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News   -  07  ( 17.08.2005 )

C O N G O,
a mythical country

Dámaso  Zuazua, General Secretary for the Missions 


    Congo has a surface area of more than two million kilometers, which is equivalent to four times the size of France and five times that of Spain. It was the goal of the first Teresian Carmelite mission in April of 1582, which ended up shipwrecked, six months before the death of St. Teresa of Avila, and the place of the first missionary of the Carmelites between 1584 and 1587.  From 1585 to 1632 a lot of effort was put into realizing the dream of planting the Teresian Carmelite nuns, which was not realized for another three centuries.  It was here too that the two intrepid explorers, Livingston and Stanley met each other. There are two martyrs from this great country, at least two that have been honoured by the Church: Blessed Isidore Bakanja (+ 1909) and Blessed Anwarite Nmengapeta (+1964). 

          Poor yet rich 

             Congo used to be a Belgian colony, formerly Zaire before becoming the Democratic Republic of Congo.  It has been an unstable country for a long time.  The reasons for this are many.  First, there was the arbitrary partition of Africa at the Berlin Congress (1884-85), which began the colonial period.  Congo managed to obtain independence in 1960.  But since then there has been a lot of violence and unease, perhaps at its worst under the dictator Mobutu (1965-66).

          Then there was the invasion of refugees from neighbouring Rwanda in 1994, which led to more destabilization. The people feel insecure as guerillas roam free in many areas, as well as foreign troops who enter the country to loot the rich mines.  Congo is rich in natural resources which are the envy of its neighbours but also the reason why it is not at peace.

          They say that there is no war in the Congo. But there are military factions who violently oppose each other, in order to get their hands on the rich territory. In the cities and populated areas death is a common occurrence, as is kidnapping and people suddenly disappearing, constant shooting, incursions, entire days of military confrontation.  Unofficial curfews are imposed for security reasons.

          The saddest factor in all this death and destruction is the tacit approval and responsibility of the international community, which allows the situation to continue without making any effort to stop it, which it easily could.  But a lot of money is made here on the sale of arms to all factions of the divide.  The situation is worse in the east of the country, where there are many gold and even diamond mines.  It is our western superpowers that both control and destabilize the area through Uganda in the north and Rwanda to the east.

          Most of the Congo’s money is taken up in fighting the insurgents, though nothing is ever said officially. The country suffers from neglect as a result of this.  For example rice, a stable crop, in one area is left to stagnate as there is no transport to move it around the country, so people have to buy rice from Pakistan. And people who try to challenge the situation, who ask questions of the government or army, including a bishop, missionaries and some priests, are targeted and often killed.         


    Our Friars 

            My trip began in Kinshasa, the capital of the Congo. The airport with its noise and confusion, its corrupt officials, often underpaid or not paid at all, is but a reflection of the situation in the country at large.  None of this surprised me as I know the place well, having lived here myself as a missionary.

          I met our local community which was still in mourning for the recent death of Fr. Laurent Kapuku, aged just 46.  He had been superior in Goma and died in a clinic in Kinshasa that lacked the necessary medication. 

          As I took in the city it was clear that it was in decline.  We arrived at St. Joseph’s priory, next door to the cemetery where our brother had been buried. There I met so many of the Delegation. 

          I then visited our Carmelite Nuns.  Next the theological college and the centre of spirituality.  There are more houses of spirituality in this Delegation than in any other Province of the Order.  There was a real shortage of water.  But the community were happy and the liturgy vibrant and full of joy. If only we could have this participation in our European churches, this recollection and respect.

          After Kinshasa I flew to Goma, where the plane was forced to taxi halfway down the runway, as the rest of it was still covered in lava following the eruption of a local volcano in 2002. 

          Our parish has been without a superior since the death of Fr. Laurent. Here I met the most recently ordained priests of the Delegation. They are an example to all for their commitment to the house and parish.  They spoke matter of factly about the dangers the city is facing.   I got the same reaction from the local Carmelite sisters even though they had recently evacuated the place while opposing factions fired rockets and mortars over their heads.

          My next stop, Bukavu, was a three hour trip across the lake from Goma. Here is where our students study philosophy, in a college which we run, shared by five other congregations, and hoping that others will join. The centre is accredited to the Congolese State University. In spite of limited resources they have built a new centre and plan to build a new Carmelite house nearby. The first college, established in 1990, has since been converted into a spirituality centre. Our friars are involved in the daily running of the college and the construction of the new centre, as well as their Carmelite apostolate and looking after 26 postulants.  It is one of the most challenging situations of the entire Order, in great part because of its location. We owe our brothers here a great debt of gratitude and hopefully we can help them with our finances.

          The student house of Bukavu is a landmark in the missionary history of the Order, because it managed to convert itself into a centre of Philosophy for the Conference of Religious.  Our community consists of two with Doctorates and two with Licentiates.  The local Bishop looks to the Carmelites to consolidate the education of his clergy, his religious, friars and nuns, and committed laity.  Here, on the other side of the river, which serves as a border, is the Rwandan town of Cyangugu, where there is a Carmelite convent of our nuns, all of them African.

          In concluding my visit I asked my self if other members of the Order would be capable of such serenity, trust, happiness and normality in an area convulsed by violence. It is true that Carmel has turned upside down many things in the Congo: with hope, finances, patience and prayer. The results are revealing: there are more Carmelites in the Congo than anywhere else in Africa with 39 in solemn vows and 16 novices who recently made their first profession.  As a sign of its maturity we see a missionary orientation.  Carmelites from the Congo are helping out in Italy, Belgium, where they have their own community, in Chevremont, in Germany, Uganda, in the Central African Republic and in the Holy Land.

            The country’s Episcopal Conference wrote recently: “Our citizens must confront an uncertain future, a growing insecurity, an intolerable poverty… Our people do not deserve to continue shouldering this same yoke…”  I read and meditate on these words thinking of our own Carmelite friars.   

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