"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


a prayer for henri

from tuesday:

I was going to write today about the long and funny boat ride from Goma yesterday, about arriving in Bukavu, about how much nicer everything is in a place that hasn’t had a volcano go down its main street. I want to tell you about how beautiful it is here, how helpful Alain’s Birkenstock-wearing, agronomist uncle Rene is, how I’ve already interviewed five of my most important subjects. I could tell you about the lecture (complete with a map and a chart) I got from a health official, about meeting an amazing woman who’s working with journalists from Rwanda and Burundi to produce a radio series on sexual violence, about how everyone in this town knows my friend J and my “brother” J.

I planned to write about how glad I am to be in a real house now, because when I arrived at the procureate yesterday, I knew that, although the simple room is perfectly adequate, more than one night there would have made me cry. And I have to mention meeting one of the German academics whose work on Congo I really respect, and how cool it was when he said, “It sounds like you really know the literature” (at which I thought, “Could you put that in writing for the Advisor?”). It was a good day.

But. My time is limited, my internet access even more so now, and I had a conversation last night that I will remember for a long time. I was the only female guest at the procurate, so at dinner last night, everyone was very curious as to what I’m doing here. (Hence meeting the academic.) Two wonderful priests who are cousins, Delphin and Henri, sat across from me. Henri and I had a long discussion. He is waiting for his visa to go to the seminary at the Vatican, where he’ll be studying for a doctorate in church sciences for the next eight years. He’s from a village near a rural town in the northern part of South Kivu, near the Masisi mountains. “Oh, it’s beautiful there,” he kept saying. Beautiful mountains, just beside the lake. If the view from the boat is any indication, Henri is from paradise.

Henri has been to Germany, and that experience seemed to make him think a lot about what his life is about to be like. We talked about the difference in African cultures and Western cultures, especially concerning the different attitudes towards individual identity and community that so mark our two societies. In Congo (really, everywhere I’ve been in Africa), identity is not the same as it is in America. You are not so much an individual as you are a part of a community. An individual’s conception of the universe is much more a “we” than an “I.” This makes a difference in how you live your life. Good fortune for one member of a family is good fortune for every member of that family, so if you get rich, everyone gets rich. If bad times come, everyone else tries to help you along.

And we talked about how everything in the west is man-made, while in Africa, “we live a natural life,” he said. He told me about a German friend who had visited, and the trip they took through the Kivus. She had never seen coffee or bananas or any of the things she eats growing, he reported incredulously.

Henri returned again and again to the theme of solitude. I think he may be afraid of being left alone in Rome. He asked me if I knew anyone who’s gone from Africa to the west and ended up alone all the time. I told him about my sister’s adventures in Ghana with people knocking on her door at 6am so she’d have company. He told me how he sat in an airport in Germany waiting for three hours for someone to help him. “That would never happen here,” he said a little sadly, and we talked about how helpful people are here. “But when your skin is this color…,” he said, trailing off.

I’m going to keep Henri in my prayers, and I hope you will, too. Eight years is a long time to leave your beautiful homeland for a big city full of people who are too busy to give a Congolese priest the time of day, let alone help him navigate their madhouse of a train station. And Henri will never be the same after this doctoral work. So I will pray that Henri will find community in Rome, that he won’t be left alone too much, that he will be able to get away from the city to a place that is green and full of growing things that remind him of home. Most of all, I’ll pray that he won’t be afraid, but that his journey into another world will be marked with love and a sense of being exactly where he is called to be. Amen.


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