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
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"
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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