Thursday 23 Mar 2023

Pilar Society’s challenging mission in an Islamic country

Pilar Society’s challenging mission in an Islamic country

The mission of the Society of the Missionaries of St Francis Xavier (Society of Pilar) in Mauritania, a totally Islamic country in North West Africa, was launched in January 2017.

Fr Vincent Lobo SFX and I, both belonging to the Province of Delhi of Pilar Society, were posted by Bishop Martin Happe, the Bishop of Nouakchott Diocese, in the beautiful town of Kaedi, bordering the Senegal River which divides the countries of Mauritania and Senegal. The town Kaedi lies in the Gorgol region which is one of the few areas of settled agriculture in the country.

The town has the presence of the ethnic people ‘White Moors’ and ‘Black Moors’ as well as the Pulaar and Soninke ethnic communities. It is known as a market town, a medical centre and a hub for local farmers. The market reflects the sub-Saharan culture of neighbouring Senegal somewhat more than the Moorish-Arabic culture found further north in the country.

Most of the architecture consists of brown flat-roofed buildings, surrounded by ‘Dutch brick’ enclosures. The exception is the unusual architecture of Kaedi Regional Hospital, which was constructed in 1989 and features multiple beehive-style domes. Kaedi, like many cities along the Senegal River, was deeply affected by the ethnic strife of 1989 and is yet to recover economically.

There are numerous primary and secondary schools, but sadly the educational system and the infrastructure are in bad shape. Arabic is the medium of instruction at the fundamental level and French at the higher level. The youth who consist a large part of the population, migrate to Nouakchott, the capital city for higher education and better prospects. These peace-loving and hospitable people live in a calm and quiet neighbourhood. These friendly and warm-natured people greet everyone including strangers and non-Mauritanians saying “As-salaam Alaikum.”

Most people are poor and depend on seasonal agriculture, daily wages and rearing sheep, goats and camels. The Mauritanians love to watch Bollywood films and Hindi serials. Many, young as well as old, take pleasure in humming the latest chartbusters. Watching Hindi films regularly opens to them the vistas of Indian music, dance, culture, customs and traditions. The names of celebrities such as Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra are on the tip of their tongues.

As soon as we settled at our residence in January 2017, we visited Binou Choukere, a regular visitor at our mission library ‘Bibliotheque du Fleuve.’ Binou served us three cups of mint tea which we accepted – ignorant of its symbolism, till I came across the excellent book: ‘Three Cups of Tea,’ by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. The book narrates the account of Greg, an American mountaineer who drifted into the house of Haji Ali, the chief of an impoverished Pakistani village Korphe, in the Karakoram Mountains, after a failed attempt to climb Mount K2, the second highest mountain peak in the world. Haji Ali offered him three cups of tea and then explained to Greg its significance, quoting, “Here (in Pakistan and Afghanistan) we drink three cups of tea to do business: the first, you are a stranger; the second, you become a friend; and the third, you join our family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything - even die.” The tradition of offering three cups of tea has reached North African countries of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco etc. as well as the North-Western African country of Mauritania. That evening in that Muslim family of Binou, we felt at home, away from our home and beloved near and dear ones in India.

The Pilar Fathers have been serving in this mission since January 2017 and have captured the hearts of the children and young students of the neighbouring schools. The youth visit the mission library for spoken English courses, to surf the internet, read books, study and refer to encyclopaedias and dictionaries. Every afternoon, the kids, full of smiles on their faces, knock at the doors of the presbytery and demand to be taught English. The youngsters come in later in the evening for the same as they are ambitious about going to the USA, Canada or Australia to improve their financial status.

It was an edifying experience to celebrate the Eucharist in French for the FMM Sisters at Kaedi and Tufunde Cive (80 km from Kaedi). Albert, the only lay Catholic resident hailing from Mali, used to bring joy to the small Catholic Community of nuns and priests living amidst Muslims. The strong and bonded community life is the joie-de-vivre of these African religious.

Now, the mission at Kaedi is manned by Fr Andy Gomes from Margao of Mumbai Province and Fr Rex Fernandes from Cortalim of Kolkata Province, as Fr Vincent has gone to Senegal to serve in the mission at Saly of Dakar Archdiocese. Fr Presley Colaco of Kolkata Province from Raia is his companion at the mission station of Saly.

The mission at Kaedi provides opportunities for inter-faith dialogue, to give witness to Christ through the Apostolate of Presence and to impart Gospel values by interacting with the children, youth and elderly. This challenging mission station of Kaedi is a gateway that will widen the horizons for the Society of Pilar in the African continent as the Society has already extended its mission in the neighbouring country Senegal in 2020.

[The writer was formerly based in the Pilar Mission at Mauritania]

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