Father Gaetan Kabasha, a Rwandan priest, shares his experience in Bakouma, in eastern Central African Republic, where he combines evangelization with human promotion.
I escaped my country, Rwanda, because of the 1994 genocide. I lived for some years in the refugee camps of the DR Congo, then I arrived to the Central African Republic. I was welcomed by Bishop Mons. Juan José Aguirre, a Comboni Missionary in the diocese of Bangassou. After I completed my theology studies, Bishop Aguirre assigned me to the Bakouma mission.
Bakouma is 950 kilometres away from Bangui, CAR’s capital. Getting to Bakouma takes three or four days with a heavy Land Rover or weeks using public transport. Bakouma parish is composed of fifteen Christian communities, many of them far away from the main road. It is an area of gold and diamond mines: some communities are in the forest near the mines, with no access to the main road. These communities survived thanks to the work of a handful of catechists.
I often begin the journey to visit the communities by car and I end up with a bicycle I borrow, or simply walking. Despite the hurdles, it is good to see the joy of the people in welcoming the missionary. When one arrives, they give him hot water, so one can refresh himself before starting any activity. At times, I am welcomed at the entrance of the village with songs of joy. To them, the presence of a priest in the village is a blessing.
Usually, visits in the villages are well organized. I visit the largest communities every month, and the others every two months. I send in advance the program for the visits of all the communities in the same area. Thus every community knows the date of my arrival and each meeting is prepared with great care. This is important to allow everyone to profit from it. Usually, my visit is the occasion for a feast day. Nobody goes to work and everyone is present to take part in the celebrations. Christians always offer gifts before I leave the village: hens, bananas, peanuts… I never come back home empty-handed.
People in the villages believe in the power of sorcery. Every illness or death is explained with the evil spirits’ power. The presence of a priest is a blessing to them because they believe priests have a strong remedy against evil spirits. But this is far from thinking that the priest is a magician among many others. Sorcery is one of the elements that hamper the progress of the Gospel. The majority of people believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, but they also believe in many other spirits and evil powers. This belief greatly damages human relationships, even inside the Christian community.
Here, lay people have an irreplaceable role in evangelization. Without them, nothing can be done. I am the only priest in the area. That is why every Sunday people gather around the catechist who organizes the celebration and proclaims the Word of God. In every Christian community there is a council which manages everything, from catechesis to social and charity projects. Groups of young, and less young, people regularly walk to the courses that are held in the central parish. Sometimes they spend many days and nights walking, unafraid of hunger, thirst, illness and exhaustion. When they reach the parish, they are welcomed by songs and dances, and weariness is quickly forgotten.
When I arrived in Bakouma I rapidly became aware that combining evangelization with human promotion was important. It is not possible to stay idle in front of illiteracy, hunger and other forms of poverty. As an African I am more and more convinced that the Church must be the axis for the development of the continent. A missionary who does nothing to take his people away from misery has misunderstood his mission. When Jesus says “Get up and walk” he is saying “get out from this situation, from this suffering and poverty”. Development is one of the many things which help people to walk. To me, the commitment for development in Africa is a moral duty.
That is why I am involved in many projects of human development and promotion. With the help of many people we established schools, chemist’s shops, programs for adult literacy, cooperative companies and even fixed roads and bridges. I think that the balance between the two dimensions of the mission – the spiritual and the material one – is very important. Sometimes a development project is motivated by the circumstances, by the living conditions or simply imposed by necessity. If you spend an entire day blocked because of a broken bridge, you feel an obligation to solve the problem.
The priest is also a key social figure and cannot behave in a different way. I have been everything I have been because I have been forced by necessity. I must say that the years I spent doing what I loved have been the happiest in my life, because I was with the people, slowing walking towards the happiness of the Gospel. This does not mean that it has all been a bed of roses. There have been moments of fear and anxiety, of discouragement, but the final thing is always to bring Christ to the people. Combining evangelization with human promotion helped me to understand that we are like salt, which gives its taste to life.