Myanmar is now a world-famous country because of Aung San Suu Kyi, heroine of democracy. But she is not alone. In his autobiography, From the Land of Green Ghosts, Pascal Khoo Thwe wrote about his experience as a guerrilla fighter who had a chance to go and study in the UK. In the opening chapter about his life as a village boy, he speaks of an Italian missionary: “Indeed we children loved him. He clothed us, fed us and taught us until his death. He never returned to Italy. He became accustomed to being a quasi tribal chief, so far had he gone in adopting our customs… Like the ghosts of our ancestors, he and the other Italian priests became, after death, part of our society, pleasantly haunting and guarding our village.” When Pascal wrote this, he was far from imagining that one of his Italian priest-friends, Fr. Clement Vismara (1897-1988), would be declared Blessed and in this way attract again the world attention on Myanmar.
Born in 1897 in Agrate Brianza, Italy, Fr. Clement Vismara took part in the First World War. From his war experience he understood that "life has value only if you give it for others", and thus he became a priest and missionary the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in 1923 and left for Burma. Arriving in Toungoo, he spent six months in the bishop's house to learn English, then he set off for Kengtung, an almost unexplored land of forests and mountains. After fourteen days on horseback, he arrived at Kengtung where he remained for three months to be introduced to the local languages and then the superior of the mission accompanied him to Monglin, another six days on horseback away, his last destination, on the border between Laos, Thailand and China.
Fr. Clement, out of nowhere, built three parishes: Monglin, Mong Phyak and Kenglap. He used to live with three orphans in a mud and straw shed. His apostolate was to tour the tribal villages on horseback, to pitch his tent and make himself known: he brought medicine, pulled rotten teeth, adapted to the life of the tribal people, the climate, the dangers, the food of rice and spicy sauce, the hunting for meat. From the outset, he took in orphans and abandoned children in Monglin to educate them. Later, he founded an orphanage that became home to 250 orphans.
In his simplicity, Fr. Clement was clever and cunning: he had a kind of Gospel ingenuity. He tended to trust everybody, even those who did not deserve it. One time, he was stopped by some brigands who relieved him of everything he had. He exclaimed: “Poor people! They too were hungry!” Another time, when he was travelling with a group of people, the brigands appeared, but Fr. Clement faced them by saying: “Aren’t you ashamed of robbing all these poor people the little they have?” He was an impressive man, big and more than six feet tall. The brigands listened to him.
Blessed Clement founded the Church in a corner of the world where there are no tourists, but only opium smugglers, black magicians and guerillas from different backgrounds. He brought peace and helped the nomadic tribes to settle within the territory. Gradually a Christian community was born. Through schooling and health care, the indigenous people raised their standards of living and now have doctors and nurses, artisans and teachers, priests and nuns, bishops and civil authorities. Many of them are called Clement and Clementine. He died June 15, 1988 in Mongping and is buried near the church and the Grotto of Lourdes, which he built. His grave is visited also by many non-Christians. Now, Father Clement Vismara was declared Blessed, the first step towards recognized sainthood.
Father Clement, even at 80, he had the same enthusiasm for his vocation, as priest and missionary, as when he was 20. He was always peaceful and joyful, generous to all, a man of God despite the tragic situations in which he lived. He had an adventurous and poetic vision of the missionary vocation that made him a fascinating character also through his writings.
His trust in Divine Providence was proverbial. He had no budgets or estimates; he never counted the money he had. In a country where the majority of people during some months of the year suffer from hunger, Fr. Clement gave food to all. He never turned anyone away empty-handed.
Pope Benedict has said "The saints are the great luminous trail on which God passes through history. In them we see that there truly is a force of good which resists the millennia; there truly is the light of light." One of these lights was brought to wider attention on June 26 when, Fr. Clement Vismara who died in 1988 at the age of 91 in a remote corner of Burma was beatified. In Buddhist Burma, today called Myanmar, Catholics are little more than one percent. If the Christian faith is rooted there, it is due precisely to a missionary like Fr. Clement Vismara, to the "luminous trail" radiated by his holiness.
Little known to the outside world, civic life in Malawi is degrading by the day. Since the arrival of multiparty democracy, Malawi has experienced its share of ups and downs, with governments prone to corruption and autocratic temptations. Bingu wa Mutharika – the president of the day - is no different. He is dealing with the country as it were its own possession. Mutharika is aware that he would not be allowed to hold office for ever, so he has already earmarked the slot for his brother Peter, the now Foreign Minister in his government. In May, the President expelled British High Commissioner Fergus Cochrane-Dyet after a document where the diplomat referred to Mutharika as a dictator leaked out. In July, youth belonging to the ruling DPP roved around Blantyre with machetes threatening anyone who dared protests against the government. DPP has not categorically come forward to disassociate with this group nor have the youth been arrested.
Civil society and opposition parties are reacting to this despotic tendency. Protesters have taken to the streets of Lilongwe and Blantyre, Malawi’s major cities. In 2011, at least 18 people have been killed and 200 injured by the police during street protests. President Mutharika vowed publicly to stamp out any critic. “If they go back to the streets – he told a police graduation in Zomba last September – I will smoke them out”. And smoke them out he did.
In the early hours of the morning, on September 2, fire erupted at Institute for Policy Interaction (IPI) offices in Blantyre destroying the building, computers and many other items. The fire was started by arsonists because of IPI involvement in the anti-government protests. IPI Executive Director, Rafiq Hajat has been at the forefront with other civil society leaders in organising demonstrations and continues to play a leading role in pressurising the government to observe good political and economic governance. There have also been arson attacks on the homes of other government critics, including opposition politician Salim Bagus and human rights activist Macdonald Sembereka.
On October 9 it was the turn of the Catholic Church. A fire swept through the headquarters of the Catholic Church in Lilongwe, destroying bishops’ offices and priests’ living quarters. No one doubted this to be part of an ongoing campaign of fire-bombing against government critics. Father George Buleya, the Secretary General of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi, said that the fire broke out in the apartment of one of the priests and spread to the offices.
The Catholic Church has criticised the government on numerous occasions over the past. Last year the Episcopal Conference published a pastoral letter in which the government was accused of “not serving the welfare of the people.” Fr Bulaya said that since then “the Church’s radius of action has become more restricted.” In July, Joseph Zuza – Bishop of Mzuzu - condemned the violence by youths from the country’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Blantyre. On August 16, during the National Day of Prayers, the bishop accused the government of silencing civil society, the media and the faith community, who he said had a role to play in safeguarding democracy and the rule of law. He stated that the Presidency "must stop silencing civil society, the media, the judiciary system and democracy which the Country has paid a high price for”. The bishop was clearly aware of the consequences, since he made the remarks in the presence of the President. Other Church leaders have criticized Mutharika for his undemocratic behaviour and for his economic policy that has reduced the country to a collapse.
The answer did not wait long to reach its destination. Mutharika’s campaign of violence against has already hit the most important targets. At the same time, Mutharika has shown little respect for history. Malawi today resembles the final years of dictator Kamuzu Banda. Then, the killing of protesters and the clear opposition of the Church led to Banda’s demise. In Malawi, 80% of the population is Christian, and the Catholic Church has always had a leading role in political matters, even for the members of other Churches. The Muslim minority is also keen to participate in the democratic debate. Perhaps Bingu wa Mutharika should reflect on history.
Last October, Matebello Makhanya left her village of Ramabanta early in the morning and travelled 60 km to Maseru, Lesotho's capital, in the hope of seeing a dentist at Queen Elizabeth II Hospital, the largest in the country - only to be told that the hospital was about to be closed and dental services were no longer provided there. "I am very disappointed," she said from her place in a queue outside a small private clinic in the city centre, explaining that she had initially been referred from her local clinic to a hospital about 20 km away. "Upon arriving at that hospital I was told that there is no dental anaesthesia and that the dentist is on leave."
Makhanya's story is echoed by many patients who have resorted to private clinics and pharmacies after struggling to get service at both government health facilities and those run by the Christian Health Association of Lesotho (CHAL), an organization comprising six Churches. CHAL provides 40% of health services in Lesotho. In 2007, the government and CHAL, which runs 75 health centres and eight hospitals, many of them in rural areas where government health workers are reluctant to work, agreed to make their services more accessible to the poor. The resulting influx of patients put a huge strain on health centres and their supply of drugs and many over-burdened health centres have taken to referring patients to private clinics and pharmacies. Head of pharmacy in the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare 'Masoko Nt'sekhe described the situation as "very unfortunate", particularly in the context of a country where about 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Beyond CHAL, the Catholic Church is striving to help in this situation of widening poverty. Relebohile Mabote is the Secretary General of Charitas. She explains what the Church does. “We are currently involved in microfinance and a project of conservation and agriculture, in this we cooperate with the Catholic Relief Service (from the USA, editor’s note). We also work with the World Food Program to distribute food items to poorer families. We hope to open a program for the forestation and planting of orchards for family use. We are a faith based organization, yet we address people of every faith and interest”.
How does microfinance work?
In a typical location there are groups, we bring them together by our field staff. They are supported to form a new group. We help them to prepare a constitution, we train them in keeping good administration, and we help them develop the ability to save. We also offer some capital to start lending money to members. The group has to collect payment towards extinguishing the debt and pay interests. The profit is then shard by members. The project has proved successful through the years. There are now many groups ready to support the starting of small businesses which should help self reliance.
What is your role in all this?
I have been here a short time. I see my work as that of reviving many activities, of helping the establishment of structures and methodologies that will help us to be more efficient. I am also preparing an organizational development program. At the moment all our programs are financed from outside. Once this financing is phased out, we have to stop our activities. We really need to find resources within the country, to allow us to be self-reliant. Such a plan can work only if we will b able to set realistic goals before us, developing strategic objectives and strategies that are feasible. I am sure that Caritas Lesotho will be able to redefine its role and focus on the needs of our people. We already have a good impact in many households; it is now matter of focusing better on what we can do to be of service to the poorest.
In West Africa, people have been relatively free of religious conflicts except in Nigeria. Why is Nigeria the exception? Since the 1980s one can count more than twenty major crises. These crises often begin as a result of some social, ethnic or political misunderstanding and soon assume a religious dimension. It should be noted that most of the so-called religious conflicts originate from tussles over control of land, claims to be settlers or political issues. Of course, poverty, unemployment, insensitive governance that leads to massive corruption and social injustice play very significant factors. Unfortunately, these tensions are often baptized as conflicts between Christians and Muslims.
The Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) came into being in order to help deal with the unhealthy recurring crises that often are attributed to religion. The Council is made up of the Sultan of Sokoto, who is the head of the Muslims in Nigeria, and the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, with well respected Christian and Muslim religious and traditional leaders as members. They meet often and rotate their meetings in different parts of the country and try dousing tension where crises occur. This body has the potential to inspire a new kind of relationship between Muslims and Christians. The establishment of the Nigeria inter faith Action Association against malaria is a significant step by both religions to improve the lives of Nigerians. NIREC can help Muslims and Christians to use religion for peaceful purposes and remedy the social situation caused by corruption, bad governance, illiteracy, poverty and superstition.
There is increasing efforts of many Muslim/Christian NGOs in peace building and conflict resolution. I know well of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria which has a special Committee on Christian/Muslim relations and it uses the apparatus of the Justice, Peace and Development Commission to foster greater collaboration with Muslims. Recently, the Conference of Women Religious held seminars and workshops on inter-religious issues, just as Islam is now part of the curriculum in seminaries and many religious houses of formation. The Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna jointly founded and directed by Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa - who were both leaders of religious militant groups - offer a faith based approach to peace building through the use of non-violent methods. We need many trained peace makers of whom the Bible says are blessed.
Although some people still view inter-religious dialogue as a watering down of the Christian belief or compromise on the mandate of Christ to evangelize the world, dialogue for me is a Christian obligation. It is either we learn to accept and appreciate our differences or we mutually extinct one another. My approach to dialogue is basically practical. I do not engage in doctrinal analysis or debates. I advocate the dialogue of life by working with Muslims in the promotion of common social goals. I see that we have no alternative to dialogue if we must remain true Christians in our pluralistic society.
Dialogue is a very tedious mission and at times risky, especially in a country like Nigeria where the history of Christian-Muslim relations have been very turbulent. The spirit of distrust and suspicion poses a great obstacle. The Emir of Wase, Alhaji Dr Haruna Abudullahi, and I have been associates in the search for permanent peace between Muslims and Christians in Plateau State since 2004. We have since then worked on several peace initiatives and programmes, appeared on TV and spoken on radio programmes and have been seen together in mosques and churches so that people now refer to us as brothers.
There are many sceptics on both sides about the genuineness of our relationship. A prominent Christian leader told me to be careful as I was dealing with "snakes". The Emir of Wase has been accused as being a sell-out and perhaps a possible candidate for conversion to Christianity. We continue to do what we are doing: promoting dialogue and peace. The Emir of Kanam, Alhaji Mohammadu Muazu Babangida, impressed by the positive and constructive engagement by the Emir and I asked if he could join us, and now he is our partner in the search for peace. It is very encouraging to hear of efforts by my colleagues, Bishops of northern cities such as Kano, Zaria, Maiduguri, Sokoto and Kaduna. The wind of inter religious dialogue is blowing. We need patience, humility and courage. It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
Ignatius A. Kaigama
Archbishop of Jos