Comboni Lay Missionaries

25 years of presence of Comboni Lay Missionaries in Central Africa

RCA LMC

“To be with the people and for the people”.

1 June 2023. Mongoumba Mission, Central Africa

On June 1, 1998, Teresa Monzon and Montserrat Benajes, CLM Lay Comboni Missionaries (CLM) from Spain, arrived at the mission of Mongoumba, Central Africa. They came to replace Italian laywomen Marisa Caira, who gave 21 years of generous service, and Lucia Belloti. Since then, more lay men and women, including a married couple, from Spain, Portugal, Italy and Poland have passed through this mission. And very soon a laywoman from Brazil will arrive.

At present there are three CLM who carry out their missionary work in Mongoumba: Marcelina (Poland), Cristina (Portugal) and Teresa (Spain). The latter is the same laywoman who started the CLM mission here 25 years ago, and this time she came to serve for a season.

The CLM group, who together with the Comboni Fathers make up the apostolic community of the mission, have been in charge of various tasks during this time, such as health care, physical rehabilitation, school education and the Aka (pygmy) people. They have also been accompanying pastoral groups of the parish. Their presence and missionary performance are intended to be a witness so that the faithful of the parish will be motivated to live their faith with greater enthusiasm and dedication.

The CLM have not lacked moments of trial, as when in the year 2000 they had to assist, together with Doctors Without Borders, numerous refugees coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a village neighboring the mission of Mongoumba was suffering from bombings. Also when they had to take on pastoral work, since for two years they were left without a priest in the mission. And when, on the eve of the coup d’état of 2003, they had to live through the looting of the mission by Congolese soldiers who supported the president who was deposed. Not forgetting the following coup in 2013, where they witnessed the insecurity and desolation in which the population found itself.

However, these same trials, like so many other challenges, far from weakening their missionary spirit, have given them the courage and courage to resist and face a mission that is still in its infancy, with the firm hope that the Lord will make the seed they are now sowing bear fruit. A mission that the laywoman Cristina summarizes in these words: “Beyond the activities, the most important thing is to be with the people and to be for the people”.

Congratulations to CLM for its 25 years of presence in Central Africa.

Fr. Fernando Cortés Barbosa, Comboni Missionary

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The Pygmy people, guardians of the Common Home

Laudato Si
Laudato

Jesús Ruíz, Bishop of Mbaïki (Central African Republic) tells us how his communities of the Aka (Pygmies) people celebrated Laudato Si’ Week. Jesus, who inspired the CLM movement in Spain, is visiting Spain these days and we had the joy of sharing an afternoon with him, in which his love for his communities shines through.

The Congo Basin is the second lung of the planet, and sadly the scene of similar environmental crimes to those we usually hear about in the Amazon. Only fewer voices tell us about this scenario of massive destruction of the equatorial rainforest. Jesús Ruíz promotes the integral evangelization of the peoples, in which the Easter of the Lord translates into the Aka people standing up against centuries of discrimination not only from the colonizers but also from the rest of the majority peoples of Central Africa.

The Aka are used to taking blows and bowing their heads. That is why leading a march with the slogan We are the guardians of the forest is of great value. It is a clear sign of the Comboni charisma. Like the rest of the native peoples in America, Asia, Oceania… the Aka are aware that they have guarded the Common House for centuries, in invisibility, and now their testimony shines because their environment is at serious risk of disappearing. We are indebted to all these communities.

Comboni Sisters Lucia Font (Spanish) and Lucia Premoli (Brazilian) are currently working with Bishop Ruiz and the Aka peoples, the latter as the Episcopal leader of the Laudato Si’ Commission. The experience in Amazonia has prompted the latter to concretize in Africa all the work that has been developed in Latin America. In nearby Mongoumba, the CLM community has been accompanying this people for more than 20 years. Our CLM Tere Monzón, who participated in this mission for 10 years, returns to Spain on the 9th.

Laudato SI

The momentum of the encyclical Laudato Si’ is mobilizing around the world for a change of system, because the current development model respects neither people nor the rest of Creation. “We need organizations to help us document everything that is happening in our territory, so that it becomes known.” The level of mercury pollution in the rivers, the loss of native species, the savage enrichment of a few minorities thanks to the national resources of this “poor country”. This is the direct request that Monsignor Ruiz makes to us.

CLM Spain

African Memory Project: José Carlos Rodríguez

Jose Carlos

We continue this series of testimonies with José Carlos Rodríguez.

A journalist of formation, he worked for more than 20 years as a Comboni missionary in Uganda reporting on conflicts and as a social worker after the civil war. He is the only Spaniard to have spoken with Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, during meetings and talks in which he participated with the aim of restoring peace in the country. He has also worked on conflict resolution projects in D.R. Congo and in the Central African Republic, where he continues to work today.

A story in Central Africa

Jesus Ruiz

We recovered a video recorded by the Spanish program, Pueblo de Dios, where Jesus Ruiz (currently bishop of the diocese) tells us his missionary experience when he was a missionary in Mongoumba where he shares presence with our CLM community.

It is a video of some years ago, but it helps us to understand our missionary presence in the area. The life of the missionary and the reality of the Central African people. (In Spanish)

Maiata organizes an exhibition about the mission of volunteers in Africa

Cristina Sousa

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

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”.

Cristina Sousa
Cristina Sousa