“Why make videos at your age?” (PE nr. 1093 – 07/2018)

This question came top of the list of some of the suggestions made to me when I was asked to write an article in the Petit Echo to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of our foundation.  At my age, why do I spend most of the day with my eyes glued to my computer? Why, at my time of life, juggle all these photos, doing my best to get software programmes such as ‘Power Point’ and ‘Movie Maker’ to digest them?

According to the traditional formula of the death notices of confreres, I am 76 years of age of which 40 years of missionary life in Tanzania.  The question, “at your age?” should not imply that “it’s no longer an age for” or “you should not be embarking on such adventures when you are beginning to disintegrate.” Is it so extraordinary to be doing missionary promotion work in the final years of one’s life? Missionary today, missionary always, did we not learn that at the novitiate? Sometimes, I have the impression that some of our young confreres look on me as if I had escaped from Jurassic Park! Me, I am still young especially when I find myself in the middle of a pile of photos making a video that will allow us to relive the sagas of our young and old missionaries, past and present.

I believe that I caught the missionary vocation promotion bug from the very beginning of my White Fathers’ career. I love photography and I often strolled around the streets of Bruxelles with my camera in my pocket. To sleep well at night, before I go to bed, I slowly read some comic books. I also look at ‘You Tube’ regularly, my favourite films being Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and of course a good western from time to time.

Lavigerie understood very well the importance of the written media and the power of photography for the future of the mission. In the bric-a-brac of the first caravans, he insisted that the confreres take with them those curious cameras of ancient times. They were funny black accordion-shaped boxes mounted on tripods and equipped with a black umbrella (watch out for sunlight). The idea was that if you want help from benefactors, send us pictures that tell us what you are doing. Let us interest the people of our own countries in our work in Africa. The maxim of our founder was followed. Deo Gratias.

If we want to recruit, let us show our apostolate through remarkable pictures. The young people of the time of our Founder were hooked thanks to the astounding snapshots (made with glass negatives) produced by these antiquated cameras. The photographs of our bearded confreres perched precariously on the back of a camel or a stubborn donkey were all the rage at the time. In my own case, it was a film in the style of BIZIMANA of the celebrated Fr. Roger De Vloo (+1993) which introduced me to the White Fathers.

In the 80s, I spent four years in Belgium doing missionary promotion work aimed at young people. At that time, it was still the era of the slide-show. We did not know anything about videos as a tool for promotion work. However, it would not be long before the age of the video arrived. I was 40 years old and I wandered all over the country with my projector and slide show. There were also photographic exhibitions based on the photos which appeared in our magazine Vivant Univers. During the summer holidays of 1988 about fifteen young people from my home parish came with me to Tanzania to spend a month in our missions. It was called Operation PETITS OUTILS or SMALL TOOLS and it was an unforgettable adventure. In brief, I did not wait for old age to arrive to launch myself into the adventurous world of modern media.

Verviers:1986 Missionary Exhibition for young people.

It was only when I returned from Tanzania in 2006 that I worked at a computer. I was appointed to Namur to look after our house at La Plante. A kindly confrere initiated me into the secrets of computing. One of my own brothers introduced me to the labyrinth of Powerpoint possibilities. For the rest, I just got on with it: it is by forging that one becomes a blacksmith. As La Plante was where the Photos-Service was located, it meant that the photographic archive of Vivant Univers/Vivant Afrique was easily available and all I had to do was to dip into it. Thanks to Gus Beeckmans for his incredible work of digitalising the archive and to Vincent de Decker (+1988) for his famous photographs.

Thanks to Powerpoint software programmes, I began by illustrating the psalms and parables as an aid to prayer.  I produced different presentations featuring our annual celebrations and various other occasions. For the 125th Anniversary of the Anti-Slavery Campaign of Cardinal Lavigerie, I produced a series of videos at the request of Richard Nyombi, some in English, some in French and even some in Swahili. I did the same thing for some Justice and Peace events. When discussions began around the subject of the 150th Anniversary of our foundation, the first digital versions of the very old films of Fr. De Vloo (Africa Films) became available. The idea then came to me to put all this to music and to produce cinema standard videos. It worked! Philippe Docq put them out on YOU TUBE. All that, at my age, for missionary promotion.

The years have passed like a gust of wind. At the end of my mandate in Namur, I was appointed to Bruxelles, rue de Linthout. It is from there that I am writing this article. From time to time, I go to Rome to give Dominic Arneault, our archivist, a helping hand. I work in the photo library surrounded by the most beautiful visual souvenirs of our Society, a real paradise! Our job is to digitalise all the old photos and bring them out from obscurity and put them at the disposition of all. It is a truly worthwhile programme for our 150th Anniversary.

Manu in his office

My work in the archives and the production of videos does not mean that I am a computer geek. For me, it leads me regularly to prayers of praise and meditation. What our ancestors (men and women), these pioneers of a heroic time accomplished still inspires me. Looking at these old films and these old photographs, I regularly think of them; the poor means at their disposal, their apostolic zeal, their love for the African people and their devotion to the most vulnerable. Pope Francis keeps reminding us, time and time again, of our duty to go to the margins of the world, leave our safe zone, and care for the poorest. There is nothing new under the sun! Our ancestors long before Francis followed this road to the peripheries.

Our forebears, Fathers, Brothers and Sisters did not have a smartphone to capture the news at a glance, as everyone does today. Luckily for us,  coming behind them, they left photos and films from the very first days of the mission: unique testimonies of their faith in Jesus Christ.

What I hope is that we do not allow these marvels of the Gospel to rot on the shelves of our archives. Now that the best of these films and photos have been digitised, I recommend that those in charge of our Formation Houses make use of them in order to show our young men what it was like to be a missionary way back then. All that needs to be done would be to show a little video, from time to time, just to illustrate a history lesson on our Missionary Society. Let us also profit from the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of our institute to share these media stories with our African friends. I am sure they would be enchanted, as they were at Ouagadougou for example, to see the magnificent film of Fr. De Vloo’s incredible report in 1956 on the consecration of Bishop Yougbaré, the first Bishop from Burkina Faso.

Happy Anniversary.

Manu Quertemont, M.Afr.

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