This posting has no particular angle or intention to it except to muse on what is my Sunday here.
I didn’t get up for 6am Swahili Mass but instead the only non-Swahili Mass, in French at 9am. For the first time, I took grand delight in walking the 20 minutes it takes to get to Mass on foot. It’s funny how when someone has taken away from you the right to walk on foot, it suddenly becomes such a joy when you get it back.
Along the way there were of course several sniggering “Oi! Muzungu…”-yelling lads, but for the most part no one paid any attention to me which was nice. It got a bit hot so I was glad to arrive to the shade of the parish, where people were hanging around outside waiting for the kiddies Mass to finish. Masses are so long here that they go back to back on a Sunday.
I plop myself on a wooden chair in the back corner to cool down and dry off. A little lassie is wriggling out of her big sister’s arms and decides to go for a wander my way, quite happily walking right towards me. I put out my hands to welcome her and she happily allows me to plop her on my lap. I don’t get to see a lot of little kids these days – my world is very adult-full and just the feeling of having a littly on my lap brings a lot of joy and a sense of normality, maybe even a touch of community. She could be my niece or a friend’s daughter if I were a bit closer to home. Maybe this has something to do with that spiritual maternity or feminine instinct or something…
It’s the Gospel of the prodigal son and the priest is as much a comic as a preacher, breaking opening the Word to his flock with liveliness and clear passion. I reckon homilies, when I can understand them, are one of the most interesting sources of insight into the culture where I’m living. In the Congo, I hear time and again the priest talking about a) what it means to be Christian seven days a week, not just on Sundays and b) that we’re not about power, status, prestige and bling…that Christ humbled himself and so should we and c) the importance of engaging in the progress and peace-building of this country. Of course the Gospel message is in essence the same as what I might hear at home, but it’s where they put the emphasis, what the priest feels his flock needs to most deeply reflect on in this particular context. What is the nature of the temptations most common in this community? The nature of the challenges, the sorrows and the joys most common to these people?
They announce the takings from last week’s collection. I recall that I put something in the large, handmade, white-painted, padlocked collection boxes…and I realise my contribution amounted to about 3% of the entire congregation of a thousand people. This may be a ‘centre of town’ parish but that tells you something of the purchasing power of these people.
I look around a couple of times during Mass and I notice that, actually, I might be the only muzungu there (muzungu meaning white person). Behind me are two Indians, which coming from St Thomas More Parish in Auckland makes me feel right at home. I’m guessing they’re either a) soldiers in the UN mission or b) the owners of the large IT/electronics store or c) proprietors of the local Indian restaurant serving the hoards of Indian peacekeepers…yum. But apart from that you’ve got a Mass full of Congolese and Rwandans since we’re just a few kilometres from the border with Rwanda. If I were out in the wops of Congo, that might not seem so weird. But frankly, with all the humanitarian and UN activity in little Goma, a city of less than 250,000, it’s got to have one of the highest ratios of ex-pats per capita in all of Africa. And this is the ONLY Mass not in Swahili at the most central parish of Goma directly opposite the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
I mean, did I miss something? My two Indian compatriots and I can’t be the only non-Africans that go to Mass on a Sunday in this town? Is there a clandestine non-African parish somewhere inside one of those impeneatrable compounds? I did see one muzungu sister during weekday Mass – I wonder how long she has been here, a long time I bet. But that’s not the point. What does is say about all the humanitarian and peacebuilding intervention in this part of the country if I can find only two other non-Africans at Mass on Sunday, themselves coming from a country also renowned for it’s religious fervour. How ironic is it that pretty much the entire representation of the ‘international community’ (read: Western world) intervening in this chronic conflict zone does not consider of importance this fundamental element of the lives of the populations they have come to serve?
I could be wrong, there are other churches apart from the Catholic parish, of course, there are the 7th Day Adventists, and Finnish Church Aid, Norwegian Church Aid,World Vision, Caritas of course and a few other religious-based NGOs. I’ve also heard Islamic calls to prayer here…something that takes me back to life in Senegal.
But still, you can feel a bit lonely. Though I must say, I also very quite privileged. I get to taste a part of the real Congo, the element of these people’s lives that one could argue is the most fundamental – that of their faith and spirituality. And when it’s easy to end up living in a bubble away from the reality of the local population, I consider it a bit of a lifeline to be honest.