Cristina Sousa, 51, already has an enriching experience of two years of volunteering in the Central African Republic to show in her photos.
As a Comboni Lay Missionary, she did not want to stop recording in photos, as an amateur, a people that brought her closer to the best there is in the world. Now she is organizing, together with the Municipality of Maia, an exhibition of which we will soon have news.
Cristina Sousa is from Gueifáes, Maia (henceforth maiata), and in January 2018 she went on mission as a volunteer to the Central African Republic, to the Mongoumba region, where she knew the Pygmy people. When she returned to Portugal two years later, she felt the need to share the audiovisual records she collected throughout this time to give more visibility to the daily life of this “wonderful people”.
Cristina Sousa is a Comboni Lay Missionary and, according to her, being a missionary is a vocation, something that accompanies us inside”. Cristina affirms that to become a missionary she had to spend three years of formation. “We prepare ourselves spiritually, we wait and then we are sent,” she explains. This sending is done by the team responsible for the Laity, but for Cristina “it is something interior, where we feel that it is God who sends us”.
The missionary has been on this path for about five years and, according to her, “we do not need to go abroad to be missionaries”. The need to go out to meet “our brother”, as Cristina explains, “is something that is born and boils within us” and if this need is not nourished “we do not feel well”.
The Pygmy people are “extraordinary”.
Her first and only mission up to date has been in Central Africa, “right in the heart of Africa”, where she has shared her life with the Pygmies. According to Cristina Sousa, the Pygmies are “extraordinary and very special”. They have a humility and simplicity that “I have only experienced there”. For this reason, she considers it a “privilege to live with these people, to be welcomed, conquered and to conquer them as well”.
The Pygmies live in “sparsely populated” camps scattered throughout the jungle, and the aim of the Comboni Lay Missionaries is to help with integration in the villages. “They are almost never welcome, because they live in the forest and are quite discriminate”, Cristina explains. “They are exploited and have no access to school or hospital.” Thus, the role of the laity is to serve as a “bridge in this integration”.
Currently, thanks to the work done by missionaries like her, there are many children in school and more access to health care, but discrimination is still quite visible among the population. Cristina says that one of her biggest concerns is the fact that there are no records of these people “as people, it is almost as if they did not exist”.
In the attempt to grant some identity to these people, Cristina Sousa encountered their reality, because “they are nomads, their houses are not protected from the rain and they have no way of keeping documents in their clothes”. Thus, the existence of personal identification documents is almost impossible.
According to this Comboni Lay Missionary “the process of inculturation requires a lot of care”, because “we go with our ideals and we have to understand that they have theirs. Our main charism is to Save Africa with Africa. That is to say, to help in the formation of the African so that they can walk on their own”. Thus, the role of the laity is “to be, to witness and to transmit the Good News”. The sharing of knowledge with the African people is, according to Cristina, “quite difficult, because then we leave and they may not even have understood very well what we wanted to transmit”.
Cristina Sousa returned from the Central African Republic just on the edge of the first confinement.
When Cristina Sousa returned to Portugal in February 2020, she says it was a matter of luck that she was not “caught at the airports” because, two weeks later, the country entered its first confinement. To receive news from Africa, Cristina tries to establish contact with “Portuguese compatriots who are in the capital, priests and brothers”.
The Covid-19 pandemic is “uncontrollable in the Central African Republic”. According to Cristina, due to the lack of economic resources and the “lack of suitable places, people do not have access to tests and, therefore, the true cause of death is never known”, but “because the average life expectancy is about 40 years, the number of elderly people is extremely small and, for this reason, I believe that there Covid-19 will not be so aggressive and resistant”.
As for prevention measures, “sometimes they send me photos or videos and you see people wearing masks”. Which for her “doesn’t make much sense, because at bedtime they are all together”.
For her, talking about the covirus in these scenarios is even more difficult, among other things because there are other more serious diseases that have been killing for several years, such as malaria, Ebola and leprosy, for example, in which thousands of people die every day. “This has been going on for a long time and there is still no vaccine,” she adds.
The inequalities between developed and developing countries “are still very present” and Cristina Sousa explains that she does not understand “the lack of demonstrations on the rights of African peoples”.
Cristina would like to see more fighting for the rights of Africans.
“I see a lot of demonstrations for human rights and animal rights, but what about these people? It’s important that we take to the streets to demonstrate inequality.”
However, Cristina reflects that it’s not all bad: “Maybe we have also unbalanced these people a little bit, because we went to show them a different reality than the one they know. They live off nature, and we cannot take nature away from them”. According to her, “there is a paradox here that requires reflection”.
The Comboni Lay Missionary also says that she has seen “children die from snake bites and other simple things”. If these things had happened in the West, they would not have caused death. It is difficult to manage emotions, because one always thinks that if these people had been born somewhere else, this would not happen to them.”
During her mission, Cristina Sousa used her camera to capture the moments she spent with the Pygmy people. In an amateur way, this maiata recorded the daily life of this sui generis people with the purpose of “spreading the message that the image conveys, that is, to make this wonderful people known”. Our duty as missionaries is to bring their reality here and somehow make people a little more aware of other realities”.
Currently, Cristina Sousa is negotiating with the Municipality of Maia so that her photographs can be exhibited and shared with her community of origin. Cristina Sousa hopes to be able to share the daily life of the pygmies with her compatriots, with place and date yet to be defined.
The missionary believes that “sharing what we have and what others can give us is what develops us as people”. The exchange of experiences of different realities is, in the end, what enriches us and makes us grow”.
I do not want to end this series on my visit to Kenya without telling you about my brief visit to West Pokot.
It was going to be a much longer trip but, due to unforeseen events that never fail to materialize, we had to cut it short and return to Nairobi. In any case, the trip was intense and interesting.
I traveled with Fr. Maciek and Bro. Cesar from the community of Amakuriat.
It was a 15-hour trip in a Land Cruiser that turned out to be a little crowded for the three of us, but that we shared joyfully.
As usual, the vehicle was loaded up to the top, as it is normal in the missions to take advantage of each trip to buy what cannot be found in the bush, both for your community and also for the other communities in the area that also need help. So, it is normal that a missionary’s car will fill up any time it goes from one place to another.
And why not, we even had time to stop for some visits along the way and deliver some messages as we did with the bishop. We did not see him because he was elsewhere, but at least we signed the guest book of the diocese.
We left at 6:00 in the morning and arrived at the mission compound at 9:00 in the evening. The truth is that for the most part the road was not too bad, but traffic slowed us down. The last few hours were on a dirt road that made us understand how, as we left problems behind us, there were many more ahead. There was an especially complicated stretch of about a half hour where it would have been nice to have a 4×4, because the rain had left the road in a sad state with pits and stones. Fortunately, it had not rained too much and the road was not blocked by some of the rivers like when it rains a lot and there is no way to enter or leave the area for hours or days.
The next day, after eating with the community, which welcomed me and made me feel at home, we visited the “business area’ of the town and, in the afternoon, some Pokot communities.
This is the community where Fr. Tomás Herreros had worked for many years. He was provincial in Spain when we were getting ready to leave for the missions, and I had listened to his witness of life among the Pokot which now I could see in person in this mission. He is most certainly well remembered and cherished and has left a great legacy among his people.
The village of Amakuriat is not unlike any other African village, with its little stores, a small hostel and some local restaurants where to eat.
To walk through the streets is a slow process because every five minutes you bump into someone who wants to greet Fr. Maciek, ask questions, exchange the time of day or agree to get together later to talk.
This parish is a possible place where we could be if some day we will have sufficient personnel to open another missionary community in Africa. And that is why it was important to see it.
In the afternoon we visited a couple of traditional Pokot villages. It is always a wonder to see how they keep their customs, their buildings and way of life. Even though there are schools in the area, a lot remains to be done. Education is the door to the future and to the development of people here that are still living as they did centuries ago. Cattle is still the main source of wealth, polygamy is still prevalent and the work of women to sustain the family is still central.
To get to the villages can be difficult, through tracks that have to be picked among the acacias and that makes us stop now and then to engage the four-wheel drive to move ahead.
We were able to visit a few villages and, as always, we were amazed by the welcoming and kindness. Whatever little they have, they share it and so they did with a coup of milk from their own cows, slightly fermented already because they have no refrigeration of any kind and keep it in a bowl. They cook on a wood fire, sleep on cow hides or on rudimentary beds, without light or drinking water, all within a corral enclosed by thorny barriers to protect themselves from hyenas. This is how they still live. Fortunately, they tell me that the area is now at peace and they no longer suffer cattle raids from the Turkana, their northern neighbors, that also used to cause death because of mutual conflicts.
The following days we visited another sector of the parish. It is a parish with three sectors that could mean eight hours between the far end of one to the other, on dirt roads and where the missionary sleeps at times in a little room next to the chapel or on the ground in a sleeping bag.
Chelopo gave us the chance to rest a while on the return trip to Nairobi. We stopped briefly with the youth group and we were overwhelmed by their initiatives. They would like to have a volleyball court: they already have the net and all they need to do is to clear the area and bring cement for the posts, then they will organize a tournament with young people from the nearby communities. They would like to take some old computers from the school’s warehouse, put them in the hall and try to learn how to use them, get together with other groups and see if they can help the community. It’s summer vacation time here and they have a lot of free time.
These are young people with a spirit of initiative and the will to do things.
We then continued our journey. Bro. Cesar took us to a town to catch a night bus for Nairobi with which to end our lighting speed trip to the North.
By 5:00 in the morning we were already in Nairobi and from the station we went to the provincial house to see a number of missionaries who were gathered there or passing through, to speak with the provincial over our experiences and to rest a while.
It was a quick visit, but a very interesting one. Who knows whether in the future there will be a CLM community in this area. For sure, it is a very beautiful mission and with many needs.
We left back behind Qillenso, Adola and Daaye and what I saw during the journey, in this green that contrasts with everything I had seen so far since I arrived in this new place where God awaits every one of us, at least in the embrace of a prayer that, it cans travel from far away (I hope from your hearts). I take the duration of this trip to try to share (at least a grain) the wonders of this people that has received me so well.
We are in an unusual week. We take advantage of the fact that the Amharic classes will only start on June 3 (next week) to get to know the various missions of the MCCJ and also of the CLM (in Awassa) in the southern zone of Ethiopia.
Addis Ababa, is a city where pollution reigns, noise, the frenzy of the many cars and people who roam without rule through the streets. It could be seen in almost any European city if it were not for the disorder that governs here. Traveling by car is always an adventure, because the road here also belongs to animals and people (after all, the cars arrived later!). Among the several and crowded streets that exist here, the one more difficult for me to cross (until now) is the indescribable Mexico Square, point of reference for the arrival at home. Indescribable for not having words to express the pain it cause me when I see those bodies stretched out in the middle of the street, thin bodies, barely alive, some that do not see, others that have no feet to walk … Along with these bodies we can find many times the face of a child, whose lost eyes does not pass unnoticed. I imagine stories in my head that probably are his. They are malnourished mothers and their children. How it hurts to look and it hurts even more not knowing what to do!
This week’s trip through southern Ethiopia also allowed us to have a very different and colorful vision of this great and immense country. As we travel from Addis Ababa to Awassa, Qillenso, Adola and Daaye, the landscape changes its shapes and figures. If in Adis and Awassa there is a mantle of houses as far as the eye can see, in Qillenso, Adola and Daaye the earth is dressed in red and the green of the plants just born with the first rains. Along the way, houses are planted, with a rudimentary configuration but which are authentic works of art. The car passes and those who see us pass also look at us. I watch them also through the glass of the van. What a beautiful look! They always smile when they see us pass!
I am happy for the mission that God gave to the three of us and for which we ask for your prayers. The mission will never be ours. It is also yours. And above all, it’s God´s. Probably, and aware of this, we know that the mature fruits of this work only (and God willing) will be visible within a few years.
I’m fine! Feeling everything. The people, their looks, their words that I often do not understand, but I try to respond with a smile, or a look of tenderness, or using the few words I already know in Amharic. It has been a time to observe, hear, try to understand. It is also an advantage that I do not have a fluent level of English that allows me to talk a lot (and even less Amharic). I take advantage of that and I end up listening more, observing more. It’s time for that!
Our walking on the street is always a cause of looks. People look at us, as if we were something strange. For children it’s a party! They look at us and sketch daring smiles:
– Farengi! Farengi! Or China! China!
Don’t knowing what to do many times, we look at them and smile. We extend the arm and exchange a handshake. They’re all happy to touch us … it’s reciprocal!
One of these days, in Awassa, we visited the sisters of Mother Teresa, and the expected thing happened: the same reaction of the children who want to grab us … They run in our direction to touch our hands. But not just the hand. The arms, the face. They get closer, delighting in our heat. They run searching for love. And we try to give it to them. In the difficulty of not knowing much Amharic, I say the same all the times. I couldn’t limit myself to the same old words, I thought. I try to remember other things I can say, and there it comes out:
– Mndn new? (What is this?) – I ask pointing to my shirt.
– Makina (car) – several answer, each one in time.
I repeat the same question for other things, including the cross I bring to my chest.
And so they answer me. It’s a party for them! And for me. They do not know how much they teach me. I believe they are the best teachers I can have. They are happy with this little. As the one who is thirsty, like me.
I feel everything, even nostalgia. Great nostalgia! This also inhabits me, of course (I am Portuguese … of those very nostalgic)! As someone told me, nostalgia is the love that remains. Therefore, I always want this nostalgia to be part of me.
They have been beautiful days, full of novelty. Also within the community, with David and Pedro. In our differences, I see three pieces of a puzzle that come together and fit together. It is being beautiful as we realize what we are called to do here. We feel the weight of the responsibility of being starting to sow this grain that we want others to come to water, to reap, to harvest. The harvest here is great! But we feel a great strength of wanting to take steps. May the Holy Spirit enlighten us to take the right steps, in the right times and places.
Pray for us, for the mission and above all for this people that welcomes us and that seeks and fights for life, day by day.
The Comboni Lay Missionary María Augusta Pires, from Janeiro de Baixo, who is stationed in the mission of Mongoumba, Republic of Central Africa, took advantage of a trip to the capital city of Bangui to send us news. Let us pray for peace in that country and for all the missionaries! We relate here the text she sent to “El Astrolabio,”the paper of her parish on May 25:
I and the members of our apostolic community are in good health, thanks be to God.
We are in Bangui to do some shopping… Ana had planned her return on the 18th, but had to delay it until June 8. In any case, we had to come to the capital because our supply room was almost empty.
On June 12 Gervelais and his father are returning from Dakar. We are grateful to the Lord because the surgery was a success. I hope he will be happy and in good health.
On May 11, a patient of the hospital was shot dead. He had been accused of “likundu” (sorcery). We are all sad because of this. We hope that justice will be done and that the killers will be caught, starting with the authorities who denied him protection… We pray to the Lord that he may help us to defend people weighed down by this curse. There have already been several cases of people who were accused, but were protected by the mission or by courageous Christians. May the Lord of life stop this from happening anymore and that all Christians may find the strength to denounce this type of violence.
On May 1, in Bangui, in our parish of Our Lady of Fatima, during Mass, 16 people died and 100 were wounded because of a rebel attack. By the end 22 died, including a priest who was concelebrating. The people of this neighborhood still live in fear of being attacked again. Pray for these people who by now are tired of suffering…
God willing, I will not come back to Bangui before my departure for Portugal, because in June I will be very busy with the evaluation of the students and the conclusion of the course. On July 4 I will live CAR and will be in Lisbon by 5:00 PM. It will be like last year. God willing, I will return to my mission in early September. Cristina is energized and keeps on learning Sango, the local language.
Let us keep united in prayer, because it gives us strength and courage. A great missionary hug, as large as the world, to Fr. Juan and Fr. Orlando and to all the faithful entrusted to you. See you soon!
With great friendship
For the “Astrolabio”
ANO V – Nº 121 – 3 de Junho de 2018
Paróquias de Cabril, Dornelas do Zêzere, Fajão, Janeiro de Baixo, Machio, Pampilhosa da Serra, Portela do Fôjo, Unhais-o-Velho e Vidual
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