Brooke’s Life of the Wife of the PH

A Mission Whose Mission is to Disappear

By Brooke ChilversLubin

In June 1986, in the Central African Republic, I followed PH Rudy Lubin for the first time from the dry season savanna to the rainy season forest.

Now that the elephant-hunting clients were gone forever, after the insanely poached pachyderm was definitively added to country’s list of protected species in 1985, international hunters began coming to the C.A.R.’s forests to pursue elusive species such as western bongo, forest sitatunga, blue and yellow-backed duikers, and even Weyn’s duiker – a species nobody had previously thought about.

Rudy and Les Safaris du Haut Chinko had only just started developing their hunting in the wetlands and forests of south-eastern C.A.R. They’d scouted the wilderness east of the big town of Bakouma, and selected the farthest outskirts of the village of Fodé, close to the Mbari River, to build our first camp.

From Yalinga to Bakouma took us two days in the heavily charged Toyotas, driving muddy tracks in the pouring rain. Offered hospitality and recovery at the Catholic mission, the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, we found the 6-foot 2-inch-tall, movie-star-handsome Dutchman Father Henri; 54-year-old Dutch nurse and midwife Sister Léonie, and a trio of small and aged nuns due to return to the seminary and retire after many years of service.

The horizon was grape-colored with fast-moving clouds, and huge gusts of wind threw mangoes out of the mission’s trees. The pell-mell of children and chickens vanished from the courtyard. Père Henri looked up at the sky, whose rainfall in this isolated, much-overlooked community he’d tracked already for 20 years.

Founded in Brittany, France in 1703 by an aristocrat named Claude Poullard des Places, “to help the poorest of the poor, in the sorriest of places,” in the 19th century, the mission of the Congrégation de Saint-Esprit was to supply Catholic clergy to French colonies, mostly in Africa and especially to communities founded by freed slaves, like the islands of Haiti and Réunion. This suited French colonial interests whose roads, military outposts and coffee plantations had slowly been taking hold in the unforgiving bush, counter-balancing the British influence in Africa once they reached the continent’s heartlands in their exploration of the Nile.

By the turn of the 20th century, on foot and following waterways, the order’s religious adventurers had penetrated the unknown interior of Central Africa. Held back by the outbreak of World War II, a veritable wave of proselytizers went to Africa in the late 1940s where they established centers of Christian teaching, schools and clinics. (In 1920, the congregation finally admitted nuns to also undertake missionary work abroad.) But if 20th century Saint-Esprit missionaries came mostly from France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Poland and Canada, already in 1986, of the approximately 600 men and women studying and working in the seminary, 450 were non-Europeans, committed by the order to work in countries not their own.

In the C.A.R., for more than 100 years, the missions of Saint-Esprit have battled slavery, disease, and coups d’état to bring Christianity to the Baya, Banda and Nzakara people. Well into the 1960s, the footpaths in places like Bakouma were unsafe after dark, due to an abundance of prowling leopards and marauding elephants.

As we broke bread, cracked eggs, and drank wine together in the small and stifling refractory, Père Henri explained: “The original purpose of the Saint-Esprit missions was to bring word of a Christian God to the Africa. Yes, to convert the African and rid him of the superstitions they believed could weaken the human spirit. The missionaries were convinced they could genuinely improve the wellbeing of the people, not just by helping them materially or economically, but also by working with the entire, integral person. The idea was not so much to eradicate non-Christian convictions as to liberate the spirit from beliefs – including witchcraft – which could obstruct the individual’s ability to see what we consider to be logical truth.”

The sudden pounding of rain, so typical of June, nearly drowned out his voice as he continued: “I have seen tremendous suffering – real suffering – beatings, torture, prison and killing when a group of people in a village gang up on an individual and accuse him of sorcery.”

Closing all the shutters to keep out the rain, in the growing darkness he recounted a case of a woman condemned by the village prison judicial system to five years of prison for “stealing the heart” out of the body of a well-known athlete, whose apparent good health, he proclaimed, was from getting back his heart. “My response… when asked… is to use Christian arguments to battle those beliefs that do not conform to the principles of logic, and hence of justice. I will explain, for example, that although it is possible for a man to have his heart removed, this can only be done in hospital, and only with very complicated machines, that a man cannot live with no heart at all, much less play soccer.”

For hours, Rudy and I dragged the stories out of him – of the sorcerer who transformed herself into a blackbird, and then circled the hut of a pregnant woman night and day until she miscarried; of “frog-men” who live underwater in the nearby swamp and drag their enemies below the surface to drown them.

Looking back over his two decades in Bakouma, with most of his company coming via his ham radio over which he played chess with someone on a sailboat in Australia, Père Henri felt that Christianity had slowly soaked into the fiber of the community and improved individual lives. “But because these are questions of faith, it is hard to know to what extent things really change in a man’s soul.” Describing traditional beliefs, he explained that the idea of one’s “time being up” or being “called by God” is not widespread. Instead, an “enemy” is identified and accused of causing the illness or death, and thus must make reparations to the family of the injured party. “So I was very happy to hear when a dying woman in my congregation abstained from accusing her ‘enemy’ and instead said, ‘Let God decide who is to be punished.’ Through her belief in divine justice, I can see that we have had some effect.”

I was also anxious to hear the story of Soeur Léonie, a former couturier’s dressmaker: “I came here in order to go as far as I could in helping others and relieving their suffering. And in Bakouma, there have been infinite possibilities!” In addition to actual medical care, the nuns teach young mothers about clean water and nutrition; how to keep a monthly family budget in order to stretch earnings and ease financial worries; about building huts separating domestic animals from the living quarters to improve hygiene, and with windows to provide light and aeration. This strong and capable woman described how village elders often block the advancement of the young. “They can’t build a house that is obviously an improvement over a traditional one, because they will be criticized for being too proud. The influence to keep things the way they are often discourages young people, so they leave the countryside and move to Bangui to get away from the weight of the traditions that oppress them.”

For 20 years she had tried to address the very serious ingrained problems of the women and children of the region’s predominant Nzakara ethnic group, which may be due, she speculated, to a weak family structure resulting from their historical tradition as migratory marauders rather than land-bound cultivators. “I see young children living with nobody, families unprotected by a father, 12-year-old girls being pushed into conjugal relations instead of remaining longer at home to grow physically strong enough for repeated childbearing, women with six children from six different fathers, and life-threatening venereal diseases,” said Soeur Léonie, her voice full of real concern.

Beyond experimenting in generating electricity from the seasonal rivers, Père Henri saw the mission’s role as training local catechists to serve the tiny remote villages scattered along the fan of rough trails that dead-end in the bush near Bakouma. These days, he rarely delivered sermons, preferring to speak to his congregation on an individual basis, for example, while helping someone repair a bicycle tire or a broken radio in his perpetually busy workshop. “The practical reality – and, in fact, the missions’ destiny – is that they can no longer be entirely dependent on Europeans. Step by step, more Africans are taking over the foreign missionaries’ responsibilities, thus assuring that the missions will continue long into the future, albeit in their own way, and perhaps not always exactly as we would wish it,” he said with a resigned smile. “But that is fine too, and probably how it should be.”

Sister Léonie had already started putting the clinic and dispensary in the hands of African health care workers with whom she will maintain daily contact when she is transferred to Bangui. “One day, the community will have to get by entirely on its own. Our job is to help people find the path to self-sufficiency. Otherwise, they will always be economically dependent on countries outside of Africa,” she added, suddenly rising from her desk to finish her chores before the 12-hour equatorial night dropped like a Broadway theatre curtain.

“You see, our mission’s mission is to disappear.”

Brooke ChilversLubin is the wife of French PH Rudy Lubin, who operated in the C.A.R. for over 40 years.