Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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Bishop Skylstad reflects on his most recent trip to Africa for USCCB
by Bishop William S. Skylstad, for the Inland Register
(From the Dec. 16, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
Oct.24, 2010 – Sunday evening, Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo
This is the first time I have had a chance to reflect on the trip so far to Burundi, to the Congo, and finally before I leave on Wednesday afternoon back home, to Rwanda.
Steve Hilbert, the expert on Africa at the USCCB, and Bishop John Ricard of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee and I arrived in Bujumbura, Burundi, last Sunday evening after an eight-and-a-half hour flight from Brussels. The initial purpose of our trip was to attend in the regional peacemaking conference In Bujumbura, which included the six countries in the Great Lakes region of South Central Africa. There were about 25 bishops represented, in addition to priests, Sisters, and lay representatives of the countries involved; about 100 in all. From the States were Catholic Relief Services (CRS) representatives in addition to the Kroc Institute (which is dedicated to peacemaking) from Notre Dame.
I represented the International Committee of the USCCB, Bishop Ricard represented the Solidarity Fund for Africa, and later in the week, Bishop Malone of the Diocese of Portland, Maine, a member of the CRS’s Board of Directors, joined us. Ken Hacket, the CEO of CRS, and Professor Viva Butkus of Notre Dame who also serves as a CRS Board member also joined the conference.
Enthusiastic greetings need no translations. (IR photos courtesy of Bishop William S. Skylstad)
The city of Bujumbura has about 400,000 people. The country is poor. Believe it or not, there are no stoplights in the city. There were hardly any street lights. The hotel where part of our group stayed, right on the lake, had installed netting about 60 feet from shore. That’s to keep the crocodiles away.
The conference itself I think was very successful, although I guess success will be measured by the impact of the decisions made for the future. Everyone seemed to be very committed to doing something together. This is the first time there has been a meeting of this sort with the countries involved in the great lakes region (there are six), and everyone agreed that they have to look to the problems in this part of the world together because the countries are so interconnected. Violence, genocide (especially in Rwanda in 1994, when about 1 million people were killed), and rape and other violence toward women, add up to what seems to be almost impossible challenges.
Yesterday morning before leaving CRS representatives, our delegation had breakfast with the papal nuncio. Five years ago, his predecessor was killed, so the work here in the Church can be filled with danger. Clearly his predecessor was targeted, even though he was a representative of the pope in Burundi.
On Friday, CRS staff from headquarters, Bishop Malone, Viva and I went over the border to Uvira, in the Congo around the northern end of Lake Tanganyika, about an hour-and-a-half trip from Bujumbura. Uvira has been without a bishop for over two years, but Archbishop Francis Maroy of Bukavu, Congo, the apostolic administrator in the interim for Uvira, met us as we visited projects there. He was accompanied by 10 soldiers on the four-hour drive from Bukavo – and with good reason. Lots of people are killed. Three of his predecessors have been assassinated, all in October. As the governor mentioned to him this morning at our breakfast following Mass in Bukavo, the governor said he’ll make sure the archbishop gets through to the end of the month. That’s why we flew from Bujumbura by charter to Bukavu on Saturday morning.
But back to Uvira. The work of CRS is truly impressive. The level of poverty is some of the worst I have seen. The skill of the CRS people who have dedicated their lives to this kind of work is truly impressive.
We first met with a silk making project for women who are victims of rape and violence. They greeted us with dancing, clapping, and a little program. In that area there are about 8,000 women involved in that project, and the program for orphans and vulnerable children touches about 50,000. Shortly afterwards we met with a reconciliation project where two tribes (the Pigmy and the Shi) were brought together after bitter hostilities in the past. Pretty remarkable work.
Yesterday after the breakfast with the Nuncio in Bujumbura, we flew to Bukavu on Lake Kivu. This area is part of the southern Kivu province. Laura, the pilot, indicated we may have some difficulty in landing, depending on security at the moment (no pictures are to be taken), and we may have to pick an alternative site. The airport consists of a United Nations’ compound.
From left are Prof. Viva Bartkus of Notre Dame, CRS board member; Archbishop Maroy of Bukavu; Ken Hackett, CEO of CRS; Bishop Richard Malone of Portland in Maine, CRS board member; Bishop Skylstad; and Steve Hilbert, USCCB International Office of Peace and Justice.
But everything went off without a hitch, except that we left Laura arguing with the officials over landing fees. It seems as though those things are a bit subjective, and everyone wants his cut.
Archbishop Maroy had driven back the evening before from Uvira. Again, he was most gracious. He joined us on the way in from the airport to visit a special CRS agricultural project.
Cassava is a tubular that is very much a part of the culture here. But the plants have been afflicted with a virus, and there is an attempt to develop a disease-free variety. The individual tubular can weigh up to 100 lbs.
Early this morning (Sunday) in Bukavu the archbishop asked us to go to the 6:30 a.m. Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace. The place was packed, with about 1,500 people in attendance. The choir was tremendous and the Mass lasted for two hours and 20 minutes. Almost everyone at the Mass swung to the rhythm of the music. Especially notable as we processed in was a group of about 14 children who danced to the music. I must say they were really into it. Bishop Malone at the end of Mass told them of our love and support from the U.S. for them. There was applause. We were told they really appreciated our presence.
Afterwards we had breakfast with the archbishop, visited a project for women (sexual violence, abuse, reintegration back into society, nutrition), and then headed out to the airport. All along the way people were walking along the highway, some including the women carrying huge loads on their backs or on top of their heads – things like sugar cane, a huge bunch of bananas, or fodder for the animals. At the airport we boarded for the short 25- minute flight to Goma at the North end of Lake Kivu, where we are as I write this. The staff felt it was too risky to go by boat.
Tomorrow we will meet with staff of the local CRS office, some of the partners in our common work, and then Ken Hackett and Bishop Malone will fly on the Kinshasa. Steve Hilbert and I will meet with two United Nations offices and then on Tuesday will drive to Rwanda (specifically to Kigali and a three hour trip) where we will spend about a day before heading home. We will meet with some of the Church and some officials from the U.S. before heading home through Nairobi, Amsterdam and to the States.
I wish everyone could see the work carried on here on behalf of the Catholic Church in the United States. It is a lot, even though there are many more needs that are not met. And in some ways there is not yet a light at the end of the tunnel. Yet people who work here on our behalf do so with a tremendous sense of dedication and commitment. In St. Paul we hear that the kingdom of God is a matter of justice, peace, and joy. Those values are what energize our workers here. I hope that can be true for all of us as we strive for the same here and all over the world.
Addendum: I haven’t had a chance to add some details about the visit to Rwanda since I last wrote. In Goma, when we crossed the border into Rwanda, one of the customs officials got excited because I had my dirty laundry in a plastic bag. He took the bag because you are not allowed to bring plastic bags into the country for environmental reasons. I must say in all of the Third World countries in which I have been, there is none cleaner, including Kigali.
Rwanda is truly a beautiful country. The roads are far superior to those in the Congo and in Burundi. All of the land is farmed right up to the top of the mountains, with nice terracing. We passed by the spot where you turn off to see the gorillas, but that wasn’t on our agenda.
We met Tuesday afternoon with the justice and peace commission of the archdiocese. Afterwards CRS hosted a reception for us, and then we went out to dinner, where some of the time we ate in the dark – the electricity went off. In the morning, we had an hour-long meeting with the Archbishop of Kigali, met for an hour-and-a-half with the American Ambassador, and then just before going out to the airport, visited for only a half hour the Genocide Memorial.
At the lower level of the memorial were four concrete slabs about 20x20 feet. These were the tops of 30-feet-deep tombs where the remains of 250,000 are buried, all killed in the genocide. In one of the displays, I remember seeing the quote: “You children played with our children. Your children ate in our home with our family. Why did you do this to us?” The work of the Church there will for a long time be building up trust again. The archdiocese and CRS are committed to that effort.
We rushed out to the airport. The plane left inexplicably an hour early to Nairobi a little over an hour flight. Then from Nairobi to Amsterdam, Washington D.C, and home.
(Bishop William Skylstad is Bishop Emeritus of the Spokane Diocese.)