Living with people on the margins (PE nr. 1083)

My experience
of living with people
on the margins of society:
The Batwa of Burundi 1999-2017.

My apostolate among the Batwa began in 1999 after eight years of studies and parish work. I was to devote the next 18 years of my missionary life to them. The appointment was the result of a decision of the Burundian Sector of the Missionaries of Africa to start a mission among them. It also responded to a deep desire of mine to work as a missionary in this area. The persons who were going to become the centre of my life were considered repugnant, pariahs, people living very much on the margins of society. They did not enjoy any recognition in society and played no part in any of the usual social frameworks such as churches, schools, businesses or administration.

Very quickly, I was able to establish genuine links and deep friendships with these people. I got to know the Batwa through visiting the families and so trust was built up between us. This meant that they were regular visitors to the mission and confreres were not slow to complain that the community was being invaded by the Batwa. There were rather a lot of them and they had many problems. Many were in a pitiable state, wearing only dirty rags and looking very dishevelled. They told me of their many problems; sickness, hunger, lack of housing, and marginalisation. I tried to listen to them as best I could but there were others who kept making fun of this situation.

For some of my confreres, for the Burundian priests and the Burundians themselves, my appointment was not considered a promotion. In fact, my link with the Batwa meant that I was subject to some prejudicial attitudes already. I was called the priest of the Batwa, the Mutwa priest or just simply a Mutwa. I did not really worry about these prejudices; the essential thing was that I was thriving in my new mission. I came to appreciate the lack of understanding that Jesus experienced in his own time. This gave me the opportunity to work on my personal development, to empty myself out, to sympathize and share in a certain way the contempt experienced by the Batwa people.

Elias dancing with his Batwa friends

Little by little, I taught my Batwa brothers to accept themselves first before seeking acceptance from others. In fact, they did not dare call themselves Burundians! With the support and effort of friends that Providence provided, things began to change for the better in their daily lives such as better hygiene, health care, children’s education, accommodation and their integration as citizens into Burundian society. Now, they have something to say. It is clear that we have seen a change in the mentality of the Batwa as well as in the attitude of others. Briefly, they have begun to take their place in Burundian society just like all other citizens. Each success encourages me and I feel more and more tied to this mission which I love so very much.

This apostolate has taught me that the world is a funny place by the way that we accept at face value an established order with its inbuilt injustices; its distrust of the human person without anybody questioning it. It is also the moment to question ourselves on our mission which is that of the Church in the world. What priorities do have for today and tomorrow? One cannot be in the world and in the Church without posing similar questions.

I find the strength to continue from the many blessings, support and successes in the job. Nowadays, we are proud to find that the Batwa have found places in the upper echelons of the State. We have supported them during all this period of our mission, we find among them Senators, members of Parliament, members of important national commissions. Others live their lives in a dignified way which brings them respect in their villages alongside their neighbours. Knowing only too well where they have come from, we are very happy to encounter them in this new situation and we can hear in our subconscious the echo of the words of Jesus to his contemporaries, “Rejoice because this man is also a son of Abraham.”

Elias teaching Batwa children

We have tried to share and interest our community about our daily concerns. We extended an invitation to our confreres to come and see for themselves the daily reality of Batwa life. We talk about the daily cares, successes, joys, and sorrows of this apostolate. Quite a few understand and support us.

However, I have always had a feeling and a questioning that there are still some mentalities that are deeply anchored in our way of doing the apostolate and that this sort of mission is often considered as a form of social work more suitable for a NGO. We should keep in mind that this apostolate does not distinguish itself by the large number of sacraments it administers. Yet, we need to continue this work and to raise awareness among the confreres of this liberating mission which touches the very integrity of man both body and soul. We need to go out and meet these people obliged by socio-economic conditions to live on the peripheries.

We have been very encouraged to see that our young students and confreres coming from other Sectors and Provinces have shown an interest in visiting our Batwa villages when they arrive in the country. They were very touched by our commitment to those who are most deprived. We have been encouraged by their support and this helps us to continue to give hope to these people in their search for a more dignified life.

I think it is essential in today’s world and in our vision of the mission to integrate this dimension, which is concerned with those left behind, the forgotten minorities, and who continue to suffer from the indifference of society. This is much more than the temporary works of charity that we do on a daily basis to help one or another person. It demands that we go out to meet the most deprived people living in often inhuman conditions. We need to inculcate in our young people the desire to become interested in those who are the least in society to share what we have received, to walk some of the way with them and to take part in their fight for a more dignified life.

Elias Mwebembezi, M.Afr.

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