MUD AND MOSAICS

Chapter 8

PETER KUMBA


LEAVING Hamdalloye we went on our precarious way, dodging pot holes through a parched and bare land where the only signs of life were a few birds. At Bandiagara, there was a welcome which cheered our hearts and we took a look at some wretched stone huts with which the mission had been started.

The Superior proudly invited us to visit his garden which he had scratched out of the very rocks. There I admired three sorrowful-looking lettuces.

"What do you think of that?" asked Father Superior rhetorically. "I kept them growing against your coming, and we'll have them for dinner. “

One is tempted to smile, but it really was a triumph to produce lettuce amongst those rocks, and it really was a wonderful treat for those missionaries to taste anything green straight from a garden. "Taste" is, indeed, the correct word, for that is all one could do with them : they were so hard and full of fibre that all we could do was to chew as though on a piece of wood and then remove the residue of pulp. That little incident brought home to me as much as anything else I had seen so far the real hardship of this mission.

There is one thing, however, these priests do get, and that is a hot bath. I was invited to take a shower and I jumped at the chance of a wash, and unthinkingly anticipated the joy of a cold one. The water was so hot that I could not bear it! The water tank was an old petrol drum on the roof full in the blazing sun.

I was surprised to learn, when we visited the school for catechists, that such a thing existed in a territory having so few Christians. It was explained to me that the Fathers were using the technique of Peter Kumba. Not many of the catechists are yet baptised, but to get a foothold over the whole land quickly, the best of the catechumens are instructed in a part of Christian doctrine which they then teach to as many people as they can in their own village. The school was composed of a group of small houses built round a compound, where the future catechists live with their wives and families. They earn a living by working with the missionaries to build the mission station, and their wives make millet beer and spin cotton to sell in the town.

The school is closed from May to November when the catechists return to their own villages to sow their crops and teach what they have already learned. After the harvest they return to the school to learn a further section of doctrine. To make matters more difficult, the catechists come from three different regions, each of which has its own dialect, so that every lesson had to be repeated three times. There were twenty-four pupils in the school which started in December, 1956, and fifteen of these were married men. The Fathers aim to have sixty pupils training at the same time when the school is fully organised.

There was an eclipse of the moon the night I spent at Bandiagara and for miles around the people were greeting it — for most of the night — by beating every tom-tom, drum, and tin can they possessed.

I was up at 4.30 next morning. When the workmen arrived they looked very tired. They explained that they had to stay up most of the night to "prevent the cat from eating the moon ".
"Yes," I said, "I heard you!" After breakfast we set off for Seghe, the first Dogon mission to be founded, thanks to Peter Kumba, the Apostle of the Dogons.

The steep mountain roads made us dizzy and our tiny 2-horsepower van seemed to feel it too. We ran into a strip of hot, soft sand and the van just slithered round, sunk its wheels axle deep and took a rest on its undercarriage. It looked hopeless to me, but not to our experienced Father de Vulder. He got everyone out of the car, and without getting in he put it in low gear, jammed the accelerator to the floorboards and told us to push. We pushed and heaved and sweated: suddenly the wheels took a grip and Father de Vulder ran after the car and leapt aboard.

We were all no sooner aboard than we smelt something burning and jumped out again quickly. It was, however, only a brake drum that had seized up, and after an hour's work in the broiling sun we managed to release the drum from the hub, and on we went hoping for the best and praying for it too. It was unpleasant to know that we were in the bush and miles from anywhere, and with no help of any kind. But we reached the foot of the mountain of Seghe safely. I think only a missionary would attempt to take a car up the mountain road built by Peter Kumba and the people of his village. But our little van with a loose brake drum made it safely.

In the relative cool of the evening, I met Peter Kumba amongst the rocks and stones of Seghe. He was a magnificent type of African who, seated on his fine horse, would be an outstanding figure in any company. Peter told me that the thousands of stones I saw lying around had been brought by the villagers to build the mission church.

"Every day in Lent," he said, "each man brought one cut stone, and each woman brought a basket of sand."

There were eight-thousand stones and three tons of sand there, ready for building. This was all the more remarkable when one realised that except for a handful of Christians these people were pagans.

Peter Kumba is an extraordinary personality. How many men, anywhere in the world, could persuade pagans to work without reward, for a cause which they know little of, to say the least? And there was another characteristic Peter Kumba incident. I saw a statue of Our Lady of Fatima in one of the little streets, just as one comes across a wayside shrine in France.
Said Peter: "We move her to a different street each day, and in the evening we come to visit her: we say the Rosary and someone gives a little instruction."

As we got closer to the statue, I noticed little gifts they had given to Our Lady to please her. The cloth covering the table in front of the statue depicted two faces I hardly expected to find in these mountains: our own Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip!

When it grew dark we came back to this statue to find the people gathered round, candles and torches were burning, and we sang and prayed to Our Lady for the conversion of her Dogon children. Loving the poverty of the little girls of Fatima, Our Blessed Mother must surely have looked with special tenderness on these poor Africans, who are never far from starvation. They came with such simplicity to do her honour in their streets.

As we walked through the village that evening, I felt honoured to be with this great man: so poor, so humble, so brave, and so true.

Everyone we met came to greet us. Peter introduced each one by name, each solemnly shook hands with me as I listened to the fourteen questions and answers which make up the traditional greeting between two Dogons.

I watched men at work, some weaving cloth of coarse wool, others making tools, chiefly axes, of iron which they themselves dig from the rocks and smelt in primitive but efficient furnaces of clay.








We went into a house here and there: all very poorly furnished but all very clean and tidy. In one we found a woman dying on her bed of four small tree trunks tied together! Her pillow was a thick piece of wood. Peter and the Father had been praying that she would receive the grace of Faith and be baptised before she died, but this did not seem to be likely. Nevertheless she was a fortunate woman because in her last hours she had a priest and a catechist to help her. I closed my eyes a moment and prayed and thought of the millions of Africans, thousands like her, dying but without the priest, without the catechist.

Every chief has a symbolic animal, and here it is the tortoise of which there are some huge specimens. In a swamp nearby were two sacred crocodiles, which must not be killed or the swamp, which is the local water supply, will dry up, so it is believed. The reptiles live in a hole where the people draw water, but the crocs never touch even the children who play with them, feeding them on frogs: they also seem to live on their own offspring which appear from time to time and just as suddenly disappear.

The streets of Segne, which are merely the spaces left between rows of houses, were so narrow that we could not always walk two abreast. The doors of the houses and other wooden parts were beautifully carved, and I was reminded of the designs of ancient Egypt. Here and there were remarkable shelters called Tegouna. Solid wooden pillars supported a roof of closely packed millet straw as much as ten feet thick to resist the sun, and beneath this straw it was indeed both cool and dark.

Seghe was full of sorcerers. One wicked sect of women periodically poisoned a child, buried it and later dug up the corpse to make further poison and ju-jus. Not long ago, a group of men followed the women on their grim nocturnal mission. They caught them in the act, and in their anger danced on the leader's stomach. She died three days later.

Peter took me to see his parents and I photographed the three of them together. Neither his father nor his mother is baptised yet, but they are among the "People-who-pray".

On my second evening at Seghe, Peter and his brother joined us after supper, and I took some recordings in four languages, which they both spoke easily. Dogon, of course, Peuhl, Mossi and Bambara. At times it was great fun: for instance, when Peter took the part of a young man greeting his lady love, played by his brother. It went on and on until our loud laughter brought them to a halt. With the Dogons, half the evening must be taken up by greetings.
The day I left, my Mass at 5.00 a.m. was served by Peter's brother. It was still dark and the candles served a useful as well as a liturgical purpose.

I was sorry to leave Seghe where primitive history of the Church was being made. Peter the Rock and his brother were there to say goodbye. Peter said with a smile when I asked about his brother: "Half-brother, Father, same father, many mothers!" I remembered that his father was still a pagan.

We made our way carefully down the mountain road to Pel, the third Dogon mission. At lunch we had tinned tripe. It was brought out as a special treat for us visitors. A storm had been threatening, and at about three o'clock the wind suddenly rose and there we were in semi-darkness, as a sand storm developed. Nothing escapes the sand, and we wrapped the precious cameras in cellophane bags. An hour later, when the wind had dropped, Father Leger, the Superior, took me to the village. On the way he told me how he had had to amputate a man's leg at the mission.

"It had to be done," he said, "and there was no one else to do it. The man's leg was full of gangrene; there was no transport, he could not possibly get to a hospital in time to save his life, so I cut off the leg and sewed him up as best I could. Later on we sent a messenger for a lorry and got him to the hospital where the surgeon tidied things up. Oh, yes, he recovered all right," he said in reply to my unspoken question.

"Another day a boy was carried thirty miles to me. He had fallen on a cut bamboo branch which had slit open his stomach. Half his inside was out. I put it all back and sewed him up. He recovered too!"

We had now reached the mission clinic and I saw three men carrying a small boy. Father Leger had a look at the boy:

"It's probably meningitis," he said, "we have an epidemic of it at the moment," and pointing to several people lying around the clinic he added, "most of these people have it."

"Many people," went on Father Leger, "will walk past a State Clinic and then go ten miles to get some medicine they know very well they could have got ten miles back, and when I point this out to them they answer: 'But you don't understand — of course it is the same medicine, but yours has God behind it and theirs has not ! "

We had not been out long before the rain came down in torrents and we took refuge in a Dogon house. It was very dark and cool inside. The family politely brought us stools and gave us a huge bowl of dolo (beer), two gallons of it. It was most refreshing even if it did taste like wood. Each member of the family came to shake hands and ask who I was. The many children stared at me with their enormous round eyes. It was all very friendly.

The mission of Pel was started from Seghe in June, 1952, and it is making good progress. There were only nineteen adult baptised Christians at the moment of my visit, but there were over two thousand catechumens.

"We've been lucky," said Father Leger, "or, rather, Divine Providence has helped us in extraordinary ways. For example, one day my young assistant priest rode to a village. His horse was stung by something and bolted. It stopped dead at the entry to the village and the priest made a double somersault and landed on his feet in front of the astonished people. The villagers had seen missionaries before, but they hadn't been over impressed. There certainly hadn't been any rush to 'sign on' for instruction. But this was something different; never before had a priest rode at full gallop into their village and without waiting to dismount, flown over the horse's head. This placed the witch-doctor a poor second. For a curious people this was worth investigating; the man obviously had something; the whole village clamoured to be enrolled for instruction !

"One day I got to a village very late in the evening," said Father Leger. "I tied up my horse outside the village and went off to sleep in a nearby hut. During the night I heard a great row in the village, 'but I took no notice. Next morning the chief came to me and offered to buy my horse's ju-ju. Amused, I asked why he wanted it.

" 'We killed a lion in the village last night,' he said, 'it had stalked right by your horse without touching it.' So it had for the traces were clear in the sand. These things give us a reputation of having special supernatural protection, but the thing that impressed the people most was the wonder of the rain. At Doumbo there was only one village which prayed as Christians. The people were always in terror of the local chief but they prayed just the same. They had sown their crops three times and all had been lost for lack of rain. The fourth sowing was already shrivelling up when I went that way. The people came and implored me to pray for rain. 'We've tried everything,' they said. Next day they came to my Mass and during the singing a tiny cloud appeared and then it poured the rest of the day. I was soaked to the skin myself !"

Father Leger had become an African with the Africans, and it was a delight to listen to him talking with such respect and love of the Africans. Before coming to Dogon country he had been in the jungles of Guinea, and we talked far into the night about the wonderful faith of his people in Guinea.

"Matthew was a catechist school teacher and the factotum of the whole mission. He never took any time off. When I arrived to take charge of the school for catechists, I noticed that Matthew was desperately poor; he got so little to keep his wife and five children that I felt ashamed, and wanted to do something for him. Matthew protested — and I said: 'But how do you live on so little?' 'Well,' he replied, 'I work for God and I am grateful for what I get. I go out at night to hunt and I sell the meat !' He would not take any rise in 'salary' because he knew how poor the mission was.

"Joachim was my favourite catechist," went on Father Leger. "He worked in a very pagan village in which the fetish was said to be particularly strong. One day a catechumen was killed for refusing to take part in a pagan sacrifice. The pagans fixed razor blades on to a stick, forced it into the boy's stomach and twisted it round and round. Then they left the boy to die. One of the catechists had witnessed this horror and he reported it to the missionaries who found the boy's body and buried it.

Joachim, the zealous catechist, was given the sign of death: a knock on the door in the night and nobody there when the door was opened. He knew what to expect, but he continued his work.

"A short while after he was carried twelve miles to the mission. He was vomiting blood and said: 'They've poisoned me. If God wants me to go on He'll cure me, if not I am ready to go to Him.' He got well and returned to work in that same village ! Later on, he was accused by the chief as a trouble-maker and was publicly flogged. 'I can win souls for God like this,' was all he said, when I questioned him about it. He is still there in his village with his wife and children, doing wonderful work for God."

I crept to bed late. One of the Fathers who had given me his room was already asleep on a straw mat outside on the sand. I hoped he would not be visited by a snake or a scorpion. Thinking of scorpions reminded me to put my shoes up on a ledge in case I might find an unwelcome visitor in them next morning.

Next day I was at Mopti again for lunch. From my bedroom, the roof of the fish store mission, I looked down on some twenty Moslems prostrating themselves, bowing to Mecca; above me was the new cross I had seen erected. Without realising it the Moslems were saluting the cross which stood between them and the setting sun. That night I listened to the noises of the town — the lapping of the river water (what a precious thing it is out here) — the tom-toms beating out some message — the hiss of mosquitoes. I stared up at the clear sky speckled with a thousand bright stars: there was the Southern Cross which looked a little lop-sided and embracing the whole was the pervading smell of fish. But my last thought was of Peter Kumba, that wonderful African, and of the Dogons, the hope of the Church in the West African Sudan.

Return to Top


Click below on the Chapter you wish to read: