Monasao (Agenzia Fides) - "They know all the seasons well, and at every time of the year they know what the forest can give". "They" are the Bayaka Pygmies who live in the Monasao mission, in the Catholic diocese of Berberati, in the extreme south-west of the Central African Republic. Father Michele Farina, a Fidei donum priest from the diocese of Savona, works together with the fathers of the Society of African Missions (SMA). He can thus tell, as a privileged witness, the light and dark sides of life and local developments. Arriving in Central Africa in 2022, after living in Cuba for eight years, Father Farina realized that as the Pygmies integrate with other groups and ethnic groups in South Africa, they risk losing their identity. The process of integration and overcoming isolation carries the risk that the indigenous people and their culture will die out. Faced with this scenario, the missionary warns, "our commitment is also to protect and preserve this group, its culture, its traditions. This is a numerically small, but important reality not only for this country, but also for this part of Africa".
"The Pygmies", continues Father Farina, "first voted only 20 years ago with the help of local missionaries". By voting, the missionary said "they made their voices heard on the situation of their country".
The challenge of helping to preserve Pygmy identity and culture is not limited to abstract declarations and theoretical struggles in the Mission. It shows itself in the works and gestures that characterize and fill the daily missionary life. "In Monasao", Father Farina told Fides, "we carry out parish activities with prayer groups, with young people, with many children, with catechumens and young children preparing for the sacraments. In Central Africa there are different groups and movements, the parishes like those supporting ours in Monasao and the surrounding villages. Of fundamental importance is the presence of catechists, who are the reference point of the community and who accompany the work of the priests, who cannot always be present on site, especially on Sundays for celebrations".
The mission of the SMA missionaries in this region is carried out concretely in four parishes. The Parish of Monasao, where Father Farina also works together with Father Davide Camorani, includes four other villages in its territory.
The mission among the Bayaca Pygmies began 48 years ago, thanks to a French missionary, Father Renè Ripoche, and a group of Pygmies who decided to transition from a semi-nomadic life in the rainforest to a more sedentary life in a village. The location was chosen because there was a water source there. Over time, both the village and the mission grew, and other missionaries followed. Today, around 6,000 people live in Monasao, half of them Pygmies and half non-Pygmies.
The apostolic work of the missionaries is also reflected in social projects for the benefit of all. Father Farina says: "We are involved in a school for Pygmy children from 6 to 8 years of age, which mainly serves to facilitate their integration into the public school together with others. In the school there are four local teachers and four cooks who are also predominantly Pygmies".
The other project the missionaries are involved in is a health center, a small hospital in the mission set up by the missionaries, where dozens of people from other villages come every day to be treated or vaccinated. Six Pygmies work at the clinic in Monasao with Father Davide, a male nurse, who runs the infirmary. The coexistence of Pygmies and Central Africans is not full of conflict, but it is not easy either, explains Father Farina. The Pygmies "are a rather submissive people, not used to living in a village with its own dynamics. For this reason, unfortunately, they are often treated as a kind of cheap labor. They remain very submissive. They are used to living in poverty, living off most of what the forest, which is their main habitat, provides them. They mainly live from hunting and agriculture. In the last decades they have learned to live in the village and in the village community to live with other people who do not belong to their ethnic group.
With regard to World Youth Day, which will take place in Lisbon at the beginning of August, Father Michele explains that until now it has been impossible to introduce the initiative for young people in their mission. "It is something that unfortunately is still far from the possibilities of the Central Africans and even more so of the Pygmies. During my recent stay in Italy, I spoke to my diocese in Savona about it. My dream would be to be able to take young pygmies to the next World Youth Day so that some of them can have this experience and to bring them back to their parish. This time, during the days of WYD in Lisbon, with the news that we can collect that is not easy to find, we will try to propose somewhat parallel initiatives".
As for the political, social and economic instability that characterizes life in the Central African Republic, the people of Monasao feel the effects of this situation without being informed about the causes. "Many things are not known until long after they have happened", the missionary said, "of many other things and events one does not learn at all. But among the effects of the turmoil and instability is the lack of jobs and schools with adequate
teaching. In everyday life our area is relatively peaceful, we are near the border with Cameroon and Congo, in an area not crossed by major roads and communication routes. In this area there are no rebel groups made up of Central Africans and non-Central Africans who clash with the Wagner mercenaries present in Central Africa, wanted by the current President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. In this remote region, far from the capital, some 450 kilometers of rough roads, we live in the sign of 'calm' of the nearby rainforest. It takes us 12 to 14 hours to get to Bangui. We are also 150 km from the seat of our diocese, Berberati, in the west of the country".
In addition to Monasao, the territory of the parish includes the four villages of Kanza, Kounda Papaye (mainly inhabited by Bayaka pygmies), Beya and Salo (with a mixed population).
The Pygmies, who are predominantly Catholic, also maintain tribal ritual traditions with dances and songs
linked to daily life and characterized by a strong bond with the forest, which in turn is expressed through the dances and songs. Muslims are few in number among Central Africans, while many belong to new communities with an evangelical background. (MF/AP) (Agenzia Fides, 15/7/2023)