And I am dreaming of Africa
Every trip outside the parish is prepared according to a certain scenario. Celebrations are conducted under the trees. Huge, monumental trees are good for sacred functions. And they give some shadow. But before the Eucharist begins the priest sits under the tree and hears confessions. About one hour, sometimes longer. This time is needed for the faithful to gather there. And they come very slowly although they have known for weeks that a priest is coming. A half-hour delay for Mass is a norm. But this sluggishness does not mean disrespect. It results from the African mentality. The natives have a saying that Europeans have watches and Africans have time.
Why does a white man from a northern country go to the other end of the world? He could speak about God where he lives. But missionaries smile at such questions. Fr Krzysztof Domagalski thinks that every priest has a dream of going on missions. But not every one has enough courage. In spring Fr Krzysztof returned to Poland to have medical treatment in the clinic for tropical diseases. And although returning to his homeland is a pleasant event he longs for his parish very much. ‘A priest leaves his heart in the parish, with his faithful,’ he says. He ministers in the far tropical country of Chad, in the parish, which has 40,000 believers living in 200 villages. The parish extends to ca. 100 km. God sent one priest and four nuns to work there.
Chad is located in Central Africa, its neighbours are Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, Cameroon and Nigeria, and Niger is in the North. The country is named after Lade Chad. It has over 9 million people and its total area is 1,284,000 sq km. The official language is French, reminder of the colonists, and Arabic because of the Muslims’ majority. Chad became independent in 1960. The Catholic Church was established there in the 1920s. There are 18 administrative regions and there are 8 dioceses. Fr Krzysztof Domagalski, a Polish priest, ministers in one parish. He is not the only Polish element in this exotic country. The bishop of his diocese is Miguel Sebastian Martines from Spain, the vice-rector of the Interdiocesan Major Seminary is Fr Pawel Pietrusiak from Rzeszow and other Polish priests, Fr Jakub Szalek from the Diocese of Bydgoszcz and Fr Wieslaw Podgorski from the Diocese of Sandomierz, work in the neighbouring parish.
There are over 200 ethnic groups in Chad and they speak almost 100 different languages. Almost 25% of the population are Sudanese Arabs. The followers of Islam constitute the majority of the population in northern Chad (44% of the total population) but the south is mainly Christian (33%). Quite a number of people believe in some animistic beliefs (23%). The north is a part of the huge desert – the Sahara. The more south you go the more savannah you see. There is no jungle or tropical forests in Chad. The inhabitants of Chad are farmers, mot of them are illiterate. Their civilisational backwardness and aversion towards European inventions result from their bad experiences of the colonial times.
Fr Krzysztof Domagalski comes from the Region of Wielkopolska. He was ordained to the priesthood in Gniezno in 1988. He first worked in vicariates and then he went on missions to Albania. He witnessed the revolt of 1997 and the war in Kosovo in 1999. The next year he returned to Poland and became parish priest in a small village of Bardo near Wrzesnia. The proverb ‘leopard cannot change its spots’ is true in many ways. In 2004, he listened to the lecture of Rev. Professor Jan Gorski from the Silesian University delivered in the Missiological Congress. Prof. Gorski worried about the decrease in missionaries. In the autumn of 2005, Fr Krzysztof was on the plane flying from Paris to Chad in Africa. He knew very little about the country. Within a year he learnt French by himself as he had learnt Italian and Albanian earlier. It was terribly hot at the airport in the N'Djamena, the capital of Chad. He was to experience himself what the dry season meant when the temperature was ca. 50 degrees and what the rainy season meant when it was colder (30 degrees) and it rained every day. The aim of his trip was a big village of Bolongo in the south where the desert is replayed by savannah, big flat area with bushes and single trees. Fortunately, the centre of the parish lies along the only (!) asphalt road in Chad, which allows people to contact the rest of the world also in the rainy season when the rural roads are flooded and only experienced drivers can overcome them in cars with four-wheel drive.
A picture from missionary life
To travel to the diocese, to his bishop, he has to get across the river. There is no bridge in the neighbourhood but there is a ferry. If it is damaged, which is usually the case, the only means of transport is a pirogue. We take this shaky boat to get across the river and we leave our car on the bank, then we walk. We return in the afternoon with the hope that our car is still there. Such a trip makes you feel humble. In the rainy season the river overflows widely and you must be very careful driving and remembering where the riverbed ends. A poor driver will fail just after having driven only several kilometres since the thing is not to take your foot off the accelerator. When we stop the car the water that reaches the door gets into the exhaust pipe and ...this is the end of our drive. We stand in the middle of the flooded road and we cannot move forwards or backwards. No wonder that the basic principle of any missionary is: do not lose heart.
The buildings that were erected six years ago are most important. Here we have a church, a presbytery, a garden, and nuns’ house. Priests live here and from here they go to the nearer and farther villages. There was another Polish priest in the parish of Bolongo. It was Fr Mariusz Misiorowski. Unfortunately, he had to leave because of health problems. He returned to Europe. The huge parish is divided into sections. Each section is managed by an animator, who is the closest collaborator of the priest. The sections are subdivided into basic ecclesial communities – CEB in French. A catechist conducts catechetical lessons, prayer meetings and formation. There are 17 animators and many more catechists. Every third year the catechists are volunteers; the animators get bikes and money – the equivalent of a sack of sorgo for a year.
There are many levels of activities in the parish. Apart from regular pastoral ministry the parish runs schools, medical centres, courses of writing and reading for adults. But most of all, the parish needs more priests. In Chad there are very few vocations in spite of the fact that there is some system of education there: simple rural pre-seminaries, minor seminaries and major seminaries. Nuns partially solve the problem of vocations. In Fr Krzysztof’s parish there are four Congolese nuns from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur; they evangelise people, prepare to baptism and marriage, fight with illiteracy, dress the wounds, serves as midwives. Their daily trip to the only medical centre, which is several dozen kilometres away, is a real ordeal. However, they may leave as well...Their mother superior wants them to participate in daily Mass but there has been no priest for several weeks in the parish.
Two things are important to Christians in Chad: funeral and marche (market place). When you hear drums at about 4 a.m. you know that there is a funeral and a ceremony with funeral reception lasts some three days. Because of a funeral believers can refuse to meet the bishop who comes to them every several years. They will not even come to Mass. ‘If the soul gets hurt things will go wrong’, they say. This is the legacy of animism. Beliefs in the real power of the dead souls are extremely strong. A missionary must accept this reality with humility and so must he accept marche. Marche is not only an ordinary market. It is a style of life, some philosophy, the only attraction of people, the place to make relationships and even something more. When marche falls on Saturday parties will last till dawn and people will not come to Sunday Mass. Mass cannot collide with marche or funeral. So the customs condition the pastoral ministry. ‘This is a big problem. You evangelise people who acknowledge that they are Christians but they still follow animism’, explains Fr Krzysztof. For Europeans the nature in Africa is exotic but so is the mentality of people. The question about tomorrow or the day after tomorrow does not exist at all. ‘The impossibility to plan anything makes a man coming from Wielkopolska feel tired’, Fr Krzysztof admits. An interpreter helps him in his pastoral ministry. Mass is celebrated in local languages. The parts that cannot be translated are said in French. Fr Krzysztof has undertaken a unique task. He is preparing a lectionary in Lele, the language that most of his parishioners use.