MUD AND MOSAICS

Chapter 9

CONGO-WARDS

FROM Mopti I flew to Dakar, my first stop on the long journey down to the Congo via the West Coast. Our small plane, in the full heat of the day, turned and twisted like a thing in agony. Even the African steward remained strapped to his seat, and all the passengers, except one, were very sick. Perhaps it was the simplicity of my missionary breakfast which enabled it to remain in place I We were all glad to change planes at Bamako.

Dakar is a seaside town — almost an island — and the lovely cool sea breeze was heavenly after the heat of the Sudan. The missions of this area of Senegal are in the good charge of the Holy Ghost Fathers, but the White Fathers have a house in Dakar itself, where they edit the Catholic weekly newspaper. Its editor, Father de Benoist, met me at the airport and drove me to his place in Shantytown where I was met with what I can only fairly describe as a dreadful stench. Daybreak showed me the cause. The house is a few hundred yards from the edge of the shanties and round our garden is the only convenient hedge! But for the sea breeze which gives some relief, I should think life would be unbearable. I could not help wondering why such a state of affairs was tolerated.

I found Dakar teeming with people of all tribes and races, mostly Moslems. The great fast of Rhamadam was just over and the mosques were full. We stood and watched awhile. Before entering the mosque the people first went through the ritual washing of hands, feet, face, and teeth (carefully spitting out the water).
We were besieged by beggars. Up they came one after another or in groups; the blind, the lame, and at least five lepers.

From the sea Dakar starts as a modem port, goes inland as a great ultra-modem town, and finishes up a dreadful native shantytown. Men were swarming everywhere in hundreds, looking for work, for they cannot make a living on the land. I was told that Government was doing its best to solve the problem of unemployment, but just cannot cope with it. There were no signs of any colour-bar here. Whites and blacks mixed indiscriminately, as they did on the plane from Bamako. One sign of "progress" was that we had a football team with us, flying nine hundred miles to play a match! Next to me, one of the players was reading a lady's fashion magazine, another was whistling a tune from "Kismet", and just in front an African was handcuffed to a black policeman. The prisoner was reading. "The Imitation of Christ"!

We did not take many photographs in Dakar because of the touchiness of the people who grew ugly if we pointed a camera at them. In the market-place meat, fish, and other foodstuffs were spread out on the ground for sale; millions of flies swarmed everywhere. The impression was one of terrible poverty alongside magnificent modem buildings.

People are very poor up in the Dogon country but they are clean and dignified. It is much worse to see poverty en masse in a modern town like this.

At our house in Dakar, I was delighted to meet Monsignor Courtois, our Prefect Apostolic of Kayes, over which the pilot had kindly flown at my request. I had not thought it possible to visit that Prefecture, nor did I expect to meet anyone from it. So here was luck indeed for me. It was due to what the Prelate called his own bad luck. He had gone to bring the Apostolic Delegate to visit his Prefecture and he and his driver came to a broken bridge which, nevertheless, seemed passable.

"I got out of the car and was guiding the jeep across with my Moslem driver at the wheel, when the off-side wheels slipped over the edge of the bridge, and in a moment the jeep was upside down eight feet below in the ravine. I jumped down from the bridge to help the driver, but it was he who helped me, for he crawled out from under the jeep unhurt while I got a broken leg! "

So there he was: helpless and ready to be interviewed! He came out to Africa at the age of twenty-four, and this was the first time he had ever been ill. He was now forty-four years of age, and had been a Prefect Apostolic for nine years. I am told that in the whole of West Africa you will not find a harder mission territory, and it is as big as Great Britain. In the north he has a desert inhabited by Moors — Moslems to a man — and the centre and south is Savanna-land. From east to west runs the crocodile-infested Senegal River, and that is the country of the Bantu; the Bambara and the Malinka tribes, who are fetishist. Islam is spreading but the people are slow to change. They are watching and waiting.

"Don't rush us, Father, some day we shall decide; when we have seen," they say.
Any mass movement would be very difficult here, each one must be taken as an individual. In one family you may find a pagan father with one son a Moslem and the other a Christian.

"Take the mission of Sagabaru, for example," said Mgr. Courtois, "We started there fourteen years ago and I have just heard that two of the people have at last decided to become catechumens. It will, of course, be at least another four years before they are baptised."

There are five mission stations in the territory and he has only seventeen priests and one Brother.

"But," Monsignor went on with obvious delight, "in a few days now, we shall have our first African priest. He is a convert from Islam. His father is dead but his mother is still a Moslem."

"Elsewhere," remarked Monsignor, "missionaries are fishing with large nets; here we have to use a hook and line; there are only two thousand five hundred Christians in the whole area."

The Prefect Apostolic has Bush schools all over the territory as well as six Primary schools. He is so poor that he has recourse to extraordinary ways of making money.

"We install small grain mills in the bigger centres, these give us a little income," he explained, "we also buy cement and make blocks to sell. We'd make bricks, as they do elsewhere, only there's no wood to make the fires to 'burn' them!"

I left this cheerful Prelate sitting up in bed. He had already had two operations on his badly broken leg. It was his first time in bed for twenty years in Africa! I felt he had earned the rest.

I flew to Conakry next day and there I had a few hours to wait, before taking off for Freetown, so I called on the Archbishop, a Holy Ghost Father, and on the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny.

The tiny plane to Jungi (Freetown) landed me safely at my destination, where I was met by a jeep sent down by the Manager of the Marampa Mines. I was going there to stay with a doctor friend. My Moslem driver's name was “Why Worry” ! He lived up to his name. He was an excellent driver and I had no worry. Nevertheless, it took us a long time to get to Marampa up a terrible road in torrential rain. I tried to talk to "Why Worry" in English, but he answered all my questions with "Yessir"— and when I put a question to which I thought he would have to say "no", he answered "No sir-yessir!" As you can guess, he was a kindly individual anxious to please, and realising, I suppose, that my teeth were being shaken out of my head by the jolting jeep, he offered me a tin of five hundred Codeine tablets and pointed to his head. But I preferred my headache to a chew of dry codeine.

As we passed through the villages two things struck me. One was that every man seemed to be in a hammock, and no one smiled or greeted us as we passed. This was very unlike the Africa I had seen elsewhere.

The Doctor welcomed me with a delightful cold bath and a glass of salt water !
"Nothing like it in this climate," he said. "I always put salt in the water I drink - it spoils the taste but it does you good."

One loses so much salt from the body in perspiration that it seems obviously wise, yet I had never yet met a missionary who drank salt water!

The little mission church of Marampa is in the charge of the Italian Xaverian Fathers, who had taken over recently from the Holy Ghost Fathers. Some of these Italian priests had spent years in prison in China from which they had been expelled. They were exceedingly kind to me.

By phone we tried to arrange my next hop - to Accra, but a storm had ruined the radio telephone. This meant that I had to go to Freetown and back to reserve a place on a plane. Although the very thought of another journey in that bucking jeep made my back sore I was not sorry to have the chance of seeing Freetown, which is famous in the history of Catholic missions. It was here that the Founder of the African Missions' Society landed with four companions on May 14th, 1859. By June of that same year they were all dead and buried in Freetown, victims of yellow fever. At home, in France, there remained only three priests and four brothers of the Society. The disaster at Freetown looked like the end of a dream. But the Society grew and forty-eight years later there were one hundred and sixty-eight members.

The young Society paid heavily for its survival. For the first twenty years, one third of its members lost their lives. For instance, in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) three missionaries landed: one died in twenty-four hours, the second in twenty-seven days, and the third in nine months. Today the African Missions' Society has twenty dioceses from the Ivory Coast to the Congo. ""Unless the seed go into the ground and die, it will not bear fruit." The first tombs of Freetown have borne much fruit: 1500 priests and brothers and over one hundred African priests have come from that glorious but tragic beginning.

The Jesuits were in Sierra Leone for a time as far back as the sixteenth century, and at Bishop Broshanan's in Freetown I saw transcripts of letters of A.D. 1500, found in Rome, speaking of the Termic people of the north and the Mendi of the south. Bishop Broshanan, who hails from Kerry, took me round. We stopped under the giant Cotton Tree of Freetown which is depicted on the 2d. stamps of the country.

"Here," said the Bishop, "Mother Anne-Marie Javouhey watched hundreds of men and women sold as slaves. She had no money to buy and release them, but her gentle kindness brought some comfort to those poor Africans waiting to be shipped to America."

Mother Javouhey, the Foundress of the Congregation of St. Joseph of Cluny, was called to Freetown by the British Governor, to take over the hospital which was in a deplorable condition. She came, accompanied by a little African slave girl, who had been given to her, and who afterwards became the first African Sister of the Congregation. The charity of Mother Javouhey is singularly manifest in the fact that she came to Freetown knowing that there was no priest in the place, and that she would for some time at least, be deprived of the Sacraments.

While she was at Freetown, yellow fever broke out and she nursed the sick, instructed the dying, and baptised many of the hundreds who died. She herself got the disease and had to return to France. Forty years later the Sisters of her Congregation came to Freetown to stay. I saw their fine school with over one thousand African pupils. The Bishop took me to other schools and on the way pointed out no less than sixty-three churches and chapels of various sects in Freetown and only two Catholic ones. There are thirteen mosques, and that gives an idea of the religious state of affairs. I asked the Bishop about the possibilities of an African clergy here. He answered sadly:

"Look at the marriage registers. We've practically nothing but mixed marriages. And that has been so for the last fifty years. Until we can get good Catholic homes there's not much hope of Catholic priests."

Not many priests appear to be coming from the West Coast missions at all, but the situation improves as one moves south and east.

On signposts of Freetown I saw "Aberdeen", "Kent", "Sussex", "York", and "Wellington"; villages established for the freed slaves. The whole atmosphere was foreign and the lack of African art, the use of English for prayers made me wonder about the future of the Church in these parts.

On my way back to Marampa I saw that the custom of giving names to lorries was as common here as in the Northern Region of Ghana. "I trust in God" was unhappily in a ditch, and "Heaven's help" was stranded with a broken axle, but "Love the Ladies" and "I'm no Angel" careered joyfully past me !

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