Congo Brazzaville : a priest among the pygmies

The story of an unusual apostolate.
Father Franck Bango is the parish priest of the first ever pygmy parish in the country, in the diocese Ouesso in the north of the Republic of Congo (Congo Brazzaville). He lives among the smallest people in the world, an indigenous and nomadic people, whose homeland is the equatorial forest in the border regions of Congo, Cameroon and Gabon. They live by hunting, fishing and gathering and are threatened by the growing exploitation of the rainforest. Their numbers are estimated at somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 people. Father Franck spoke to ACN at the end of February 2018.
ACN: Catholic pygmies, is that a first?
There have been Catholic pygmies for some years now, but their presence tends to be very discreet. They attend the parishes close to their villages in many dioceses, thanks to the groundwork laid initially by the Spiritan Fathers from the 1960s and 70s onwards and then continued by the sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. But the truly novel aspect here is the creation of a parish in their own village, maintained by them and established at their request.
Why is that so unheard-of?
They are responsible for almost all the running of the community. They themselves provide the catechists, run the parish finances, organise the programme of liturgical celebrations, make up the choir and the Mass servers… without in any way being turned in on themselves. Everyone is welcome in their parish, including those who are not pygmies.
When you arrived four years ago, what kind of reception did you get?
In 2014 when I arrived, I did not come to give money or provide humanitarian services as the sisters are doing – and they are still present here today, providing healthcare and schooling. I came to evangelise, full stop. The pygmies were a little reticent.
Why this reticence?
First of all, because they did not know me. It took two years for them to accept me. I lived with them, went fishing with them… Then they felt that Christ was not compatible with their traditions, but I discovered that they were already living many of the Gospel values without even knowing it.
Can you give us an example? How do they live?
They marry for life. The concept of divorce does not exist among them, nor does that of polygamy. They are not materialistic; they have no money to buy televisions. Their wealth lies in their family. They are very attached to the truth. When I explained to them how close they are to the teachings of the Church, then things began to change. They began to listen to me and since they are gifted with exceptional powers of memory, they retained everything. In June 2016 we celebrated the first two marriages, along with baptisms. In 2017 the same couples were confirmed. Now one of them has already trained as a catechist. In June 2018 there will be more marriages.
How many of them are there?
They are nomadic, so it is very difficult to give an exact figure, but we estimate that there are around 300 scattered here and there all over the diocese and around a hundred or so where we have established the parish, in the village of Péké.
Do they come to Mass every Sunday?
Generally speaking, yes. But in the early days, when the weekend came and they had their traditional pygmy feast of circumcision, a practice whereby a man achieves the status of masculine maturity, they drank so much on the Saturday that on the Sunday they were still too drunk and they said to me, « Father, you are going to have to pray on your own! » So then I tried to explain to them that alcohol could diminish the respect in which their wives and children hold them. That made them begin to think about it, little by little. Now they still go to their feast, but they drink in moderation… So they can still go to Mass next day!
What else has the Catholic faith changed in their lives, apart from their way of celebrating?
I am trying, for example, to teach them not to take what does not belong to them. Their culture does not have the concept of « storing » things, of saving up, because obviously they do not have the material means of doing so (like refrigerators…). And that makes their lives somewhat precarious. If a man kills an elephant, he takes his wife, his children, his uncle, and they go off into the forest until they have eaten the last little bits. If they see a ripe banana, they take it, even if it is not their banana tree.
Don’t they reject your teaching if it interferes with their daily lives?
No, because of their system of fetishes. For example, someone who owns a mango tree and doesn’t want it to be robbed, will attach snail shells to the fruits. If someone picks a mango with a snail shell attached, the fetish is supposed to punish him… The pygmies want to be freed of these practices. So that is where I come in. I explain to them that when you harm another person, you offend God as well.
Throughout Congo Brazzaville there is a burgeoning of sects that call themselves Christian and are generally inspired by the American sect, the Great Awakening. And even though the majority of the Congolese population are Christians, only between 30% and 35% describe themselves as Catholics. What is the situation like? Are people attracted by these « Great Awakening » churches?
When I arrived in Péké in 2014, there were already two Churches coexisting, the « Church of God of the oil » (l’Église du Dieu de l’huile) and the Pentecostal Church. They told people, « when you are ill, the illness does not come from God but from an uncle or an aunt who has cast a spell on you. » This caused division within families. But the pygmies, for whom the family is sacred, were not entirely convinced by these Churches.
How did you succeed in convincing them yourself?
It takes a great deal of patience… despite the moments of discouragement. And you have to love them, to love them greatly.
Over the past 10 years the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has funded almost 250 projects in the Republic of Congo (also known as Congo Brazzaville). Thanks to the generosity of its benefactors, the charity has given around 2.5 million Euros in aid during this time, above all for religious formation projects and the support of priests via the provision of Mass Stipends, and it has also helped fund construction projects and essential means of transport for pastoral work.

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