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Ferial: 12 June 2012


Yesterday, after Tierce, Br. O. and I climbed the colline to Butare village, to honor invitations from the staff at the secondary school, the Institut Butare, and from the director and staff at the École Primaire Mokoto.  We climbed and we came.

And by the time I left, sometime, long after lunch and after missing None, I was beside myself with questions and an existential muddle.

Two weeks earlier, just after Pentecost, down in the fields, I seriously twisted or did some such damaging movement to my knee.  Instantly incapacitated, unable to freely walk, I eventually manipulated my hoe into a crutch, in order to hobble my way through the terraced crops, and up and out of the natural amphitheater.  It took me days to regain the extensions of movement in my left leg (exercise, elevation, rest, medication).  I took a week to build up courage and to exercise the joint and the connecting tissue, and I finally was able to mount a climb up the mountain, through Butare village, and off kilometers away, up and over six or seven collines, up the mountain, to distant Kibarizo village.  And I made it, leg and knee in tact and untroubled.

But then, I gained bravado, and I went back into the fields, and again stomping around, and kneeling and planting and weeding, and standing and squatting, and planting and weeding, I aggravated what I had believed I had mended, and again, I became handicapped and immobile.

And more anti-inflammatory medication, and cold compresses of a wet t-shirt soaked in mountain well water, and elevated on a mound of dry sacks and a backpack… and more healing.  And then, Sunday, and the veneration of the Blessed Exposition, and I went down to kneel for twenty minutes, and was done in again once more.

And more pills and a wet t-shirt and more of elevating my leg above my heart whilst reclined flat in bed… and more healing.  Enough so to allow yesterday the climb up to Butare.

Never did I think that a bum knee (which I have never had before) would become my crucible at the Equator.  Malaria, giardiasis, fever, tetanus, these are the warranted worries.  And yes I have been stung by African killer bees, and been bitten by poisonous ants.  But busting a knee from simply kneeling and then standing in tilled soil: no.

But this has been my cross and my reoccurring consequence.

Yesterday, we climbed and arrived, and the knee was holding.

At the ridge top, at the crossroads in the village we turned right and proceeded upwards, in the direction of Kibarizo, towards the secondary school, around which is a shantytown of simple structures built by the “internally displaced” who years ago fled the fighting and decided never, after the treaty and armistice, to go back from whence they had come.

In Butare, as in many villages and small towns, one have recent villagers and the old time residents, and sometimes the new outnumber the old, and that is never an easy thing.  And tribe and other factors factor into the social equations, and that is also never an easy thing.  After all, there is only so much land, and so many cattle, and so much room for crop planting, and so much space on the benches at the schools.

In Congo, there is a history of want-and-take.

In North Kivu, even in the big city (Goma, Butembo) there are tales of assassinations for things as simple as disputes over property lines, and there is the ever-lurking urban legend of people dying suddenly, without apparent cause, poisoned by ‘something’ local, used to settle a feud, to right a scorned heart, to get ahead while putting some achiever in the hospital or the grave and or his or her place.  This is a land of want-and-take-and-want-some-more.  This is a land not too different from other lands, in Africa, in Arabia, in Europe, in the Americas, including the States.  Eastern Congo is a microcosm of our Zeitgeist.  Much of it is sprawled across the fringes of borderlands between carefully drawn perimeters and boundaries, and the white spaces that cartographers fear not to visit, measure, and calibrate.  White spaces: home to guerillas, to bandits, to back water networks of good old boys, to ambitions of covert operatives from foreign interests, where in these latter days, days of the old wild West can still be glimpsed.  Borderlands: home to carpetbaggers and foot soldiers and Lebanese and Syrian merchants and old Orthodox Jewish families with long established interests in timber and mining.

In Butare, as in most villages, there are two schools: a primary school, at one end of a village that is stretched along the ridge top, and a secondary “institute”, which is at the other end, a kilometer away.

When Br. O and I went to Kibarizo the week before, and we visited with the directors of the two schools in that village, I had such amazing hope: both men, whom I knew from previous times, were themselves great friends, and enjoyed each other’s fraternity and insights.  They saw the situation of education in their area collectively and cooperatively.

And when they came down off the mountain to the monastery, last Saturday morning, to continue our review of the technology, they came together, to work together.

Sadly, this is not the case in Butare.

In Butare, that kilometer distance between the two schools is enough of a distance to thwart cooperation and communication.  The director of the primary school is old school, and old, and quiet, and a gentle soul.

It is he who has in his possession the Firefly Visual English-French Dictionary sent last autumn.  It is he to whom we entrusted the village’s electronic library device.

I came to Africa with three devices, to distribute somehow amongst two villages.

With Br. O’s counsel, a week ago we walked up the massif, carrying two of the three.

And after meeting with the respective officials, we left a device with each village.  And we wondered about the third device.  We thought, at the time, that we would wait and see which of the villages might need use of the third device.  After the surprise visit of the police chief looking for “gifts”, I feared that the device in Kibarizo might become “missing”.  But two days later, Augustin and André as discussed, with the device, and no mention was made of the police or any problems.  The problems came with the group from Butare, and in particular from the young hip professors from the “institute”.

The Institut Butare is run by young smart guys.  It is run by young men who have a taste for the new, and who sport smart phones in a village that does not have easy access for a truck or a 4×4.  They came later on Saturday with the group from the primary school to receive some education.  They came without their director who was away in Mweso, 40 kilometers away.  They came, and they whispered when they would be getting their own device for their own school.  Br. O. explained that each village would get one device.  And that this device would have to be shared between the two schools, and that this sharing was part of the demonstration of the efficacy of such technology in the hands of the teaching staff and student body in the villages.  And that there was no other, not at this time.

And so yesterday, we climbed to Butare, and we arrived at the secondary school, to be greeted by the director, young man, smartly dressed.

And he also asked about the device for his institute.  And he said that because the other device was already at the other school, he feared that he and his professors and his students would never ever see or be allowed to use it.  He cited the dictionary that I had sent to the village.  The other school, in which the young children have no curriculum in English, holds the book.  And they have never been given access to it.

Br. O and I look at each other.  I say that this announcement saddens me, because the book was bought and was sent to Butare for all of the children to access and to utilize.

I believed him.  I said that I would go to the other school to visit.  And would get the device to use for instructional purposes back at the secondary school in the early afternoon.  And with that, Br. O and I made our way across town, along the main thoroughfare, rutted out, and about a kilometer in distance.  As we walked, we discussed this impasse.

Kibarizo was a blessing and an exception.  Butare was the standard: distrust, possessiveness, and no willingness to stand together and to envision a cooperative future.  What to do?  Do we confront the director of the primary school?  Do we insist that both schools must share the device given to the village?  Do we give up the third device to the secondary school?

Leaving the secondary school, I promised that I would try to buy another dictionary and to mail it for the secondary school.  Br. O. thought that it would be good if possible, because he too sensed this rift between the two ends of town.  Between the old guard and the new upstarts, the latter fixated on the possession of technology as a means of claiming primacy and status perhaps.  Perhaps.

But how can I judge the surface of such a situation, with such characters just met?

Still, it is odd how across languages and geographies, one can sense certain things…

We arrive at E.P. Mokoto, and we are greeted again by the old director.  And we discuss the device.  And we want to come again to the school after Wednesday, to check how the device has been introduced to the students.  We want to see students using the device to “document” themselves and each other and their school.  He smiles and says no problem, but I am not quite so sure.  But he does ask if it would be possible to get yardsticks and compasses and protractors for the school.  We record him making his plea.  We ask if size of the items matters.  He says no.  I say I will see what I can do possibly.  I do discuss with Br. O. that fact that this is the beginning of a genuine dialogue.

And with that, we are led around the various classrooms on an impromptu tour.  We are greeted in each class, and the students are somewhat attentive, and terribly weary of the foreign visitor who has come with the monk.  But the director steps up and involves his students, and we witness question and answer drills in every class of various subjects, and against a backdrop of worn-out buildings and the sparsity of writing supplies, it is all very encouraging.  In the moment, I see the old director come to life: I see into his care and his demeanor with the pupils…

We stay an hour.  At one point, with the younger children, I involuntarily squat down to my knees to grab a portrait, and standing, my knee gives out, ounce more.

But now I am not in the fields a quarter of a kilometer from my room.

I am not in the chapel a few hundred meters from my room.

I am at the wrong end of Butare, three-four kilometers from my room, and I have to introduce the new technologies to the smart young profs and their director at the other place, at the other end of the village.

Br. O looks at me.  I tell him that this is going to be interesting.  He asks about the device: do we take it with us?

I tell him, no.  Leave it for now.  I like the old director; and I trust that somehow he will use the reading materials with the children.  I sense some reason to trust and to hope.

I tell O. that I have in my sack the third device, minus the charging equipment.  Let us try to get across the village, without me falling or becoming impaled with pain.   Let us introduce the device but take the device with us, and promise that we will return with the device on the Thursday or the Friday to deposit it with them.  But if, on Wednesday, we arrive at Kibarizo, and their device is not at hand or broken or stolen or some such scenario, we at least still have one device to replace the missing one with.

We take our time, and arrive eventually.

The prefect greets us.  I explain my knee, and I ask that we start at once because my knee may worsen, and I may become distracted.  We begin.

O. takes pictures.  And O. occasionally steps in, when I wish to resort to English, which happens sometimes in the afternoon or under pain or stress.  And we make our way, once again, through the formation process.  And there are questions and there are answers.  At first these are technical or operational.  But then, after gaining confidences, the questions turn, and I become worried once more.

The director who earlier, when we first arrived, dispelled the notion that the two schools in the one village could or would ever be able to work it out together, to share the one singular device.

When I hobbled my way back up to the institute, and I had begun my formation, I explained that Br. O. and I would try to make available to the institute their own device.

Now, the director tells me that the technology is wonderful, but that there are ten or twelve professors and one device.  How is this to work?  They must have more devices…

I am tired and irked.  And I am reminded of the same sort of guys the summer before, in Butare, asking for an electronic sound system for their music to be played effectively in their village church, after having sat through an amazing a cappella encounter with the choir.

I tell them that more devices is dependent on how well they themselves demonstrate their creative ability to work it out amongst themselves to be able to make access of the device available in some fashion to all of the classes.  If they can prove this to me, and to others who are waiting in America for such a demonstration, then, God willing, it might be possible for more devices and more books to be secured.  But that they should not be fixated on what they do not have, or what they will not soon to have, but rather on that which is about to be entrusted to their care and management and utilization.

They are the experts in village education, not I, I say.

They are the ones who asked for books last summer.  In two days or so, they will have 80-90 new books.  What will they do with these?

But the young smartly dressed men are keener to know more about the photographic and video-graphic aspects of the device.  The library seems to have become secondary.

The director now wants to know the cost of a device, and if he gives me the cash will I buy him one and send it somehow to him?

Br. O. reminds them that the primary function of the one device is a generous trust by others across an ocean who wanted to provide their students with access to reference books and to books of literature.

I remind them not to put carts before horses and to focus instead at the task at hand.

If they cannot use the device, they do not need to accept it.

I tell them we must leave.  We have obligations at the monastery.  We promise to return again towards the end of the week (the students, who were off this day, will be back by then, and it will be good to see the students in context with their professors and director, and to make sure at that time that knowledge of this device is conveyed to the students themselves.)

I hobble.  Shooting pains are in my shins and across my knee.

The route down the hill is steep and there are mini-ravines cut deep into the track by the constant rains Masisi is famous for.

It takes forever, but O. does not complain and he watches out for the better navigation of the route, as I focus on each available step.

And together we talk.  We both are upset at the transparent agendas and dubious motivations that these young men seem to be moving by.  We marvel at the simple cooperation of Augustin and André and at the tempest in Butare.  We both revisit our assessment of the old director and his working teachers at the primary school, and we just do not know what to make of the young styling guys, with the ravenous eyes and the sudden ideas on how to lay hands on all of this new stuff.

What to do?

I make it finally to my room.

And I change into shorts and a t-shirt, and elevate my swollen knee and calve, and pop a heavy dose of anti-inflammatories, and wrap my knee in a cold wet article of clothing, and stretch out on my back on my bed and quietly listen to panels of experts from Oxford and Cambridge and elsewhere discuss religious topics on podcasts from the BBC.

And as I bathe and re-bathe my knee, and as the swelling subsides as the pain increases; I know that if I can get the leg to function once more, I will be climbing to Kibarizo on Wednesday, and Butare on Thursday and on Friday.  I know I will be driving to Goma on Monday, to seek out Internet once more after a hiatus of over three weeks.  I know on next Tuesday I shall be going to visit the prison in Goma with Br. O.  And a week from tomorrow I will be travelling back in Rwanda, and across Rwanda to Uganda by weekend.

Do we give the third device to the smartly dressed professors up at the institute?


Why?  Because it is the Christ-like thing to do.

This pilot project can only work on trust and in a spirit of willfully seeking collaboration and correspondence.  And I do not want not giving to issue forth a deepening divide between the two schools.

I came with books and electronic devices.  I came to make good on a promise to myself and to others.  I came, and I climbed up hills and mountains with a bad knee, and I introduced new technologies and new possibilities.

There will always be two villages.  There will always be those who dream and design new solutions around continuing problems.  And there will be those who feign the same, and who covet, and do what little they can.

I will give the third device, because I wish to honor Augustin and André and to hope for more.  To hope I have naively misjudged a situation.  To hope that somehow those I wonder about prove me wrong in subsequent chapters.  Such has happen so many times before in my life so much so as to show me in this moment that to trust is a better alternative than to judge.

Who knows whom will be inspired by which of the many books and will grow to become something just a little extra more or special or different as a result.  And the world a better place for the anonymous investment.

Br. J-B., who is the superior of Our Lady of Victoria in Uganda, came from Kibarizo.  He is fluent in English and French.  He travels across Africa and to Europe.  And he, as a little boy, sat on a crowded wooden bench in a rundown classroom atop the mountain in Kibarizo.  He is my signifying hope.  It is to honor our friendship that I place my faith wholly in the hands of each school and each director.

It is to honor Br. O. and our friendship that I believe in the young minds at work and at study and at play in these mountain villages.

In travelling in such places one begins to see the equity that Christ calls us to witness.

As much as people try to claim to be different to their neighbor…

We are all the same: sinners and children of God in the same exact moment.

On a wall in Calcutta, Mother Teresa once had painted the following words, words I carry in a small pocket-sized notebook, so as to be able to sit and to quietly reflect upon, in tight moments such as this:

“The good you do today,

 people will often forget tomorrow.

Do good anyway.”


The significance of the encounter is not in the future: but in the full presence in the fullness of the moment.  No more, no less.

Tomorrow, Deo volente: Kibarizo!

And from today’s gospel (Matthew 5: 13-17), a gentle encouragement from Christ himself:

“So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”