missed it, of course, but I had hardly time to realise that, because of a sudden lurching of the boat, as the skipper flung the tiller over to avoid a ridge of jagged rocks below the surface, their presence denoted only by the dark boiling water racing above them.

For a moment we were in calmer water, but not for long; we were soon in the grip of the mad current and ahead of us appeared a low line of rocks across the width of the river with gaps between them here and there, not one of which seemed wide enough to permit the passage of our boat. I felt a strong desire to say my prayers but could only think of the parable of the camel and the eye of the needle as the rocks came closer. I gripped the side of the boat but hastily withdrew my hand lest my fingers be smashed by the rocks that flashed by. I snatched a glance at our skipper. He, sensing my state of mind, grinned from ear to ear. The boat was now plunging and shivering like a thing possessed, waves were breaking down the bow and sides; disaster seemed imminent.

At a speed between 15 to 20 miles an hour we made straight for the largest rock, which rose quite six feet above the raging water. Surely nothing but a miracle could save us now! When we were only a few yards away we were caught by the water and hurled straight at the rock — this was the end. But just as we were about to crash, the backwash caught us, swung us away, and we shot through a gap about half the width of the boat — or so it seemed to me! I was only too grateful to find myself alive and in no mood to be obdurate about the width of the gap; but I am still convinced it was not as wide as our boat !

We made the journey down river back to Kikwit in a third of the time we had taken to come up from it by lorry. The jungle came right down to the water's edge, but there was no sign of life of any kind except for an occasional African who stood and stared at us as we passed. We were glad to get to Kikwit : the noise and fumes coming from the engine, the heat of the sun, and our hunger and thirst had somewhat spoiled our enjoyment.

Bishop Lefebvre, S.]., who had helped us push our car a few days before, sent his own car to the landing stage, and at the mission we met Father Zeck, the Bishop's Procurator General. If ever Father Zeck is canonised he will be the Patron Saint of Procurators! He is patience and charm personified, in spite of the uninterrupted calls on his services. He really lives up to the humane and Christian conviction that a man — any man — is worth more than a machine. In consequence he sees to it that all the mission posts are equipped with good lorries. He also has a fleet of lorries with African drivers. He pays the drivers a bonus when they do a journey without mishap or damage to the lorries or their loads. They take stores and building materials out to the various missions.

Before he got to work, a missionary used to drive a hundred miles for fifty sacks of cement: he was absent for two days from the mission, got worn out in no time on the horrible roads, and was fit for nothing for sometime afterwards. Now Father Zeck can send three tons of cement, with all the required stores on one journey. Every month 150 tons of cement and 13,000 sheets of corrugated iron go out by road. At Kikwit he was making 1000 cement blocks a day, and he had a sawmill making planks from the hundreds of tons of wood he had gathered from the forests. Brother Francis, a Basque with the energy of six men was in charge of the huge timber mill.

There were six hundred girls in the Domestic Science School run by the Sisters of St. Andrew. A further eight hundred girls go to various primary schools in the district. The mission was a village in itself employing two hundred workmen and over one hundred teachers.

The Belgian Jesuits have sacrificed two flourishing colleges in Belgium in order to open schools here in the Congo. I read a circular letter from the Belgian Provincial announcing that their famous college at Tournai was being handed over to the Secular Clergy so that the Jesuits there might do the more urgent work of education in the Congo.

We were leaving next day and as I walked to the cathedral for Mass at 5.30 a.m. I saw a football match already in progress! You cannot keep African boys away from football.

When we got to the river at eight o'clock we found a number of cars waiting, and their drivers resigned to wait still longer for the ferry which was prevented from coming to the landing stage by a barge being unloaded. My companion, Father de Decker, W.F. - like a good Belgian - protested so much that the barge was removed, the ferry brought in, the cars embarked and we got across to visit the mission on the other side. We had to hurry because we had to be back to catch our plane at 11 a.m. It actually took off just before noon and we were on it, on our way to Luluaburg.

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