MUD AND MOSAICS

Chapter 20

RUANDA

I WENT across to the huge church of Kabgayi intending to join our Community meditation, but I must have slept through that for the sacristan immediately showed me a set of vestments with signs that I was to say Mass. A boy took me right across the sanctuary to what I thought was a normal side altar, except that the tabernacle looked rather large. At the Communion I heard a rustle behind me, my boy said the Confiteor and I opened the tabernacle. What a surprise and joy! There was a huge ciborium of which I had seen a model but never thought to see in actual use. It was the "mother" with seven normal ones nestling around. This was the Blessed Sacrament Altar, and this huge ciborium of sixteen thousand hosts was emptied every ordinary fortnight, but emptied in one morning on a big feast day! I blessed the kind thought of the African Parish Priest and I gave out Communion. The Parish has thirty-three thousand Catholics and catechumens to look after. Kabgayi has been divided ten times since it was founded in I906 with parishes of five to ten thousand people being lopped off each time, and yet it still has over thirty thousand. The parish has given twenty priests to the Vicariate since the first one was ordained in 1917.

The mission was a town all by itself. There must be tens of millions of handmade bricks in the buildings. Old Brother Adelph built everything. He was still there. I visited him at work in the blacksmith's shop. Over seventy, he wielded a heavy hammer like a twenty-year old. He built the church over thirty years ago when every sack of cement had to be carried by porters.

It took a day to see round the mission. The Brothers run a printing press, a bakery which turns out two thousand loaves a day, a garage, carpenter's shop, a smithy, bootmakers, and, of course, a brickyard.

I visited the novitiate of a Congregation of African Brothers, which had a hundred and thirty members: a convent of African Sisters, and one of White Sisters with their hospital, their workshops for making carpets and lace, their schools and the catechumenate. There were five thousand school children at the mission and four junior seminaries in the district with six hundred African boys who hope to be priests some day. And this was all one mission.

At the White Sisters' hospital long lines of patient Africans waited at the out-patients department. Further on, another line of mothers queued up for the maternity clinic; all wore the distinctive band around the head, the coveted sign of motherhood. There were nine Sisters in this hospital which handled fifty thousand cases a year. I went in to see Sister Bonaventure in charge of the maternity, she herself has seen three thousand two hundred children safely into the world. She looked tired and no wonder!

"We've had seventeen births today, Father, and nineteen yesterday. We have had three hundred and fifty in the last month."

As we went off to see the printing press, I noticed a letter box fitted to the side of a huge mission lorry which had come to get stores for another mission. For many Africans abroad the mission is their link with home, it is the only address to which they can write with any hope that their letter will finally reach its destination.

In the press they were just starting the running-off of a Reader, in Kinyaruanda, for the schools.

"How many, Brother?" I enquired. "Oh, we're printing 400,000 copies of this!" In another section, Africans were binding some of the 300,000 copies of a book for catechumens. It was the printed word on a large scale.

This evening Father Leo, an African priest, came in from Kibeho Mission. He looked old and tired. No wonder! He had eighteen thousand Christians to look after besides the catechumens. "And there are only three of us, Father. From Wednesday until Saturday, all three of us spend eight hours a day in the confessional; we are simply crushed." He looked it — yet there he was with plans for a new mission. Another priest joined in: "Confessions are what crush the life out of you. During all of last Lent, I spent ten hours every day in the box! "

I wandered across to the office of Father Gerard, the parish priest. It was late but his light was still burning. I wanted to go with him the following day to Kivwa out-station for an examination of catechumens. I talked about the conversation I'd just heard. "Father," he said, "the priests around here average two thousand confessions a month and that means that some must hear many more. We try to visit each out-station once a month and as soon as the priest arrives there are crowds waiting for confession. He starts at once and he'll be there from seven in the morning till seven at night for at least three solid days. Then there's other business to attend to: marriage palavers, the teachers, and so on, and he'll be alone on the Sunday morning with at least one thousand Communions to distribute.”

There was a moment's silence while I made my notes, then he went on:
"People wait all day. You'll see the same ones still waiting at six o'clock in the evening — they won't go away — what can you do? You must stay and just go on. Sometimes you hardly know what you're doing; yet you must go on. Even so, often, you've to send some away. In some missions all the priests are in the confessional from Wednesday morning until Saturday evening, with time off only for meals. At times a sick call takes one of us away, then the penitents have to wait still longer, that's all."

Father Gerard paused and reached for his register: "In April we had 62,500 Communions in this church. “Of course," he apologised, "that included Easter. The average is 35,000 to 40,000 per month. Sometimes we can get help from the seminary, and when we do there are eight priests all day in the confessional."

I should have liked to listen to him for hours, but how could I? He looked tired out, and the next day we would both be off early for the out-station. I had to write up my notes before thinking of bed, so we exchanged a "good-night, Father Gerard". He is my namesake, but his family name is Mwerekande.

Three priests and five African nuns piled into the big mission lorry with me. They were the examiners, the priests being borrowed from the seminary which was on holiday. We set off for Kivwa. Father Gerard had gone on ahead on his motor bike, "to get things ready". We passed the poor man about twenty miles out, pushing his heavy machine which had broken down. We climbed out of the lorry which could not go much further anyhow, and started to climb. Looking down from a hillside I could see little lines of catechumens converging from all directions towards the out-station. We passed several saying the rosary, praying for the favour of a pass in the examinations. At Kivwa there were two thousand people waiting for us, and plenty of others who had come to encourage their relatives and friends in their "ordeal"!

Father Gerard soon arrived and the vast throng was organised into manageable groups with one examiner to each group. I watched them; old and young, clasping their catechumen card with its details of village, catechist, exams failed or passed. There are three of these exams each year, and a candidate must pass twelve of them before baptism. I went from group to group and listened to prayers being recited, answers to the catechism being given and explained. Every word of the poor candidate was closely followed by the whole group.

A strange hush hung over the place, the sun beat down, passed slightly overhead to the West, and still the work went patiently on. I shall long remember the joy on one mother's face as she squatted on the ground with her gurgling baby on her back, and clasped her catechumen's card with a sort of ecstatic joy:

"Today she passed her final exam, Father," said one of the African Sisters, "she's been coming for nine years!" We drove back in the late evening tired but happy. "Will you come with us tomorrow, Father?" asked Father Gerard, "we're going to Shyanda, twenty-five miles in the opposite direction; there'll be three thousand waiting for us there!"

And all this in one mission, one parish. Alas! I could not accept for we had to push on, our car had to be returned soon.

I went to see the Bishop, Monsignor Perraudin, before leaving. He has half a million Christians in his diocese and a quarter of a million catechumens to be instructed for baptism. "The last section we broke off Kabgayi had five thousand Christians and formed Mishiro Mission," he said. "They are now nine thousand and there can be as many as twelve hundred baptisms every three months there. We might manage if we only had confessions, but there are all the other parish activities. You must send us more priests: I cannot open a single station more unless you do . . . send some just for a few years, let us get the Christians then we'll try to manage. But for the love of God send us more priests soon."

The Bishop was deeply moved as he pushed over a letter: "Look at this. Three catechists brought it in to beg for a mission." He read the letter to me:

"Monsignor,
"We kneel before you, Monsignor. Please hear our prayers, listen to the request of your children of Mayaga. We send this message following a meeting of all Christians of Mayaga of 25th July, 1957. We remind you of the promises your predecessor made when he came to choose a spot for our Bush station in 1947. He promised firmly that if we were zealous and if we got 50,000 bricks he would give us a priest. We have given money, we saw that was not enough: we have given our work — now we have a church, a school and a little house for the Fathers. Since you were made Bishop you have founded five missions (in one year), and we are still left in the midst of an immense region without a priest. We beg you with tears to be zealous and to remember us so that we shall not be left long without a priest.

"Please accept, good Father, the desires of your children.

"We promise to pray for you and we beg you to pray for us that God keep us in His love. May His Kingdom come.

"It is us,
"Your children of Mayaga."

."Three or four thousand people beg me to give them a priest. I feel like weeping when I have to say, 'No, I have no priest'."

I felt much the same as I left the Bishop, facing not one, but half a dozen similar requests he had taken from his file.

We left after lunch, and soon after I called at Nyanza, I wanted to see the biggest ciborium of the missions. It was in use, but I was allowed to see it. It holds twenty thousand hosts.

Nyanza is the home of the Mwami (the King), and several years ago King Mutara II consecrated his country to Christ the King and now a lovely statue of Christ the King stands in front of the church.

We passed through Save Mission, one of the first of Ruanda, founded in 1900; it has twenty thousand Christians today. We drove through two "streets" of mission buildings and went on, for evening was not far off.

We got to another huge mission as the sun was going down. We merely drove round the immense school of the Marist Brothers, and shouted a promise to return for we were anxious to reach the seminary of Nyakibanda before dark. We just made it. It was hard to imagine that twenty years ago this was a desolate swamp. There are ninety seminarists studying here, though when we arrived most of them were away on holiday.

The 22nd August, a feast day of Our Lady, is a day I shall long remember. We said Mass early and left Nyakibanda at 7.30 a.m. We called for an African priest at Astrida mission, and when I went in to the church I was astonished to find it full. The two side aisles hold 1,500 each! As a rule these huge mission churches have no benches, and their capacity is calculated by so many standing persons to the square yard!

We left Astrida at 8 a.m. exactly. I took over driving at 10 a.m. At eleven o'clock I said to Father de Decker: "In half an hour we'll be home, and I'll be glad to hand this car back intact." We turned a comer, the right back tyre burst, the car skidded and we shot off the road. For one ghastly moment we seemed to hang in space, the whole car twisted and a door flew open, my companion pulled it shut as the car turned over and plunged into the ravine. I counted each somersault, one … two . . .three . . . four . . . five . . . as we bounced one hundred feet down.

Nobody shouted. I turned off the ignition by instinct more than by reflection. The car had stopped on its wheels. We all climbed out - nobody seriously hurt, only a few bruises. Leo set up the cameras and took photographs! I said an act of thanksgiving to God and Our Lady and prayed that the car was insured! We lost nothing but a box of matches and my nail file. Not a camera was broken. If the car had turned over once more we should probably have been crushed, for the last bounce broke the supports of the roof.

We lay on the ground for a while to recover from the shock and then we climbed the cliff back to the road. I found my spectacles unbroken half way up the cliff. They had been jerked off my nose and flung out of the window as we bounced down. I wondered how long we should have to wait before someone would pass. Presently a car, full to the roof, crawled down the road and stopped. Some Africans got out and Father de Decker begged a lift into Bukavu to get help. He told me later that evening that the said car had no brakes at all: whenever it was necessary to stop on a hill a boy jumped out and put a brick under a wheel!

After an hour sitting in the blazing sun a car came up the road. Some American Protestant missionaries had heard of our plight and had kindly come to collect us. I certainly appreciated their service: I was feeling a bit weak at the knees and was only too glad to lie down. Later I felt hungry, for it was then well into the afternoon and we had not eaten since 7.00 a.m. They gave us a good meal and then Father de Decker turned up with a Father from the mission and the news I was longing to hear: the car was insured. We might have lost much more than a car. The police inspector could hardly believe his eyes when I took him to the wreck later in the day and assured him that nobody was injured.

I said a fervent Mass of thanksgiving next day, wrote an article for the Catholic Press and went off to hire a car for the afternoon. It seemed better to get straight back "into the saddle" after the fall, but I went very carefully round the corners as I drove out into the mountains with Leo to Nyatende out-station, to photograph the baptizing of six hundred adults. As usual, there were thousands of people there. The candidates were divided into groups of a hundred, inside the half-open building. Perspiration ran down us all before the baptisms were finished. Each Father had a catechist to help him to see that nobody missed the salt or the anointing. Each candidate stood holding up his card clearly showing the Christian name. What joy there was in the little Bush chapel that afternoon.

When I got back I found Father de Decker not too well. A blow on the jaw as we somersaulted down the cliff had caused a large swelling. He looked like a man with mumps, and he could hardly open his mouth to eat, but he was not too worried; he could still talk. It would have taken more than a dive over a precipice to stop that!

In July the apparent peace of Ruanda-Urundi was rudely shaken by a "Manifesto" published by the Bahuta, demanding equal rights with the Batutsi .
The aristocratic Batutsi, a Hamite people, invaded Ruanda-Urundi about the fifteenth century. Since then they have ruled the country, secure in their greater culture and wealth. These Batutsi kings and chiefs were among the first Christians and several are now priests, and one, Monsignor Bigurumwami, is a bishop. The Bahuta, a peasant people, have also entered the Church in large numbers and, as they are about eighty per cent of the population, the majority of the schoolchildren are the Bahuta. With education, the Bahuta have gradually improved their position and they show an increasing dissatisfaction with their inferior status in the country. Many missionaries spoke to me about it. It can be felt as an atmosphere, but it remained inarticulate till the publication of the "manifesto".

The situation had all the elements of a bitter civil conflict. The Church can only stand for justice and equity, and I heard several bitter criticisms from the Batutsi that bishops had been too outspoken in their pastoral letters about social justice and that missionaries had supported local Bahuta in trouble with their chiefs.

One Mututsi said frankly to me: "If you do not support us, authority will go and where will the mission be?" It was not easy to make the point that the Church also had a duty to support those seeking social justice and desiring to improve their status in local society.

Another complained quite bitterly that the Fathers no longer came regularly to visit him. The trouble was that there had been some bitter animosity over a local court decision, and visits by the missionaries were quickly given a political twist.

The Church is in a delicate position in all this. The Chiefs complain that education has led to a talk of revolt. The Bahuta, the ordinary people, look to the missionaries to help and guide them in their legitimate aspirations. Perhaps the Church holds the only hope of peace, for in its ranks are Batutsi and Bahuta priests and nuns, who are a living example that there are higher things than race and class. Nevertheless, something will have to be done and done quickly to satisfy the Bahuta and to allay their fears that, once European Government goes, matters will not quickly drift back to the former feudal state of complete subservience to the Batutsi.

Return to Top


Click below on the Chapter you wish to read: