MUD AND MOSAICS

Chapter 6

MOPTI ON THE NIGER


WE had come from Europe to Wagadugu in the Upper Volta, chiefly to see Father Goarnisson, the Priest-Doctor. We took the unexpected opportunity of going South to the Northern Regions of Ghana. There we made a point of seeing the "Rain-Maker", Father Remigius McCoy. Our next objective was Mopti in Sudan, and we were going there especially to see the missions to the Dogons. We were to make a hop from Bobo-Diulasso where we changed planes for Mopti, and from Mopti we were to go by air to Dakar and the Coast.

It was Sunday, May 5th, when we left the Northern Regions of Ghana. Sunday evening is usually the missionaries' only restful time of any week, and you would expect them to be all smiles. But when we stopped at Maria-Tang we found the Superior with a long face, looking up at the roof of his new house, or where the roof should have been: the wind had whipped it off. Winds seem to be the special bugbear of missions in Ghana. We advised him to send for Brother Basil from Jirapa - the man who never lost a roof. The Superior was not impressed! Naturally, he liked to think that his wind would blow off even Brother Basil's roofs. The Fathers had returned to live in the old grass-roofed house they had only recently quitted. That one had most of its roof still: part had fallen in with age. The poor missionaries needed sympathy and we gave them all we could, before driving on to Dano, which we reached late at night to find that they already had four visitors. We were made welcome even though we made the number of visitors seven. I shared a room with Leo, our chief photographer, who, throughout the night, made a noise like a cat amongst a pile of empty tins. When I mentioned this he replied that his bed felt like a pile of tins! We lifted up the straw mattress and found a sheet of corrugated iron beneath!

I was awakened before sunrise by the thud of pestles on grain! Women from a nearby village had started work early! I said Mass at 5.20 a.m. and noticed that my little server had an enormous catapult tied round his waist like — an American cowboy's gun. He did not use it during Mass, and said he only shot bats with it.

We left at 7.00 a.m. in a lorry and got to Bobo-Diulasso in the Upper Volta that evening. There I met Bishop Dupont who is in charge of the diocese. He told us that he worked hard to educate the Christians, with the result that thirty out of the forty members of the Local Councils, and three-quarters of the higher Regional Representatives were Catholics. As administrative independence is fast approaching in this part of West Africa, it is not difficult to see the importance of this for the Church.


At the mission I saw a school for adults, both men and women, with three hundred students. They were studying languages and every branch of secretarial work. The Bishop said that there are thousands of Moslems in the town of Bobo alone, and many were now sending their children to the mission schools, in fact three out of four children in one school were Moslems. This, the Bishop hopes, will break down prejudice in the next generation and perhaps open the way to conversions.

Thirty years ago there were nineteen Catholics in Bobo, now there are 6,000. Mission work is made more difficult here because of the many tribes - no less than forty of them, each of which has its own dialect. The Bishop is full of ideas to render the apostolate more effective. For instance, he has opened a cafe at the mission with a Moslem cook, which is well patronised by workers of all castes, both Christian and Moslem. And he has just started an agricultural school which, although still small, is the apple of his eye. The de la Salle Brothers run the Teachers' Training College for the Diocese, there are the White Sisters, and African Nuns and African Brothers. Some of these Brothers have joined the de la Salle Congregation but others are members of the African Congregation of St. Vincent de Paul.

After a cup of coffee in the mission cafe, the Bishop took me to see some Christian families in their homes. There were three or four simple rooms in every house, all clean and tidy, with pictures of the Sacred Heart and St. Teresa of the Infant Jesus on the walls. The children neatly dressed, were bursting with excitement at the Bishop's visit. I remembered the poverty I had seen so recently and realised that living standards were rapidly rising for many Africans.

A catechist took me to the village of Kumi, where the senior seminary stands alongside one of the most pagan villages in the country, so that the Catholic stronghold stands almost touching the pagan one, with its mass of fetishes.

A fetish is a material object believed to be inhabited by a subservient spirit and fetishism is therefore a belief that the services of a spirit may be appropriated through the object it inhabits. The fetishes are under the control of the sorcerers and you can consult them only eighteen miles away from the airport of Bobo. There's progress! The pagans use all kinds of objects as fetishes, and only a few days before, they had come into the seminary grounds to offer sacrifice to a tree for some purpose or other. They have often thrown curses on the seminary but without effect!

The sorcerers explain this by saying that our fetish is stronger than theirs, which is something, because they have a big and powerful fetish. He is called "DO". It is in the form of a great mound of earth and to "DO" all the pagan boys are consecrated. The Initiation ceremony takes place only once every seven years, and it is tough, for its purpose is to make a boy into a man and the boy must prove his strength. It is not surprising that some of the boys must die during the Initiation. Two died during that of 1949.

The boys are first kept standing in the sun from 6.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m. They must stand absolutely still. At 2.00 p.m. they are allowed a drink, and then are beaten with leather whips. The Initiation lasts for a fortnight, during which they are tested night and day. Once initiated, the boys, and no one else, are taught a secret language, which alone is spoken during the Feasts of the Masks, held at different seasons of the year. The great masks represent the dead ancestors.

Education will kill fetishism and this terrible Initiation ceremony will come to an end. Boys who go to school already show signs of emancipation from this pagan tyranny, but they still undergo the "Initiation", not daring to refuse for it is a test of virility as well as a religious ceremony. Perhaps boys of the next generation will not be so docile about it.



We took the plane to Bamako but saw little of it, as it was for us merely a stepping stone on the way to Mopti.

Some of the Fathers from the mission met us at the airfield. We drove down the only road to Mopti, which was six miles away, and yet we could not see it, for it was hidden by a sort of mirage in reverse. Before us, lay what appeared to be a vast lake of rippling water which receded as we advanced, until I suddenly saw the high towers of the great mosque of Mopti and gradually other features of the town appeared.

I also began to smell fish. Then I saw it. Huge lorries were being loaded with dried fish, to be carried hundreds of miles to the markets of the Northern Regions of Ghana, where, indeed, I had seen and smelt it being unloaded. As each lorry left Mopti, the fish tax was paid, to the visible annoyance of the dealers. No one in the world, I suppose, likes paying taxes but this one on the fish is the principal source of local revenue.

We drove through the city gate and round to the river. On the steps of what looked like a large warehouse we saw Monsignor Landru, the Prefect Apostolic of Mopti-Gao. He came forward to greet us saying : "You are just in time to see the erection of the first cross on any public building in Mopti." He pointed to the top of the warehouse, and there I saw a Brother cementing a six foot cross over the entrance: for this warehouse is the Mission and the Prefect Apostolic's residence.

Monsignor Landru, a lively, clean shaven little man, took us into the house where we enjoyed a glass of cold water before saying Mass. I wonder if the Holy Father ever thought of the tremendous refreshment he would be giving priests like ourselves, when he said: "Water does not break the Eucharistic Fast". You have to go to the tropics, anyway, to appreciate cold water. Leo, our photographer, preferred beer, and we left him perspiring and content in a deck chair as we went to the church. We were on a tiny Christian island in a sea of Islam and I offered my Mass for this handful of missionaries and for the conversion of the Dogon people on whom they pin their hopes.

Over breakfast Monsignor Landru told us that he had come to Mopti with the Fathers in 1956. They lived in native houses until, after ten months, they were able to buy this fish warehouse. "The walls," Monsignor said, "were crawling with maggots and we have not yet got rid of all the rats - you will see some of them as big as small cats. We managed to clean up the place and I am proud of my Fish Store Pro-Cathedral of Mopti. There isn't much room to spare here, and you'll have to sleep on the roof - but, it's the best place to be at this time of year."

Mgr. Landru then went on to talk about his corner of the West African Sudan. He said we could trace over twenty different peoples from Peuhl to Bambara and from Malinka to Tuareg, but that the Marka, the Bozo, and Bambara predominated. The vast majority of these people are Moslems, but in this great sea of Islam there dwells a people called the Dogons.

"There are about 100,000 of them in the Sudan," said Monsignor Landru, "and on these we pin our hopes for the Church of Mopti. It is now or never. In ten years either we shall have a hundred-thousand Dogon moving to Christianity or we shall never convert them."

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