Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga tours his war-torn country, the Central African Republic, where some young people find it difficult to lay down their weapons and find their way back to school for education. On his travels to the ‘margins’, which are particularly close to the heart of Pope Francis, the cardinal feels the pulse of an abandoned population. During his visit to the headquarters of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) he spoke about the situation in his country and the need for education of young people.
Do you believe that the Central African Republic has overcome the terrible years of the civil war?
The current government is no longer threatened; the fear of a military coup which existed in 2020 is no longer present. However, our society has terrible wounds and needs rebuilding.
How do you see the situation in your country?
I travel through the country to places where there is not a single official to be seen. The roads were already bad before the civil war, but now they are impassable. There are armed bands on the streets, which seriously obstruct traffic and can be dangerous, but I trust in the Baraka (an Arabic word for heavenly blessing) and up until now it has not left me in the lurch. On my travels again and again I see abandoned village communities. These people feel that nobody cares about them. They die like animals, without even a health centre. They must be reminded that they are children of God. Therefore, I take off my cardinal’s robe, make myself small, travel through the land and say to them: “Even if people have forgotten you, God has not forgotten you.”
In one village, during the confirmation of a young man called François, I was surprised that people were celebrating him in a special way and making a big thing of him. People explained to me that he was the village catechist. It was he who was keeping faith alive in this community which for a long time had been without a visiting priest. And he wasn’t even confirmed yet.
How do you explain such a neglect of the population?
In defence of the government, it must be said that our country is as big as France and that it is difficult to control such an area. Apart from that, there are still areas which are controlled by the rebels.
I recently visited Ouadda, a small town in the north-east of the country. People gave me a very friendly welcome and even organised a party for me. They were happy because they realised that they hadn’t been abandoned, and because while I was there, they didn’t have to observe the curfew imposed by the rebels. When I wanted to travel on, one of the local young leaders of the rebels blocked the way and said I couldn’t continue.
On the same evening the parishioners prayed for us; the mayor, the pastors and the Imams came to stand up for me. The next day, when I told the local rebel leader that I wanted to go, he at first blocked my way. But then ten minutes later he said I could go. Even though I was relieved, I rebuked him: I reminded him that he was a leader, that his word counted and that therefore he couldn’t just say anything. I was taken to his superior and there he suddenly became like a small child that has been caught doing something. There are many people like that here. They have no formation, so they make up for it with muscles.
You strongly emphasise the importance of education. Why is it so important in your country?
In central Africa we have such a young population! So many young people. However, during the unstable years since 2013 they have not been going to school, and even now school education is very patchy. Teachers often do not want to go into the remote districts, because they are afraid of the rebels. Another problem is that they are badly paid.
Those who really get paid are the military because they have Kalashnikovs, and you don’t want to get onto bad terms with them. Teachers, on the other hand, only have chalk. So they often get their salaries late. Teachers who live far from the big cities have to undertake long and dangerous journeys to collect their salary, because there are no local banks. Some have to spend two-thirds of their salary on the motorbike taxi. And the journey lasts up to two weeks, so that their classes can only get taught for half of the month.
And I am only speaking here of properly employed teachers who get a salary from the state. As there are far too few of them, parents are locally recruited and trained to take over the lessons. These only earn what the parents of the pupils want to give them. And that leads to unfair treatment of the children, as paying parents expect that their children get good marks in return.
We also lack buildings. Many schools have been burned down and lots of lessons take place under a mango tree. The whole class must move around with the sun. When there is too much wind or rain, there are no more classes. Those are the normal conditions of learning.
Are you therefore seeing a decline in the level of education?
Of course. I’ll give an example from this year. For the uptake of a junior seminary only 20 out of 200 young people had the required level, and in a seminary only 4 of the 23 applicants were accepted! Many children who in their school get a score of around 13 out of 20, in a Catholic school, where there is no favouritism or nepotism, get a much lower score for the same piece of work.
What can the Church do when faced with a situation on this scale?
We help where we can. One of my highly qualified priests gives free lessons to help those who want to enter the seminary.
Education is decisive, because in the end it determines the presence of seminarians, parish leaders and whole leadership of our society….and not to forget the catechists. They are so important, to keep alive the flame of faith in our villages.
And the question of the education of girls is particularly close to our hearts. I saw in villages pregnant girls as young as eleven-years-old who had been raped by armed young men and had no more chance of studying. I was horrified. So I confided myself to providence. In my homilies I pointed to this catastrophe and asked if there were people who could help me to take the girls out of this situation. And I was heard: a donor from Cameroon helped us with everything: study, accommodation…30 girls were sent to Cameroon. None of them has disappointed us. We have medical students, engineers. They rose to the challenge!
ACN has funded 175 projects in the Central African Republic over the last five years in nine different dioceses, including almost 40 in the Diocese of Bangui. During 2023, ACN has supported formation, transportation, and renovation projects in the diocese.