There are four Augustinian communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (previously known as the Belgian Congo, and then as Zaire). The present four communities are located at Poko (founded in 1966), Amadi (1977), Dungu (1980), and Kinshasa (1991). These are now staffed by Congolese Augustinians, who have gradually taken over from German and Belgian Augustinians who served there from 1952 onwards.
The following is an edited article by an Augustinian from Europe visiting the Augustinian community at Kinshasa in the Congo. This visitor writes of his time in the capital city, Kinshasa, at Saint Rita's Priory, where there were then also twenty-one Congolese Augustinian students in training. Saint Rita's Priory was formerly a broom factory that has been developed during the last twelve years into an Augustinian cloister with 26 rooms, three apprenticeship halls and a library of books of theology. The hall in the old factory was transformed into a worthy chapel. The Congolese artist, Joseph Kitoko, painted a large and dramatic altar backdrop on the wall behind the altar. It depicts the situation of the church of Africa and the Order of Saint Augustine there today.
The European visitor wrote (edited hererin): “The road from the airport is as straight as can be, but in the darkness the car bumps from one hole to another. To the left and right people have gathered around fires. The air is filled with voices and sultry with smoke of burning wood and damp warmth. Along the journey of thirty kilometres, people sit and wait and lean against crumbling houses clearly not fit to guarantee a decent living.”
“Kinshasa is an enormous city of about 7,000,000 inhabitants. Wherever I look I see poverty, which words cannot describe. Most of the city is an endless shanty township where people can only try to survive. When you see people selling water to make ends meet, you suddenly realise that you do not know what the face of poverty really looks like. Just one meal a day usually comes to these people. One meal in two days is reserved for the poorest people.”
“Kinshasa is a city of youngsters. An estimated 60% are less than thirty years old. In the recent past nearly nobody has received payment for his employment by the authorities: no civil servant, no teacher, no nurse, no policeman. Perhaps only the soldiers were an exception. Despite the obvious symptoms of poverty - bony street children who sleep on the dusty central reserve between the opposite directions of traffic - there is no bitterness, no sad resignation, nor aggressive or depressive face or behaviour. ‘
“What you see are people talking heartily to each other, and smiling all over their faces. They radiate warmth and happiness. Time and again I was struck by the cheerfulness of people confronted with such harsh circumstances. And they are a proud people. I was struck by the fact that the majority of inhabitants in Kinshasa are beautifully dressed. I often asked myself how they managed to walk around in the poor conditions of sanitation as neatly dressed as they were.”
“I got the answer indirectly from some of the Augustinian friars. They explained how important human dignity is for these people. For them it is obvious: you take care of yourself to show respect for your own body and for the people with whom you live and interact. The Augustinians’ hours of community prayer there were remarkable. Seldom have I hear people sing and pray the psalms in such an impressive way. The fact that the daily singing and praying were perfectly enculturated in their Congolese traditions made a lasting impression on me."
The present four communities are located at Poko (founded in 1966), Amadi (1977), Dungu (1980), and Kinshasa (1991). In the Congo, the Augustinians are mainly in the most remote villages of the Diocese of Dungu Doruma in the northeast of the country. Belgian Augustinians arrived in 1952, and German Augustinians in 1959, such that in 1960 there were 22 Augustinian priests and lay brothers ministering in the Congo who came from Europe, a number that had reduced to four in 2003.
Local Congolese are joining the Augustinian Order, and the Congolese infrastructure damaged by war calls every Christian minister at the same time also to be social workers, village developers, AIDS helper and the lawyers of the poor people. Many missions all over the world have had periods of difficulty and tragedy visit them, but of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have faced many years of danger and destruction. The Congo, centrally located on the African continent, has been called "the bleeding heart of Africa" because of its decades of civil war. In area, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is almost seven times as large as Germany, and a quarter of the size of Australia.
Its population in 2002 was over 55,000,000. About 48% of the population are aged under fifteen years. About 50% of the population is Catholic, and 10% Moslem. On the basis of exploitation and the lengthy civil war, the humanitarian situation for most of the population is quite catastrophic. The infrastructure in many provinces is destroyed, and the country lacking expenditure. The national health system has extensively collapsed, and life expectancy has decreased to 45 years. The war generated a climate of animosity and tension between the local tribes. Abduction, torture, revenge killings, and executions are still happening, especially in the eastern provinces.
The young Augustinian priests are based in the districts of Amadi and Poko, in the Diocese of Dungu Doruma in the northeast of the nation. Tribal killings and the attacking of mission centres are still happening there. Since the horrible civil war in 1996, the Congo also suffers from being a divided country. It is impossible to pass directly from one nation of the Congo to the other. The Augustinians are present in both of these different political areas: the southwest, which includes Kinshasa where the Augustinian formation house is situated. The other area, containing the north-eastern portion of the former single nation, where the other three Augustinian communities are located, and where inter-tribal murders still happen, is in the control of rebel forces.
In the latter area, during the height of the civil war, between Christmas and New Year 1996 the Augustinian mission stations of Poka and Amadi were attacked and severely damaged by soldiers of the government as the army dissolved. At Christmas Poko was attacked. Since the mission station Amadi of 27 kilometres lies off the main northern route of escape to the Equator, it was 28 December 1996 before the first soldiers escaping their duties arrived there. Dangerous though it has proved to be, the work of the Augustinian Order in the Congo has borne fruit. In fact, the additional demand imposed by the civil war on Congolese entrants to the Order has seen them assume additional responsibilities to the people they serve.
Map. For a map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, go to: http://www.theodora.com/maps/zaire_map.html OK