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from issue no. 02 - 2007

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO. The “Love and Freedom” Community in Kinshasa

So long, Coco, and continue to help us

The memory of Cardinal Frédéric Etsou, recently dead, in the small history of a mission that he set up in Kinshasa. For the young boys without family he was Coco, granddad

by Giovanni Cubeddu

A simple pastor whom many loved, with a difficult family name to remember: Cardinal Frédéric Etsou-Nzabi-Bamungwabi, of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary-Missionaries of Scheut. Etsou had bound his name to the archdiocese of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, from July 1990 up to 6 January last, his dies natalis, after a long illness, in the university clinic of Louvain, in Belgium. When he celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his priesthood in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Kinshasa, in December two years ago, the name by which the faithful, and many young people and children, called him, invoked him, was shorter and immensely more affectionate: Coco, grandfather. Today one can’t but remember Coco, and repeat the reasons for so much lived familiarity that made beautiful the life of this pastor of the African Church, known also for the freedom of judgment with which he defended his people from the abuses of power. To tell us of the small episodes of this everyday but so Christian story we found two special witnesses: Don Matteo Galloni, a Roman, and Don Raffaele Ningi Waku, a Congolese. Both belong to the “Love and Freedom” religious Community that just ten years ago opened its first mission in Kinshasa: a family-house for young boys with no family to count on.
Cardinal Frédéric Etsou-Nzabi-Bamungwabi

Cardinal Frédéric Etsou-Nzabi-Bamungwabi

«There are children and young boys from 5 to 18 years old who live in street gangs, and there are at least three sorts among these minors: those who work in the mines, where they’re exploited for little money; former child-soldiers, being demobbed from the various militias that fought in the civil war; and the so-called “witchdoctors”, that is children and boys driven from their homes because, according to local superstitions, they are the cause of the evils that have struck the family». Etsou himself explained during his last ad limina visit of January 2006. «I hold meetings regularly with these boys... and in the archdiocese of Kinshasa we have started different initiatives to help them», the cardinal continued. «As Church we cannot abandon them, because they are our sons, whom we have baptized».
So, let’s start from here, from the Church, from charity, from the defenseless.
Don Matteo recounts: «I met the cardinal eleven years ago. He was in Italy for the African Synod, and when I told him of the reception that our community gives to young children without family, his frankness struck me immediately. “But how many children?” he asked, and almost embarrassed me. At the time we housed a few dozen of them, and we were still not in Africa. “Some few”, I replied. “My friend, when I was parish priest I took in young boys, and afterwards asked Congolese mothers to take care of them and adopt them. Today I have hundreds of these children”. Our friendship began there and then, because he wanted to invite us to Kinshasa immediately, and I went immediately, on the occasion of Don Raffaele’s first mass. “Look”, the cardinal explained to me, “here in the capital city alone there are more than 23 thousand young boys abandoned”, and he told me for the first time of a generation that had known only the street, where young girls of 12, 13 or 14 give birth on the sidewalks. These enfants de la rue, some two or three years old, wander around all by themselves rooting about in the garbage, and it is calculated that up to a hundred of them die every day of hunger and sickness. Etsou had the gift of being liked, and there in the diocese I saw him show all his spontaneity and affection toward those little ones, which they returned and joyously called him: Coco! - granddad! To us of the “Love and Freedom” Community he assigned some diocesan land on the outskirts of the capital city, in the district of Masina, on the edge of the airport. Where there was literally nothing, no infrastructure, only fertile land, and there he also established a branch of the local parish, given that tens of thousands of migrants from the rural areas were then without a church. “So, if you want to work with the poorest...”, I remember Etsou commented, “here there’s nothing, only the street children”. And he knew well that since it was an area of new immigration, if children misfortunately happened to be left orphans, they would indeed have no help at all because the immigrants of Masina had left behind in their places of origin their tribal and family ties, the nuclei of Congolese society. In short, it would be up to the mercy of the Lord, through us». So, in that sandy corner of the land, the community of Don Matteo set up a family, built it a house, a school, a church, and a noisy playground with few swings and little billiard tables assaulted by small enthusiastic guests.
«At the beginning of our missionary work auxiliary bishops still didn’t exist in Kinshasa, our relations were only with Etsou», Don Matteo resumes, «and given the closeness of our land to the road for the airport and his house, the cardinal ended up by coming often and gladly to visit us, without forewarning. He didn’t want to check up on us, on the contrary he protected us as his own creation, that he had brought to Kinshasa, and he confessed to being struck by the fact that – different from the adoptions he had gone in for when he was parish priest – we kept the little ones at home: “How lovely to live all day with the children!”, he said. He liked to stay and eat with us, and rest days – that for the local priests fall on Monday – he sometimes came wearing African dress. It was marvelous for him to be received by the children who ran to him wanting to be blessed and cuddled. He was happy».
When Don Matteo decided that it was time to build a school in the mission, Cardinal Etsou, consulted as always at each phase of the life of the Community, gave his opinion: «These sons of the poor have the right to study». «He lit up every time we talked about being able to send some of the boys to university one day», Don Matteo recalls. «Today our school has six hundred pupils, we have arrived at the second class of the high school, and each year we open up two new classes». Don Raffaele, who is Congolese, remembers more of the words spent by his old bishop on the young Congolese. «After the great Cardinal Malula, we Congolese have had the fortune of having Cardinal Etsou. Two words were never missing in his homilies: the poor, the young. It was in his nature to bring clarity, and he always spoke to protect people. As a pastor he wasn’t afraid, for example, of asking that the recent political elections, so important for us Congolese, should not be to the profit of the usual few but be such that the voters could appoint people who could change the country. And you know how many tragedies we have gone through in the last decades. Etsou said simple things when nobody else was saying them out of fear. With us of the Community he always insisted: “Give particular attention to life together, because in that lies your, our possibility of giving witness to the boys as to the parishioners, whom you’re looking after”. He was present, concerned. He brought in the entire Congolese Church to share in the education of the children, because he wanted schools to be built, desks bought where they lacked, and when the state doddered and no longer paid the teachers’ salary, he asked Congolese families to provide financially for the schools to continue».
The children of the “Love and Freedom” Community in Kinshasa

The children of the “Love and Freedom” Community in Kinshasa

Who knows how the cardinal, who had the children so much at heart, found time to teach catechism on the different occasions. «He prepared his presentation well», Don Matteo explains, «and came to the masses with the homily already written, in French, the official language as is Congolese practice. Just that here many hadn’t studied, and so, at a certain point, he would stop reading from the paper and began to preach in lingala, the local lingua franca, so that everybody could understand». «And then», adds Don Raffaele, «when there were many children in church, seeing that at a certain point they became distracted and weren’t following the homily anymore he’d begin singing from the pulpit on the subject he was dealing with and the children would wake up! Then he explained: “We have sung this song, which means...”, and he’d comment on the text and repeated the song again, and then go back to the main topic, this time followed by all the children, and also by the adults present who had a bit of a struggle concentrating... The cardinal was also a musician, he wrote liturgical passages. He loved some songs more than others. One in particular, composed by himself for funerals, he always sang it, and was moved by it, because he was a pastor of great humanity. This song is called Liwua, death, but the words say: “Death is not the end”. He sang it and wept. He was close to his people. The Congolese Church will remember him for this».
Don Matteo is now busy with “Kimpoco”, the farm he wants to start up to provide work in the future for these children and young boys to whom he is father today. Acres and acres to fence, reclaim, cultivate, with a house for the young people (who already live there) and for future guests, many of whom he hopes will come to see, help, wish well to this work.
Do you miss Cardinal Etsou, Don Matteo? «The last time I met him was as always a Monday, the day off. He had returned to Kinshasa after six months treatment in Europe. They called me to say that the cardinal was there and I immediately ran to greet him. His health was not good by then. “In this last period we haven’t seen each other...”, he said. “I’m on my way home , and naturally I had to come by here to you, Don Matteo...”. Yes, I miss him, we miss him. Now however he helps us in his repose. Death is not the end».

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