MUD AND MOSAICS

Chapter 17

BISHOPS AND PYGMIES


ON JULY 28th we turned north towards Europe. Return trip, if you like, but we were not going to cover the same ground. On the plane was a Dominican Father from South Africa who told me that his Bishop was demanding a "change of heart" of the Catholic people. In fact, the South African Hierarchy had written … “To our beloved Catholic people of the white race, we have a special word to say. The practice of segregation, though officially not recognised in our churches, characterises many of our church societies, our schools, seminaries, convents, hospitals and the social life of our people. In the light of Christ's teaching this cannot be tolerated for ever. The time has come to pursue more vigorously the change of heart and practice that the law of Christ demands … The Christian duty remains of seeking to unite rather than separate, to dissolve differences rather than perpetuate them. A different colour can be no reason for separation when culture, custom, social condition, and above all, a common faith and common love of Christ impel towards unity" . . . How acute and difficult the colour question is in South Africa. It all looks so simple from a distance.

Back in Congo territory I heard some educated Africans complaining that the Vicariate of Baudouinville lacks higher education. There is not a single secondary school, I was told. Unfortunately I was not able to investigate this. If it is true, it strikes me as extraordinary, because my general impression is that elsewhere in Belgian territory, in Urundi and in the Northern Congo, the Government is doing a fine job in education and using the missions extensively for that purpose. I had noticed, however, that the proportion of secondary schools was very low in relation to primary education, and I was not altogether happy to hear the missions accused of deliberately following a Government imposed policy in education, which ignored the need for secondary education and the preparation of a capable elite. Government support of the missions may turn out to be a very mixed blessing some day.

We went on to Albertville in a plane that bumped considerably. This time it was a Jesuit from South Africa who talked to me: it was the usual problem, of course, colour.

At the end of our discussion we agreed that we should be given to unimaginative over-simplification if we regarded this grave problem with all the pros on one side and all the cons on the other. True Christian Charity, sincerely put into practise, offers the only hope of solution.

At the mission I photographed some people being baptised, and afterwards was surprised to witness a long altercation between a man and his wife, with the Superior acting as peace-maker. I asked what the trouble was and was told that the husband was smashing the crockery because he objected to his wife smoking !

There is a lovely view over Lake Tanganyika from the mission of Albertville, and standing on the hill one looks down on what is quite a "town" : the church, schools and two hospitals — one for Africans and the other for Europeans. A little church, built by the people themselves, by the lakeside had the inscription: "Virgin Mary, guard us — we are your children at Kamkolobondo". Some of the older missions around Albertville still look like forts because they were put up by the White Fathers during the days of the slave trade.

At table, I marvelled at the courtesy and perfect table manners of three Africans and I was also introduced to a "Rothschild" pineapple!

We arrived at Bukavu on Lake Kivu for the last four days of the International Study Week, organised by the Catechetical League, "Lumen Vitae". The setting was a most beautiful one. Ages ago the mountain ranges of Central Africa were split open from north to south as though by a blow from a mighty axe. The long fissure, hundreds of feet deep, has filled with water giving us the chain of the Great Lakes, from Lake Albert in the north to Lake Nyasa in the south. Four thousand five hundred feet above sea-level is Kivu, one of the smallest but most beautiful of the Lakes, and like a giant hand gloved in green vegetation, the five peninsulas of Bukavu town stretch out as though to seize the lake. Here, in November 1880, the White Fathers founded one of their earliest missions in Central Africa. Today the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace dominates the lovely scene: and what a scene of religious development it is! Flanking the hills to the south you could see the huge Jesuit College of Our Lady; outside the town the Barnabite Fathers had a school, the Marists were there too, and, of course, the White Sisters, who had two hospitals and a school.






One of the first persons I met was Bishop Holmes-Siedle W.F., over from Karema, on the other side of Lake Tanganyika.

(Note: Bishop Holmes-Siedle handed his diocese to an African Bishop in 1959 and took over the more primitive region of Kigoma.)

He must have found this lovely place a rival to his affections for his home town of Eastbourne.




Another familiar face was that of the African Bishop Kiwanuka from Masaka, in Uganda. It was astonishing to meet a group of three hundred Bishops, priests, Religious, and laymen, assembled here in the heart of Africa to study the problems of the religious formation of the Christian families of Africa.

I listened to Bishop Kiwanuka telling the story of the loss of land to Indian traders. He said: "It's so easy! A man dies; his son — the heir — is congratulated on his possessions. 'Of course, you need a car! You can have one on credit.' Then repairs are needed; more credit, and so on, till he is well in debt. Then comes the demand for cash . . . 'No money? Then I will take your land instead.' One after another they get caught, and the land passes to the Indians."

We borrowed a big car and set off to the north for the country of the Pygmies — Ituria, and the distant missions of Bunia. Our journey was to take us many hundreds of miles through the mountains and forests of the Congo; first, along the shores of lovely Lake Kivu, then into the Ituri forest and beyond, going north towards the former Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

We stopped at Walungu. It was a typical example of the prodigious growth of these missions. Two years ago there were fifteen thousand Christians and catechumens here, now they numbered twenty-seven thousand. I walked round the huge church made of mud and reeds; it held two thousand people and was in the care of three African priests.

Katana mission had a Teachers' Training College for two hundred and fifty men, a noviciate for African Brothers and another for African Sisters, and a lovely "FOMULAC" Hospital run by Louvain University. But my most vivid memory is of an old priest, old Father Colle. He arrived out here in 1899. In March of 1909 he made the first Thirty-Day Retreat of the Society (what a memory he had!); then he spent four and a half years in Europe and came back in July, 1913, to stay. He has never left Africa since, and does not want to leave. We chatted about the early days of the missions: how different it all was! He remembered the slave traders, the long lines of porters, the arrival of the first missionaries in a land where the white man was hardly known. He gave me a copy of his early memoirs to read, but I could have listened to him for hours. I knelt to get his blessing and felt very much a child at the feet of this venerable old missionary .

We pushed on farther north, trying to reach Ngoma mission before nightfall: but it was dark when we got there and, to make matters worse, our arrival at the little mission, built only for three, brought the numbers up to eight. Small wonder that the poor Father-in-charge, whom we called from his bed, eyed us rather as he might snakes in his hen run! No beds, only rice for supper . . . but this was the missions! Poor Leo, the photographer, is not a missionary, however, and he muttered something about getting home to Belgium as quickly as he could!

I put my foot in it next day with the old Father, by saying I hoped we might see lions during the next few days. "Wait till you meet one, young man, wait till you feel your inside melt when a lion scratches at the flimsy door of your hut . . .wait!" And off he stamped, too angry for words.

I did not know that he had walked out of his hut one night alone almost into the jaws of a lion. He had yelled with fright; the lion fled but the old priest never quite got over he shock.

Ngoma mission is due for demolition; it is to be pulled down to make way for an airfield. Modern times! As we left Ngoma, we saw three volcanoes on our left and six on the right not active, thank goodness.

Monkeys were the first animals we saw in the Game Reserve, but later we got more than a comfortable close-up of a vicious looking buffalo which we surprised round a clump of bushes. He breathed hard through his nostrils — I did not breathe at all for quite a long time! Then I recovered and took his picture to show we were really friends. After that it was an elephant at some ten yards, and so it went on. We stopped by a small stream, which seemed to be steaming, I put my hand in and let out a shout; it was boiling hot.

We arrived at Ruwindi camp for lunch and got a guide called Peter. Later we saw hundreds of hippo. We crept quite close to some of them as they wallowed in their mud baths. We bought a good meal and spent the night in one of the little huts of the camp — spotlessly clean. The game wardens could not have been more helpful and, as missionaries, we had no Park-charges to pay. For once, Leo was glad to be treated like a missionary!

Just as dawn was breaking we set off for the animal tracks, planning to go later on to the mission of Lufu for Mass. As we turned a corner we almost ran into three large elephants with two calves. Peter, our guide, made us switch off the engine and wait in the car.

We saw many buffalo and antelope and, then to our joy . . . a lion! What eyes those guides have! The lion was almost half a mile away, I could hardly see a thing. We got the glasses on it; alas, the "lion" was a huge hyena! But I still do not know how Peter spotted anything at all. The morning wore on. We saw wild hog and elephant, antelopes and snakes — but still no lion. We turned for home and suddenly we saw them — nine of them — several quite young, but lion at last, and not too far away either. I didn't feel any special call to make a close acquaintance of so many at once. I felt decidedly outnumbered and took my pictures from a comfortable distance.

We went to Lufu for Mass and as the priest was away we had lunch at the "Three Ducks", some way back on the road. Africa is full of surprises!

We climbed to five thousand feet and ran along the Nile-Congo watershed. We passed through the bamboo forests; gorilla country, but we saw none of these huge apes. The first fifty miles took us three and a half hours. There were dizzy drops and hairpin bends with just enough room to squeeze the big American car round, and at one point we passed through what looked like a primeval forest of giant ferns, ferns twenty feet high and more. It was good growing country and there were plantations wherever there were people.

A fallen tree gave us our first sight of the Pygmies. It had fallen across the road and all we could get to chop it up were some Pygmy axes — small but sharp. It took us three hours to chop that tree into several parts and lever them to one side to let the car through.

We made for a place not far off the forest road where, we knew, we should find a convent of the Little Sisters of Charles de Foucauld. The convent turned out to be a group of five round African huts in a little clearing. Everything was spick and span, as convents always are. Even the dust of the compound seemed tidy! Sister Superior took us into the “parlour”. We sat down, almost on the ground, on bits of wood. St. John the Baptist would have been quite at ease here, especially as we ate wild honey, a present from the Pygmies. These shy little people wandered in and out, quite at home with the Sisters. As we talked, wide, unblinking eyes peeped in at doors and windows. One by one they sidled in, moving so silently that it was with something of a start that I suddenly realised that there was quite a group of older men squatting flat against the wall, gazing at us.

"What do the Sisters do?" I asked the chief. "They take care of us and they pray," came back the answer, after a moment of whispered consultation. What a lovely summing up of the nuns' life, "They take care of us ...they pray. " "They are so easily frightened," Sister said, "they won't sleep, for example, if there's light coming into the place at night. When they bring the very sick to the convent and the moon is up a Sister has to remain in the same hut to reassure them."

Sister Superior was rocking a tiny mite in her arms. "He was brought in half dead; his mother had died and an aunt had tried to keep him alive on potato soup . . ."

The Sisters explained their life: “We prepare the way for the missionaries; we try to make contact and make friends. We give medical aid and we go out and live a few days among the people."

One must see how these people live to realise the full implication of that sentence ". . . live among the people".

"Each second fortnight," she continued, "we leave the convent empty and go into the Bush and stay with the people." "Do you go alone?" I enquired. "No, we go off in pairs; a sister and an African postulant together. At first the people fled from us: now we visit some thirty villages in a radius of eighty miles. A 'tribe' is really a large family of grandparents, parents, and children — they easily break up and form new groups, if there has been a family quarrel. They are difficult to follow up," Sister explained, "we go back to a spot after two months, and find them gone or broken up into several new groups."

The men hunt game deep into the forest. The women and children follow: they are often hungry but when there is a kill they eat until they cannot hold any more. When all the game is destroyed in an area they move off in a body to a different part of the forest.

I asked the Pygmies, through Sister, to describe an elephant hunt for me. There was a moment of hesitation, then one started to talk. This was something they loved: an elephant hunt. This particular group hunt with small hand-spears. When the victim is spotted they approach, keeping well out of the wind. Then one chosen hunter goes forward alone to thrust in the first spear. If he succeeds and is not trampled to death, the others follow. The description was a perfect pantomime; I couldn't understand a word but I followed it all. The chief started quietly enough, helped along by a chorus of grunts and groans, then he got up and, suiting his words to actions, he crept forward. The whole Pygmy audience followed. I saw them spot the elephant — creep up closer and closer — all holding their breath while he, the chosen one, advanced, and a loud whoop greeted the successful thrust of the tiny spear. The victim was only the table, but it was all so vivid that I might have been at the cinema.

We went to the chapel, another simple hut with an altar made of blocks of wood from the forest. A reed mat covered the floor. A priest comes once a week to celebrate Mass for the Sisters. There was a special tabernacle with an interior glass door so that the Sisters could open the exterior door and see the Blessed Sacrament during their hour of adoration each evening.

"The Pygmies often come in and kneel beside us in perfect silence," said Sister Mechtilde. "They have an idea of God. He is very good but far away; all good things come from Him, and so they don't worry about Him, for there are all the evil spirits who cause trouble if not suitably appeased!"

Not far away I found a devoted European planter trying to teach some Pygmies the art of village planning and cultivation. They called him Bwana Cawa, and must have thought him quite mad as they went about the tasks he set them. He wanted a large central hut . . .

"I gave one of them a three-foot length of wood," he explained, "and told him and his group to dig a hole to hold that for a large support. I went away to other work and when I returned I couldn't see my man anywhere: I found him at the bottom of a six-foot hole busy digging down a further three feet! ! ! "

Another day he wanted them to measure off some thirty-foot plots for cultivation. He gave them a length of creeper measuring thirty feet, and showed them how to put in a stake at each end, and then left them for the day. Later he noticed something wrong with the shape of the plots, and finally found that they had repeatedly broken the creeper and knotted it and it was now at least a yard short! What patience he must have! The pygmies are only really interested in hunting; they learn to draw a tiny bow at the age of two years.

We set off with Sister Jeanne-Mariette and an African postulant for a nearby village. We crossed a couple of primitive and doubtful looking bridges and came into a clearing, and there was the village of Mboa; it means a plank. I was introduced to the chief. His name was Mboa-Mbili — two planks ! The Sisters went from hut to hut; here it was a bandage that was needed, there a word of encouragement, another old man wanted them to prepare his evening meal, for his wife was ill. It was wonderful to see them round the little Sisters, but we nearly lost the whole village in a mad flight when Leo took a flash photo. They gradually came back muttering angrily. Sister hoped nobody would fall ill or die that night, for we should certainly have been blamed.

We pushed on north towards Lake Albert and the Nile to Bunia. I shall remember Bunia for all the nuns I saw there. There were Carmelites with five African aspirants, the White Sisters with all their work and, best of all to a missionary, the Noviciate and training centre for African nuns. There were one hundred and twenty of these nuns professed, and we spent a wonderful afternoon among the seventy novices and aspirants.

The White Sisters' convent was like a village. What a clean one too! Leo had a glorious time taking close-ups of mat-making, basketwork, knitting (very high quality I am told, for being a man, I just wouldn't know myself), lace-making and painting.

That night we walked beneath the stars and discussed at length why the Sisters succeed so much better with African nuns than we Fathers appear to do with African Brothers. One serious reason may be that a Sister can say to an African Sister, "Do as I do", whereas the Fathers' chief occupation is the ministry, which the Brothers cannot do. In consequence the Brothers employed on their manual work do not grasp so easily the link binding this work to the ministry of souls. The Sisters are also able to give more serious spiritual education and post-noviciate training, while actually working all the time with their African Sisters, while the Brothers are necessarily left a good deal to themselves, especially after their profession. Perhaps the answer could be found with more White Father Brothers training African Brothers instead of priests doing it. Nevertheless we found a flourishing noviciate of African Brothers here. With a Blue cross on the front of their habit, they looked like the Crusaders of old.

Bunia is another large and growing Vicariate with half the total population Catholics or catechumens. It is a wonderful promise for the future, but a great apostolic burden at the moment. Some of these mission stations have up to eighty outstations in them. There were only eighty White Fathers for the whole Vicariate but they had thirteen African priests and 1,750 catechists to help them. The catechists take charge of the outstations which are visited in rota by the priests.

I ran a gauntlet of bees in the morning for meditation. It was still dark when I stumbled out and made for the church. I could hear the buzz of a cloud of bees, and found them all round the sacristy door and inside. I walked quickly in hoping the bees were as sleepy as I was. They were!

After breakfast we went to see the Brother's sawmills. Two huge lorry loads of trees per day pass through them, and eventually come out of the workshops as doors, windows, beams, and furniture. Down in the market place I saw old women horribly disfigured with a huge wooden plate in their lips. They looked hideous. The custom is dying out but in olden days these women disfigured themselves intentionally to escape the slave traders.

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