Heartbreak and Heroism in Congo: An Interview with Father Albert Shuyaka
WASHINGTON, D.C., February 23 (C-Fam) Soldiers fleeing the war in Eastern Congo flooded Father Albert Shuyaka’s home town when he was young, killing his people, raping women and girls, and forcing him to carry heavy loads of ammunition for many miles. After watching his friends’ murders, he escaped and went into hiding. He discovered his vocation to the priesthood during his successful struggle to forgive the perpetrators. He found a deep desire to help other young men forgive and avoid more bloodshed.
The war in the Democratic Republic the Congo has raged for two decades, even beyond formal ceasefires, and killed six million people. With little to no funding, Fr. Albert keeps hope alive helping his flock rebuild their lives and their villages.
“To be a priest in Congo today,” Father Albert says, “is to be a midwife, an undertaker, a doctor and nurse, a mechanic, and a spiritual leader all at the same time.” That is because the government does nothing for the people, but “torture and loot their scarce belongings.” It is the Church that is building bridges and healing the sick, “just like the Middle Ages,” as Father Albert puts it.
When the diocese’s funding from the International Monetary Fund dried up, people no longer received even basic medicines. HIVAIDs, manageable elsewhere, is a death sentence in Tshumbe. Women routinely die giving birth. Fr. Albert said he watched his own four year-old nephew die of malaria.
“It breaks my heart to stand powerless with a woman who is watching the slow death of her child because there are no pills,” he said.
Heartbreak lives beside heroism in Tshumbe.
At the Marie-Catherine Center Fr. Albert works with Catherine Takotshe teaching 35 to 50 teen mothers at a time that “they are still important to society.” The center offers sewing skills and supports their children so they can stay in school. Some they help to enter professional fields like nursing. He hopes to buy a few sewing machines and some goats to help “empower” the young women to become responsible members of the community.
Too many children stay out of school because their parents cannot afford it. So, Father Albert built a school, and says they get a good education at a low cost, or even for free if the parents are very poor. “I pay special attention to girls since they tend to get left out and get married at a very early age,” he says.
He wants to expand the school so children can go full time rather than share the classroom for half-days. To scale up for 600-800 students he needs to raise half the sum necessary, about $13,000. A private benefactor has offered to match the rest of the funds.
In a ravaged country, a school is a game changer. People suffer from psycho-social as well as physical traumas and his school gives lifesaving learning in peace, social skills, and caring for one’s self and one’s village.
With the election of a new administration in the United States, there was hope that faith-based groups in places like Tshumbe would receive funding that was diverted to big population groups in the past. USAID officials told the Friday Fax that they’d like to find groups like Father Albert’s but it’s like a needle in the haystacks of the developing world and they need help contacting them.
“The biggest misfortune,” Father Albert says, “Is that many agencies want to work through the government, and the government does not work for its people.” Most of the agencies he has called for help will only work through the government.
He says rebuilding life in Congo seems like “mission impossible,” but he remains confident. “Even a little bit of funding will save lives and change the fabric of the society. When we touch one sector of life, we change the whole society. Healthy people bring more able bodies to farming, bringing more food, and fewer children dying of malnutrition.”
Mother Teresa used to say that the poor are a great gift to the rest of us. Similarly, Fr. Albert finds the Church’s season of penance during Lent as “a golden opportunity to use the result of self-denial to profit someone who otherwise would not go to school, would lose a child, or would not have clothes.”
This week a UN spokesman in Tanganyika, east of Tshumbe, said the country is facing a new “humanitarian tragedy of extraordinary proportions.” Father says he hopes the news will prompt those who read about his story to pray for the Congolese people. “The poor people of the villages of Tshumbe have told me to ‘tell people about our fate.’”