The Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, until the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 2012
Work generally stops on feast days. Two feasts in a row.
There is more food. There is beer. There is volleyball.
Friday came and I had again to go to Butare to complete my formations with the professors. Today we had to practice together making folders, making documents, and exchanging documents from external memory cards to the internal memory in the device, and vice versa. Dry, but necessary. We had to set up the understanding regarding the need for regular correspondence, for the villages to take it upon themselves to demonstrate their ability to handle and profit from this new technology. We had to work out the logistics of the transfer of data, from the schools to the States and back again, across continents and oceans and gaps in the virtual connectivity of this part of the planet.
But no monks were free to make the travel.
In the end, a hired laborer who spoke little French and no English was to be my chaperone, up the route, at least until the professor, who had been arranged to escort me and who was late, crossed paths.
In the end, I found the prof. In the end, I made it to the Institut Butare. The prefect was busy, or had lost interest, or a bit of both, but the room was again packed with professors and lookers on, and the practice happened.
The young professor, in stylish attire, who during the formation and throughout the rest of the day was constantly looking down and into his smart phone, texting and receiving and reading, and being absorbed up into virtual back-and-forths, not until young stylish men anywhere and everywhere. The power of the instant: to capture and to distract and to devalue.
That said, I grew to really like and trust the young man, and his questions and his aspirations. And he willingly walked the kilometer out to the École primaire Mokoto: where everyone had been released for the day, and where we found the old director in his office, wanting not to hear that there was any hiccup with the availability of the books, but wanting to receive his “camera” back. (Br. O. had unfortunately called the electronic libraries appareils, and the name stuck, and I wonder if in naming the device such, he caused the recipients to devalue the original merit of the devices.) I told the director, he could not have his “electronic library device” back until I had retrieved all of the books and that they were all in working order. I then reiterated for the director and for the young professor from the Institut, that these devices were not toys for personal play and that the camera aspect was a plus but that it did not come close to the powerful potency of the books.
How quickly a culture is willing to move away from the activity required in fashioning abstract letters and numerals into concepts and into conjured narratives and parallel worlds, and to simply sit and take in passively the work and productions of others, served up in non-verbal popular formats? Laziness is cross-cultural. And the ability to instantly capture and signify the mundane into a manqué is the mode of this moment and epoch.
Or is it? Is such a conclusion too easy?
Against this, the photograph taken by the director of the École primaire Kibarizo: the laborer in the field, like an image of Walker Evans from the Great Depression and the W.P.A., framed in thirds, captured not in color, but in black and white, with a sepia tint.
Against cynicism, against abuses, people with a locked-on sense of purpose and potential: custodians of a hypothesis and a desire to build together a better day, true shepherds of the young, caretakers of futures that are just as valid and just a possible as the ones posited by the lazy and the pariah.
We left the director. We shook had. We promised the return of “the device” as soon as possible, and hoped that through the smile he honestly understood.
On the way back into the village, the young prof and I walked and talked. And it was during our conversations that I came to realize that I had to let go. I had brought the genie and I let the djinn out of the bottle, and now it was time to step back, to hope, to guide if asked, to prod perhaps, but that it was up to the Congolese in these villages to do what they will do. Augustin and André may be more in sync with my ideas and objectives, but the ambitious young stylish prof may be the kind of catalyst and conjurer that will make all of this come together in a fresh conquering lasting kind of way. And if the old director and if the ambivalent prefect misuse a device or make little of an opportunity, the others have been audience to the devices, to their capabilities, and to the middle-aged muzungu, who was just crazy enough to climb their mountains, with boots and a broad straw hat and a walking stick, and to sit with them and chat, and talk technology, and to dream, and to laugh.
At the end of the day, the equipment is simply neutral, and such neutrality is impotent until coupled with a creative, playful mind. And until there is hunger, there is no effort to dream a better.
The prof wanted to walk me back down the hill to the monastery, but I said to him to stay up atop the colline, to relax, it was Friday and the weekend was starting. He said he would write to my email address and I told him to, but also to not forget to fulfill his school’s obligations and to correspond through the set-up channels, to make manifest his school’s use of the device, and to collaborate critically and creatively. I wanted to hear about successes, but also problems, and wants and needs (within reason), and especially I wanted them to think up new uses and news ways of applying the books and the other aspects into benefits for the young people under their tutorage.
We shook hands.
And I walked down the hill, past groups of laborers and farmers and cowboys, exchanging greetings in Swahili and Kinyarwanda and French.
I was hot. I was in the sun. I was a little late for lunch. I was a little nervous about the old director, but I let it go. I had to let it all go.
No bombs in the distance. No texts today, warning about war.
A flurry of helicopters sounds from the United Nations’ peacekeeping forces, out hunting down M23.
I was back into a Masisi that I had come to know and to love, just as it was in its own special way: problematic, but full of life and soul.
Beyond bushels of dried beans and the back knee knocked about in the fields below the monastery, beyond the delays and the accidental erasures, beyond the professions of want and need, beyond the reactionary judgment and the worries and doubts…
Masisi was all around me, and I was walking in it, alone, and fine, and changed a bit.
That lunch: there would be beer and cake.
That afternoon: there would be volleyball.
After Vespers: Br. O. and I would sit on the stone wall in front of the abbey church, overlooking the precipice, and looking out across the valley to the distant hills, and the herds of grazing dairy cows, and the cowboys’ huts, and Butare, up on the highest hill, and the ridge line of the mountain where Kibarizo was perched, hours away.
And after supper: Br. B., the French monk, planned a continuation of a discussion on the Godard film, but was vetoed by the community who wanted to watch instead episodes of Visiteurs, a dubbed Sci-Fi T.V. series from Hollywood, in color, with aliens and farfetched subplots. Br. B. came to my room to apologize and to vent a bit his frustrations at hitting again an impasse with sharing films that he himself found to be of such value.
And I listened and then said that perhaps Visiteurs was the opening he was looking for. It didn’t call to his aesthetic, but it did to others, and it was still film, acted, and staged, and shot, and edited. And if he could use it as his bridge to critical viewing and as a platform for teaching, then maybe, with God’s Grace and much patience, he could guide the community to other pastures.
Sometimes art-house has to be created; it is not always readymade.
And the next day: the printing of recipes for the kitchen staff: soufflés, and tarts, and clafoutis, and Dauphinois, and proper French baguettes, and Gateau Manioc.
And: the sharing of music with Br. O.
And in the afternoon: English Class, with show-n-tell: Thomas Merton’s Prayer, and recounts of my work on Death Row, and a formation/exploration with the “device” cum electronic library cum camera.
And then: packing and cleaning and prepping for Monday morning, and the descent off the massif to Lake Kivu and Goma and the rest of the summer:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going… But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you… And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it… I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” – Thomas Merton, THOUGHTS IN SOLITUDE