On the afternoon of Tuesday 31 January, Pope Francis arrived in Kinshasa for the start of a 4-day visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR) and South Sudan. Catholics make up around half the population of each country. The Church also owns and runs an extensive network of hospitals, schools and clinics in DR Congo. He had to wait a year for this trip which was originally scheduled for the middle of 2022 but was postponed due to his knee problems.
During the visit to countries struggling with poverty, conflict and natural disaster, Francis wants to bring a message of hope and peace. Due to the fragile security situation in the DCR he will remain in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa. The Minister of Communication and Media, Patrick Muyaya declared February 1 a public holiday in the city to allow Catholics to attend a Mass led by Pope Francis at Ndolo Airport.
On the plane the pontiff told reporters, “I actually wanted to go to Goma too, but because of the war I can’t.” Goma lies in eastern Congo, near the border with Rwanda where violence has recently escalated. Rebels regularly carry out bloody attacks there.
The Scramble for Africa
The recent history of DCR has been one of civil war and corruption. Although rich in natural resources it has suffered from political instability, a lack of infrastructure and centuries of commercial exploitation and little widespread development since independence. Its sufferings as a result of colonialism are almost too terrible to contemplate.
lt was not until well into the nineteenth century that Europeans knew much about the interior of Africa. Various circumstances made it easier at that time to explore, trade and even live in Africa. Many of the early explorers had hoped to Christianise the Africans. Other humanitarians were concerned about the slave trade being conducted by the Arabs in the east.
However, for the most part the Europeans who went to Africa in the nineteenth century were prompted neither by missionary nor humanitarian zeal; their motives were economic. In earlier centuries ivory, gold, slaves, and spices had been the lure of traders. In the later nineteenth they sought more mundane goods – palm oil, cotton, and rubber.
The scramble for Africa in the last years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century sprang largely from Germany’s sudden entry into the colonial arena.
Hell on Earth in Congo
Between 1884 and 1885 there were a series of negotiations between European powers to formalise claims to territory in Africa. It culminated in the Berlin Conference. During these discussions (from which African stakeholders were excluded) King of the Belgians, Leopold II obtained international legitimacy for the ownership of the lands of the Congo. On February 5, 1885, he established the Congo Free State which was 80 times the size of his Kingdom of Belgium. Until his death in 1909 he never set foot in ‘his’ colony.
His reign over the people has become infamous for its shocking brutality. It is estimated that about half of the then 20 million inhabitants of Congo lost their lives due to the conditions people had to endure to extract raw materials, mainly rubber. Severed hands became the horrific symbol of the colonial state where officials brutally maimed those failing to deliver harvest quotas. This included little children. Forced labour, rape, corporal punishments, kidnapping and slaughtering of rebellious villagers were among other atrocities recorded during this period.
Missionary, John Harris of Beringa was so shocked by what he had encountered that he wrote to Leopold’s chief agent in Congo, saying, “I have just returned from a journey inland to the village of Insongo Mboyo. The abject misery and utter abandon is positively indescribable. I was so moved, Your Excellency, by the people’s stories that I took the liberty of promising them that in future you will only kill them for crimes they commit.”
The apostolic Nuncio, Ettore Balestro said that the pope’s presence is a great consolation for Congo, “because it is a country that is suffering, it is the victim of so much violence and now, for at least 3-4 days, it feels the Pope is pouring ointment, balm on its wounds that are unfortunately very deep.”
“There is also- -and this fills me with joy – a Catholic community that really wants to give space to God in its life, but that needs to receive from the pope a spur to avoid a dichotomy between proclaimed faith and lived life.” He continued.
Pope Francis’ visit, he said, “can be, indeed will be, a milestone to receive guidelines to evangelise better and deeper.”