Pope Francis has often hammered home the message, “The Church must come out of herself,” And not to preserve its structures or to live “closed in on itself and looking only to itself.” She must have the courage to move beyond her borders and her customs, and to “go and carry the Gospel” where it is not heard or received. It must not wait for the world to come to it, but “to go to the geographical and the equally important existential peripheries: where the mystery of sin, including pain and injustice, reside and where all miseries are.” (La Croix: 13th March 2014).
It is in the light of this text that I would like to look again at some event of my missionary life.
Africa is changing! In May 1974, I was sent to the Parish of Kiembara in the North-West of Burkina Faso. The rainy season had not yet begun. In many villages, women slept besides the wells in the hope of gathering a few drops of water for their family. Today, these villages have excellent bore holes. However, in the badly off neighbourhoods of cities and towns, in the peripheral areas, water is lacking. These districts often shelter the poorest elements of the population. Very often they are people who could not afford to remain in the centre of town after the landlord installed water and electricity and doubled the rent. In this case, geographical peripheries and existential peripheries are closely linked.
Africa is changing! But some customs resist change and new existential peripheries appear. In 1974, while learning the language, Fr. Camille Ranzini (+2005) taught us, “When a husband tells you his wife has just given birth, you may ask him: “Yaa tôndo, bi yaa sâana?” literally meaning “Is it one of us or a stranger?”Meaning in turn “Is it a boy or a girl?” This shows us that right from her birth; a girl (destined for marriage and to leave her family home) is classified as a foreigner. This is not without dramatic consequences for girls in today’s world, especially in the city.
Africa is changing! Previously, when education was not open for all, Mossi girls were married from the age of 17 onwards. However, if ever a girl got pregnant before her marriage, she was immediately bought to the family of her putative husband. Today, in Koudougou, there are more than 10,000 single girls who are pupils, apprentices or students who are more than 17 years old and therefore of marriageable age. Many get pregnant before getting married. Among the Mossi, she is expelled from her family as soon as her pregnancy is discovered. She is expelled because of her “status” as a foreigner and what is more there is a taboo. “It is forbidden to keep the girl in the family home” Not to respect this interdict is to expose the family to mortal danger. When the author of the pregnancy does not accept responsibility, the result is often dramatic for the young woman.
The year of mercy did not change anything. Many Christians continued to expel their daughters. Even the Christian community looked askance at them. While I did not know much about this prohibition, circumstances led me to help one such girl then a second and now practically every week a young woman who has been expelled from her family comes to me in despair and distress. She feels abandoned by her family, by her neighbours and she even feels abandoned by God! I try to get them to understand that God looks at them in quite a different way from men. For Christians, as well as for Muslims, God is merciful. He forgives. This means that he does not look at people as they were in the past but as what they are today. So they find peace and joy once again and they give birth in good conditions.
I would like to return to this word “foreigner.” If the Mossi girls are referred to as foreign, so are the Peul people. Nevertheless they have lived in Burkina since the 19th century and make up about 10% of the population. They are pastoralists and they often gather a number of kilometres from the centre of the village. They are all over the country but curiously we do not see them, we carry on as if they did not exist.
In 2005, I did a study on the dairy sector. I was convinced that it should be possible to support Peul communities by offering them, particularly the woman, the possibility of learning to read and write in their own language known as the Fulfulde language (Fula). One result would be that Peul women would be able to manage a mini dairy. So I took off to meet some of them in their own neighbourhoods.
Africa is changing! One day, on being informed that a Peul community wanted literacy classes, I went to meet them. At the end of our conversation, one of the leaders of the group thanked me sincerely by telling me: “That is 35 years since we have been here; this is the first time that someone has come to see us!”
In this way, I opened many literacy centres for teaching Fulfulde. Each time, it was the women who came in big numbers and full of enthusiasm. After the second year, the women who had children of school-going age registered them promptly at the school.
Today with my confrere, Pawel Hulecki, we have a very ambitious project. We wish to support a Peul village, in the south of the country near the border with Ghana and Togo, which has asked for a bilingual primary school (Fulfulde-French). The Peuls of Burkina Faso are poorly educated. We want to support this demand of the Peul pastoralists to develop an education complex with a technical college and lycée. Not only that, we want special adult education courses. We would like to offer courses leading to citizenship covering human rights, rights of women and children. We would like courses on conflict prevention and resolution, on the protection of the environment and provision of health services with the help of the Town Hall and the Municipal Council. We want to do all this with the aim of facilitating integration and social cohesion.
If you want to know more, read the article, “Quand des éleveurs peuls demandent une école primaire!” on www.abcburkina.net . In addition, you will have the opportunity to contribute to the success of this project .
Maurice Oudet, M.Afr.