MUD AND MOSAICS

Chapter 22

NGOZI


I SPENT the evening with Bishop Martin of Ngozi trying to grasp his problems. He read me part of his annual report. It was heart-rending: the words of a shepherd who cannot cope with his flock.

Ngozi is about the size of Yorkshire and Lancashire combined and about the same shape, but it has half a million Christians and catechumens. The Bishop had opened nine very large churches in the past five years. The smallest of them held 3,000 people.

"We need at least thirteen new missions urgently," he said. "I have thirteen mission posts with more than twenty thousand Christians in them; one of 40,000 has only four priests; another of 29,000 only three priests. We cannot cope with it; yet we give our neophytes only the minimum of spiritual help. I don't know how they keep their faith," he continued. "We have almost no personal contacts with our people outside the brief moment with each one in the confessional. They wait in their hundreds for a priest to visit them and have to be content with a catechist. Yet they do wait, faithfully. What can we do for our young people? They need help. The bride-price system is one great problem. I have started parish councils everywhere. They do great work with Catholic action groups, and they are trying to change the rigid attitude of local custom towards the marriage dowry; they organise material help and keep an eye on local social problems."

"We can only choose from among the many things we ought to do," he said, echoing the words of Bishop Grauls.

“I am afraid to start any new activity, afraid to add to the burden of my priests; I have had to slow down the movement of the League of the Sacred Heart, because the monthly general Communion added so many extra confessions that the priests were unable to do other work. We do what we can, but it is heart-rending to see what could be done if only we had more priests, brothers, and laymen."

His Lordship then repeated what Bishop Grauls had said to me:
"The brothers are so few that priests, who can ill be spared, have to give their time to building. I can never send a brother, for example, to build a bush station. All the brothers are at work in the central missions and the schools. Take Brother Marcelinus, for example, he has been here five years, and during that time he has used 6,000,000 bricks and 250,000 tiles, all made by hand."

I looked round at the work of those five years; a beautiful church, convent, schools, mission station . . . what a satisfying record for five years work!

"Each of the six brothers in this vicariate has at least one big church to his name. I'll take you out tomorrow morning and show you what it's like," he finished. Ngozi Cathedral was being packed a second time for Mass when I left the mission with Bishop Martin: "to see what it was like", on that Sunday morning.

"I always go to confession before a long drive," said the Bishop, "it's safer!"
I made a hasty act of contrition, just in case, and thought of August 22nd. I wonder why all these Bishops drive like men possessed. I suppose they are possessed with the urgency of their apostolate.

All along the roads we met gaily dressed groups of Christians either going to or coming from the church.

"Ten years ago they were all wearing animal skins, now look at them," said His Lordship.

Whenever we stopped, the people dropped on their knees smiling and waiting for a greeting and a blessing. Some twenty miles out we came to the central bush station of Mivo, where a young priest was at work. This was not a mission, it was an out-station, visited about once a month. Yet there were two thousand Christians on the spot and five thousand more in the sub-stations dependent on this central bush station.

We drove into the clearing. Hundreds of people were assembled. It was almost time for the second Mass. The "church" was a long thatched building completely open on one side to allow those who could not get in to assist from the outside. It was packed to the door. A priest was giving out Communion, a catechist was leading the people at prayers. It was impossible to move up the church to the altar, so the young priest was slowly moving through the tightly packed masses giving Communion to anyone who asked. About twenty yards away, in another long hut-like building, another catechist was conducting the special Sunday service of the catechumens, who were not allowed to assist at Mass.

While we waited, four carriers brought in a rough litter. On it lay a paralysed old woman. She was called Antonia. They had carried her from Shango, six miles away. The Bishop went over and knelt beside her to hear her confession as she lay on her stretcher, just outside the back entrance to the sanctuary. Then he called the priest to bring her Holy Communion, and she lay there quietly all during Mass.

I had a word with the young priest before Mass started. He was half-dead with fatigue but somehow radiant.

"I arrived here on Tuesday evening," he explained. "I heard 1,475 confessions before Saturday. I've distributed over two thousand Communions this morning; I feel half-dead but it's worth it."

I looked into the single hut which had been his "presbytery" since Tuesday; he probably did not notice the grimness of its poverty, being too busy with his beloved Christians.

The Bishop preached, then we drove straight off without waiting; he wanted us to see all we could on this Sunday morning.

Half an hour later we were at Busiga, a mission of25,000 Christians. We just had time to look into the church which holds 5,000 people. It was packed to the doors. Then we went on to another mission a dozen miles away.

On the way we passed through three large central bush stations exactly like Mivo. All these stations are visited once every four to six weeks from a Tuesday to a Sunday evening. We did not stop, there was no time.

We arrived at Muhanga. It had three priests to look after thirty-three thousand Christians. The last Mass was just finishing; 3,000 people were pouring out of the church. A tired priest came over to the mission to find us sitting there. I felt guilty. I had done so little to help and here I was "'sitting".

"We're going down to Rukago out-station," said the Bishop, "we'll probably be late."

"Mind the bridge," said the priest, "there's a hole in it, but you'll be all right if you take a good run at it!"

We left for Rukago and at every bend I looked out for the bridge.

"There it is!" shouted the Bishop, putting his foot hard down on the accelerator with unholy glee. We shot over and just kept to the road on the other side.

We reached Rukago. The crowds had already gone. "If I could put a priest here," said the Bishop thoughtfully, "he'd have 20,000 Christians and catechumens to look after. It must be made a mission soon."

We had done about eighty miles, but what I had seen could not be expressed in eighty pages. I had seen a miracle of grace: priests struggling to cope with those who want the sacraments, who want the Mass, who want instructions. "The little ones seek bread and there is nobody . . ."

The system of the central bush station is the key to the apostolate in the huge Missions of Uganda, Ruanda and Urundi. The area of a mission is covered by building a ring of large bush stations, some three hours walking distance in each direction from the mission proper. These form the central bush stations. Around each such station within a radius of one and a half hours walking distance, are the sub-stations; six or eight to each centre. Every four to six weeks, the bush centre has a priest in residence from the Tuesday to Sunday, and all the Christians of the dependent sub-stations come in for confessions and instructions during the week and for Mass on the Sunday. The small sub-stations, of which there are from forty to ninety in each mission or parish, are visited only once a year, except for sick calls, but there is a resident catechist in each one. On the Sundays when there is no priest in the bush centre, the Christians still assemble to recite the prayers of the Mass and to listen to an instruction read by the chief catechist.

"Thus," said Bishop Martin, "I manage to multiply the action of the missionaries by five or six; in some cases by ten, according to the number of bush centres to each mission. "

Father Jim Meade, an American, drove up soon after our return to the Bishop's residence. He had been happily at work in Mwanza, Tanganyika Territory, when he got a letter calling him back to the States to take charge of publications. No wonder he looked a bit glum! As we sat on the verandah, came a laughable anti-climax to my busy day.

"I think I've got jiggers," I said, pointing to a couple of lumps on my foot.
The Bishop let out a whoop of delight:

"Let's see ! " He yelled for the cook, a pin, and a match, and the jiggers were taken out by the African as neatly as any surgeon would have done the job.

We borrowed the Bishop's car and set off for Busiga Mission which I had passed through the day before. I found the Ladies of Mary at work, and edged my way through the crowd into a tiny clinic to meet Mother Marie Joseph who was patiently dealing with a long line of sick people.

"In the afternoon we run a post-natal clinic with at least six hundred consultations a day," said Mother Marie, "Brother Anthony has promised to build a bigger clinic as soon as he has time."

The said Brother Anthony had just completed the church, which he had built in six months; exclusive of making the bricks. It held 5,000 people. At Ngozi, Mother Candide of the same Congregation had taken me round the hospital of which she was the matron and the mid-wife. Then I visited the teachers' training college and the secondary school. I saw Mother Imelda from Limerick, who had a social centre for the women every afternoon. Then I spent a short time with the Bana Maria, the African Daughters of Mary. They were a happy crowd of ten novices and twenty-six postulants, with their Mistress of Novices of the Ladies of Mary, who started the Congregation a few years ago.

Bishop Martin said later: "One of our most urgent problems is the improvement of the home and the raising of the standard of the African women. Nobody can do this work like the nuns. The teachers' training college run by the Ladies of Mary, not only forms the teachers who complete the work of the home, but it also prepares excellent Christian mothers on whom so much depends.

"There is something wrong with this car, the steering is queer," said Father de Decker, who was driving.

Leo gave me a quizzical look! We went very slowly back to Ngozi and into the mission garage.

"The main chassis is cracked right through and one of the front wheels is loose. You cannot use it," said the Brother.

I did not want to, but I thought, just for a moment, of the bridge with a hole in it. We must have a special legion of Guardian Angels looking after us all on the missions!

I walked down behind the mission at Ngozi to look at a long line of brick-kilns, some already "fired" and open, ready to be turned into churches, schools and hospitals. Others were still burning, still more were being skilfully built up and the wood fires prepared. In that little avenue were about a million bricks, all hand-made; a team was at work all the year round. As the Bishop had already told me, Ngozi Mission alone (not the diocese) had used 6,000,000 bricks, a quarter of a million tiles, and 2,000 cubic yards of stone. One brother, Brother Marcellinus, used all this in five years. Such is an example of what can be done by a man who consecrates the labours of his hands to God.

Thirty years ago there were three missions here with four thousand Christians. Now there were four thousand in the Legion of Mary alone, and half a million Christians.

We borrowed the car of the kindly Ladies of Mary to go to Katara Mission. As we approached we saw the beautiful church peeping through the trees. It is appropriately dedicated to St. Theresa. It holds 6,000 people! This mission was founded on December 8th, 1929, and now numbered 43,500: there were four priests.

"Look out of that window," said Father Schwartz, "there are 12,000 Christians within ten miles, and it's the same out of each window! "

"Last week in the out-station of Lambamba I heard 2,840 confessions. They sit and wait from six in the morning till three or four in the afternoon for their turn."

Father Superior did not come in to lunch, he had a queue of hundreds waiting to hand in marriage details.

I went out with Father Schwartz to visit a local sorceress. She was out: perhaps word of our coming had gone ahead! We paid a visit to several Christian families hidden deep in their banana groves: all gave us a charming welcome. We came back to find two women waiting for Father Schwartz, holding their faces. He sat them down on a low wall and soon they went off smiling, each one holding an extracted tooth in her hand.

We sat and chatted, and soon we had a hot discussion going about the need of a vernacular liturgy. The Father contrasted the wonderful attention of the people at Low Mass when a catechist leads the people in the prayers of the Mass, and the apparent boredom, especially among the youth, at a High Mass, when all the singing was in Latin.

Having had the privilege of being present with the Africans at Mass, many times, throughout my tour, and having experienced their remarkable power of entering into the Holy Sacrifice, I am convinced that we must be at pains not to stifle their natural desire to participate, in their own way, in the mysteries and wonders provided for them by Mother Church. Otherwise, how can we hope to hold all the African Christians if we oblige them to express, in our European fashion, the Faith which we share in common.

I was greatly impressed by the quiet calm of these huge missions, yet a colossal amount of work was being done. I think the secret of it all lies in the regular life and good organisation. Without these it would be impossible. But even so, the strain is apparent on the faces of many missionaries. They cannot go on hour after hour in the confessional, day after day; yet they must.

The sheer numbers to deal with would frighten a man who did not keep on turning his eyes towards God and eternity. Nevertheless these missionaries turn their eyes also towards us wondering what we are going to do to help.
Statistics are often difficult to grasp; those of the missions must be studied with the heart as well as with the mind. I am afraid of boring readers, but how, otherwise than by figures, can I hope to bring home the magnitude of the task which faces the White Fathers and the African clergy in these parts?

In the area I had just visited; Uganda, Ruanda, Urundi, there was on average a new group of 1,500 adult Christians added every WEEK! But the number of priests did not change.

No wonder the Bishops looked worn and grey.

Bishop Martin drove us down to Usumbura. He drove cautiously, for he remembered the cracked chassis. Once he asked me to get down on the road some distance ahead and watch the car advancing.

"See if the front wheels are wobbling!" he said.

Just as I finished my inspection we saw a group of people ahead. They came up to us.

"My Lord, when are you going to keep your promise and give us a priest?" It was the leader of the small group of Christians who spoke, as they knelt down in the road for a blessing.

" Abasacerdoti ndabakure hehe? . . . And where am I to get the priest from?" answered the Bishop. "You hurt me by reminding me."

"We are sorry, My Lord, but we were afraid you would forget us."

The Bishop turned to me and said what I had thought so often during these last few days: "Parvuli petierunt panem . . . the little children ask for bread and there is no one to give it to them."

It was the shepherd speaking, a shepherd who does not know what more he can do for his flock in spite of their obvious needs. All the way down through Uganda from Rubaga to Kabale, from Mutolere to Kabgayi and now in Urundi I heard the same thing, I saw the same scenes: thousands, not hundreds but thousands of men, women and children seeking the priest, hungry for the Sacraments . . . "And there was nobody to give it to them".

About thirty-five miles from Usumbura we stopped. The road was built along a narrow ridge, and a hundred feet below me I saw a small stream which I was told was one of the sources of the River Nile. Away to the right was another small stream, a source of the River Congo. Two small streams, the beginnings of two mighty rivers. They are examples and symbols of mighty things which have small beginnings, like the missions in this part of the world.

At Usumbura I said goodbye, not only to Bishop Martin and the Ladies of Mary, who presented me with eight lovely spears, but also to my own Expedition. Our job was over. On Sunday our photographer, Leo, was to fly back to his beloved Antwerp. He said he never wanted to leave it again! Father de Decker was going back to Kabgayi to set up a museum before returning to Brussels. I was no longer needed and, unfortunately, I had to use the return half of the ticket they gave me in Brussels; but I was to return via Tanganyika and Uganda to see all I could of their wonderful mission lands.

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