Ferial: 7 June 2012
Stuck right now…
In: a world, post-Frantz Fanon, post-André Malraux, post-Albert Camus, post-Emmanuel Lévinas, post-René Girard, beyond the noble struggle, beyond noble responsibility, or any noble suffering on the part of one individual for the betterment of des prochaines… despite Christ, according to Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, or John…
And: where: all that is left is some dabs of humanity to be found gratuitously in the insane humor of situations impossible to conjure up outside the living-breathing context of being right here in this place right now:
Everything is still in play:
So much I must remember to write down now:
So much yet to be written:
Where to start?
Goethe gave a clue, when he wrote two hundred years past:
“Ordinary people don’t know how much time and effort it takes to learn how to read. I’ve spent eighty years at it, and I still can’t say that I’ve reached my goal.”
During these past ‘ordinary’ ferial days, strung together between feasts of martyrdom and of mysteries, I challenge this denigrating concept of ‘ordinary people’.
In a fortnight, I shall be back in Uganda, at Our Lady of Victoria, where a good friend is the superior there: a priest who traveled last year to Rome and to Holland, who has studied in Nairobi, who speaks and writes in English, in French, in Swahili, who understands Greek and Hebrew, and who prays in Swahili, Lingala, Kinyarwanda, and Latin, and who was born in a village, on a hilltop, near Kibarizo, here in Masisi, to a father who owns many cows, who went to school in the primary school I know well in the center of the village of Kibarizo, where André is now the director.
Ordinary people too often never have the opportunity to ‘move’ and to ‘climb’ like my friend, the superior, who hails from a simple mountain village and a strained educational system. Ordinary people never are allowed the frustrations of a thinker and reader like Goethe, simple because ordinary people, particularly ordinary village people, in a country like the DR Congo, in a village like Kibarizo, have simply zero access to books and periodicals and/or a computer connected with a sufficient connection to the internet. Therefore they will not readily be able to read and read and become frustrated because they cannot learn to read well enough. They cannot even start.
Br. R., who is diabetic and who cannot stop grazing though he knows he needs to lose weight and to eat less and eat better, sides with Goethe. Villages, he says, are filled with simple people, even idiots. In his humble eyes, they will not know what to do with such technologies, and they will break the devices and waste the opportunity. Better, he reflects, to leave the devices at the monasteries with monks, such as himself.
Br. O. and Br. B. and Br. V. all disagree. They see this as a singularity. As something potentially breakthrough: an opportunity that places much trust on the village educators and the students, and much responsibility at the same time.
It is too easy to deprecate the person from the country, from the hills.
And the superior in Uganda reminds me, through every correspondence, of this ease, and its fallacy.
It is on account of him, and of school officials like Augustin and André, and teachers like Bonare and Bernard, who spend their school holidays tilling in the fields of the monastery, to earn some necessary produce, because they could never live on the impossibly meager infrequent earnings they are owed and rarely receive on time from the government. These persons, dedicated to knowledge and to learning to know, and to kindling the like in young little minds, in villages few know of and fewer will ever visit, places one still has to walk to, with two feet and a stick, now well planted in the Twenty-First Century, Anno Domini.
I have seen people with AIDS left to rot, assumed by neighbors to be worthless and a scourge or pox from God or some such crap. I know men, on Death Row, who are looked on as objects, by systems of justice and by crusaders on both sides, as not as persons, beyond guilt and beyond innocence, first and foremost.
I know families who are judged failures because they have hit hard times and made one or two too many mistakes, yet they are still functional and still glued strong as families. And the same goes for addicts, and young persons bullied as they try to figure out who they are and how they are to tick.
So to me, simple faith and a sense of freely given trust is overdue in encounters such as those sought this past week, at schools, in Butare and Kibarizo.
It was with such faith and trust that others stood by me, before I went here, and showed such in scraping and pooling together enough little piles of cash and savings to produce three devices and about 80+ books (in French and in English, for little kids and for young people in high school and for the adults charged as educators for both. People I know from Adult Education on Sunday mornings between the two Masses. My family. My colleagues. My priest. My friends at the prison, prisoners who have so much on their own plates, who earn around seventeen cents an hour, who collected enough money for one of the devices, whose story has been shared by me with many here and to the betterment of all who have happened to hear of it.
Without equity, everything is sacrificed in the encounter. Power is soon sought. And positions are chosen self-ishly for advantage and to trump the other.
Un Histoire… to begin…
I could begin with Wednesday, two days back, hiking down off the mountain, down from Kibarizo, and down towards Butare, between two weather fronts both closing in on the ridgeline that Br. O and I were traversing. And saying how amazing: to be again hiking in Masisi: and the colors: and this sudden surprising turn of the weather. We had just finished leaving the directors of the primary and the secondary schools in Kibarizo, friends who remembered me from the visits the year before, who had welcomed us upon arrival into their homes, and then walked us to the primary school to sit down and to discuss the electronic library for the students, and to begin to explore the new technology.
In the primary school was the Firefly English-French Visual Dictionary I had sent to Kibarizo, via Gisenyi (Rwanda), and Goma (DR Congo), and hiked in from the monastery. And hanging from the crucifix on the wall about the director’s desk was one of the hundred plastic rosaries I had also sent, gifts given by the monks at Holy Spirit monastery in Georgia to pass on to the schoolchildren in this remote village up above the world.
How wonderful the formation had gone. Br. O. insisted that I do the talking in my French. And I did. And they, the villagers, got it! Br. R. had spurned the efficacy of such technology up on the hilltops. He proclaimed it far beyond the manageability of a village person. Better left with the monks in the monastery, he shared. But they asked the right questions; they managed to walk themselves through working the device; and the teachers looked on, and the children, and from those moments I felt a wonderful rush of hope.
I could begin with earlier on Wednesday, after Vigils, around 5:15 a.m., hurriedly trying to type out the titles, in French, and the authors’ names, in Franco-spelling, of all of the books I had loaded up onto the devices for the library pilot project. And the packing up of all of the accessories, et cetera. And the packing of my bag, including first aid, and water, and the camera, and the notebook, and some dollars, and a No. 2 pencil. And the walking stick. And the two cheeses to carry up the mountain, to offer as presents, if deemed appropriate and/or necessary.
I could begin with the walk up that first colline to the village of Butare, just after Tierce, around 8:30 a.m. And Br. O. commenting on the walk and the weather and the sun, and it turning into a hot day, but for sure no rain – this being the dry season. And walking through the village, in the direction opposite the mountain and Kibarizo, to get out to the outlying E.P. Mokoto (École primaire), to shake hands, exchange phone numbers, and make plans to rendezvous post-climb, post-Kibarizo, later mid-afternoon. And how when we walked into the director’s office, there, next to a plastic statue of the Virgin Mother, was the Firefly English-French Visual Dictionary, unprompted, waiting to be used that day, waiting for us to see: an auspicious sign?
But things went well, really well, swimmingly the British would say, on Wednesday.
It was yesterday, Thursday, that there was the hiccup so to speak. So lets begin there, and work backward, and then into possible futures.
It was after Tierce, yesterday. I was sitting on a stool, under the columns of the cloister, sorting dried beans, picking through mounds, to rid them of damaged beans, pebbles, bits of debris, and weevils. I was settling into hours of welcomed tedium: positioning my mind outside of the focused task, meditating on the day before.
And then Br. R. came up to me, and said I had to go with him.
“The military is here, from Kibarizo, looking for the muzungu!” Drama! – even here in the morning, even in a Trappist monastery by a lake, in the smack dab middle of the Heart of Africa. “Military” soon became “head of the police”. “He is saying you promised him yesterday to give him $200.00 today!” Now, I knew something was afoot. Not only did Br. O. and I not have meetings with the police or town officials; I would never promise anyone anything at all like such a ridiculous-ness. I asked Br. R. if he was jesting. He was not. I asked him where was the superior, V.? He pointed to the library. I asked him where was Br. O.? “In the fields, working, somewhere.” I asked to see V.
I met V. at the library’s entrance. We discussed the situation. V. suggested that finding O. was not needed. He told me to speak in French and that the chief would not understand much and that R. would translate what I would say into Kinyarwanda. And that R. was to bring fresh milk and cups for everyone. And that all would be okay.
With the superior I put great stock; he is a remarkable man, a motivator, a confessor, a diplomat: the real deal.
Br. R. and I headed to the meeting areas, he carrying a pitcher of milk and cups on a silver tray, I carrying my work, a platter of dried beans that need sorting. We turned the corner, and there was the police official chatting to one of our guards, and a woman, his wife? She seemed to be present for more than simple moral support. She was prodding.
The chief and I shake hands. He asks why I did not visit the radio station in Kibarizo yesterday. Why did not I not come there to pay him due honor? I smile and proclaim my apologies. I say that Br. O. and I had come up to visit with the directors of both schools to present an electronic library, and to solicit interest, and if interest was there, to quickly initiate a formation – all of which was a terrific success. Very exciting. And I say that Br. J-B. in Uganda, who was born near Kibarizo, and who went to the E. P. Kibarizo was himself terribly happy about this prospect. And that after all of that had been done, the storm and the thunder had arrived, and that for our own safety, and the fact that we had to descend to Butare for yet another formation in the same afternoon, we had no time to see everyone properly. BUT – we had left instructions with André and Augustin to inform everyone of our intention to return to Kibarizo the following Wednesday for a full and proper visit.
All of this is duly translated. And the chief smiles, and says that all that is nice, but where is his cheese?
Cheese! Of course! How mindless of me. With his patience I would make amends and get him that which I omitted to present to him the day before… and I dash from the meeting area to the fromagerie, where I not only run into V. but also the young novice in charge of the cheese production, and I ask for quickly two rounds of cheese, and that I will pay after the police left, and I explain to V. the negotiations and the omissions. (For O. and I had carried two rounds of cheese to Kibarizo to give out if need be or if occasion presented itself; our intended recipients were to the two overworked underpaid directors of the schools of the village. And in fact, after the formation and the handing over of the device and accessories, we did leave Augustin and André with cheese. But avarice is no stranger to a Catholic village; nor is gossip; and I am sure now that our good intentions cause confrontation and some unwarranted but understandable conflict.)
I return with the two rounds wrapped in three plastic sachets. He is very pleased. Br. R. adds some pleasantries and goes on to conclude the occasion, when the chief announces that he now wishes to speak with me in private. Now what?! Some seams off. R. and I and the chief go out and turn two corners.
The chief is hunting now for another, “private” cadeau… What had been the cheese?! I am irked by the blatant and unending insolence, but I do not need to win an argument into a larger problem, particularly for the schools. I ask instead if he has a suggestion. He asks for my pants. I say so sorry but I only brought two pairs and that because I am actually here working in the fields and the fromagerie and the kitchen, one pair is always drying on the line. He asks then for shoes. No! Sorry, again: only one pair, these old Birkenstocks that would not fit; and some Wellingtons that I again need for the field. I then say to the police chief, I have two T-shirts from America, with American words, and though I have only two and that I was hoping to have them for the six weeks in Uganda, that if he truly wants one, how could I refuse. He of course says yes, and there in the monastery I literally take the shirt off of my back, fold it neatly, excuse my half-naked self, run to my room, and return wearing the alternative t-shirt. I remind him of Christ’s call to share one’s clothes, and say that I look forward to seeing him in Kibarizo the following week, but to understand that we will not be travelling with anymore gifts. He is happy.
And he and the women leave and head down the drive.
Against the successes and efficiency and normalcy of the day before, this reminder that this is still the Congo of Simbas and abacostes and Article 15. And a sad chill comes to me: doubt about how and whether and might my small little house of cards be kicked apart and across the beautiful lush green hills of Masisi.
What makes people come to such unabashed assumptive action? Why this choice of dominance is so omnipresent? Is this simply blowback for the sins of my country’s and my race’s forefathers? What is at work? What can be done, if anything, to guard against such corruptors? Any answer would come too quick and would be too affected, for in the long twisting analysis of such happenings, there are no formulaic and satisfying responses. No excuses. No permissible trespasses, but the crucible is to forgive, to release all reactivity, and to move forward regardless, focusing on the original reasons to return, and climb a difficult mountain, to a remote mountain village. And leave things there, in the trust and faith placed in good men named Augustin and André, and employ prayer.
Back to the day before:
Getting finally back to Butare just as the rains came and came hard. And stepping into another presentation/formation. And my French working and the transference of knowledge happening: the young teachers and assistants getting it, and getting it all at once. The directors understanding the merit, but stumbling on the faculties. And then, finishing things up, and asking for names and contact phone numbers, being informed by three in front of me, that they in fact were inspectors for the end-of-year examinations, and worked for the Ministry of Education’s office in Masisi. Wonderful! Fifty minutes earlier, when I had begun my spiel, I explained how for years, teaching here in the Kivus and in Maniema and in Orientale, I had had the privilege of conversations with many school officials, and professors, and abbés, and in no schools were there ever books. There were books in the private schools for the rich in the big cities. But even in the big cities were there no libraries. And that this fact, to me personally, was the great inhibitor of the young of this great nation. Books were needed, and not just the manuals for the classes required by Kinshasa. But reference books, and dictionaries, and atlases (of the world and of the human body), and books of poetry and world literature to cause wonderment and imagination and children to daydream and to want to know more.
I said that I was upset at all of the NGOs from Caritas to Oxfam to Save the Children and for all of the tens and hundreds of millions spent here, and the tens of thousands of foreigners earning a salary working on Congolese soil, no books in all these schools, and no public libraries. Criminal and negligent.
I cannot believe that I had spoken my mind – before finding out the personal details of all present.
The officials were actually receptive.
But the head official asked if my program would only benefit Catholic school children. This was his gravest concern. And was I with any official international organization?
I said my program wasn’t really a program in such a sense. It was simply a personal action by a man, me, who had grown to love and respect this country and its intelligence and potential, and who, being moved deeply the summer before, could not simply look away. And who told other people: prisoners he taught and mentored; people he attended Mass with; members of his own family; and that these other people all came together to invest in a hypothesis; and to show their solidarity and their faith in these professors and school directors atop the hills and mountains of a place called Masisi, people they had heard about but had never met. And that Masisi had been chosen as a good place to try out the hypothesis as an experience and experiment because of my relations with the monastery, and on account of the good standing between the monastery and the surrounding villages. But if all went well, that I would advocate for such technologies to schools of all denominations (including madrassas) and of no denomination.
I said that in my eyes, and in the eyes of the worldwide Catholic Church, caritas does not discriminate.
I spoke of returning home last summer and immediately purchasing Firefly English-French Visual Dictionaries (the same as the one I had sent the monks themselves two years previous for their own English curriculum, and which the monks wrote back had been brilliantly helpful), and posting these dictionaries to villages in Maniema and in Masisi. And that these dictionaries had reached the intended schools (of all denominations). Five dictionaries: five promises kept, with more intensions to follow. And I said how happy I was to see this morning the dictionaries at the schools without prompting on my account.
The director left and returned with the book and showed it off to the head official.
I said I was only one man, a poor American, entering graduate school in Theology, but I did care, and I did hope that these devices would be the beginning of something creative, and fully cooperative. There were no agendas or curriculums that I was imposing from outside. Simply 80+ books and tablet technology and I was asking the professors and directors and the students to explore all and to give feedback and to help fashion a future together.
In Kibarizo, the directors were planning to hike down to the monastery on the weekend to visit and to continue practice and formation.
I was planning to leave the equipment in Butare and to check in on Monday and throughout the following week to further things along. (The following day after the run-in with the chief of police from Kibarizo, I ran into the professors from the secondary school in Butare, down at the monastery negotiating work-for-food, and we arranged for Saturday afternoon formation at the monastery after Kibarizo and before my obligations as show-and-tell in Br. O’s English class for the novices. I was to be a real-live English speaker for which the novices to try out their English on.)
On Wednesday I returned to the monastery feeling hopeful. Impressed at the speed with which the village educators took on the new technology as their own.
On Thursday midday, I was worried after being fleeced of cheese and a t-shirt from a hamburger establishment in East Nashville, and by the police chief and his “wife”.
But on Thursday night, after a long day, after dinner, in the library, the lights went out and all attention turned to the big T.V., and a DVD of Band of Outsiders by Jean-Luc Godard and a tale of a love triangle between two no-good bumbling criminals and une jolie fille. A week before, Br. B., from France, had intended to raise the bar on what the novices were into viewing, and had suggested the cinematic poem Nuit et Brouillard by the cineaste Alain Resnais, a short film on Auschwitz and the Holocaust, from the mid-Fifties at a time when Europe and America was ripped apart by a sense of shared guilt for crimes against all humanity, and against the Jewish population in particular. But the VHS player was bust, and poetry and profundity gave way to comedy and crime and romance and love triangles and the Nouvelle Vague and Godard.
And finally the DVD got to the scene where the three protagonists were in the café dancing the Madison, and Br. B. announced that he had danced the dance in his day, and started dancing the Madison in black-and-white Trappist garb, and I felt again a sense of levity and much hope.
And on the subject of possible futures:
Who can truly say anything solid about such matters?
Revolution and conversion, like genocide and war crimes, always start with the number one and build accordingly.
“Many are those who are entirely absorbed in militant politics, in the preparation for the revolution. Rare, very rare, are those who, in order to prepare for the revolution, wish to become worthy of it.” – Georges Friedmann, La Puissance et la sagesse, 1970
Congo and Mokoto and Kibarizo and Butare are ultimately windows into my own being, and in this way, I leave each time transformed, and in ways never intended or imagined, and this is Providence, and so huge.
We are all students; we are all educators. Or so we all can come to claim ourselves to be.
So much it seems is dependent on one’s state of presence as one reaches out and tests the strands that weave one to one’s world, to one’s neighbors, to one’s God:
“… There are persons who do not need a closed world to maintain their consistency. When a doctrine is lived out in this way, it does not divide people, it enriches them.” – Juan Luis Segundo, S.J., 1968
… pushing past and through:
And everything is still in play:
And there is still so much to be.