Sister Marie-Gertrude is the only black nun from Kolwezi in a French-run Franciscan convent in Zaire (now once again the Democratic Republic of Congo). The time period is that of the May 1978 uprisings in Shaba after independence. The slender novel consists of entries in her journal dated from 28 May to 29 June during a particularly violent period in the region that closely resembles the beginnings of a civil war. Although the setting and the existence of numerous convents and monasteries established by the French are historically accurate, the journal is fictional.
June 5th “I am the way . . .” Father Marc has picked up a classic theme. The awaited links between the way and the truth. A fold. At least he has the delicacy to go over them as if they weren’t obvious: “Life is not always given to us as a gift but as a call to growth. The road we take is imposed upon us by nobody. The truth is equal to our choices and our freedom.” What to say? I’ve abandoned this luxury of wanting to base my vocation on such vague concepts as liberty. All these metaphors that have been wrought by centuries of theology and philosophy don’t speak to me sufficiently. As an intellectual I am a sham.
I’ve learned to stick to reality. The chosen way reflected the truth. A truth, to be more precise. I accepted it as a sign and an attraction. It fulfilled me. Yes, of course, it took a little time to understand that for some of my religious peers I was merely an exotic pretext. I would reconcile their generosities with the Church’s demand for universality. The little Negress of the group . . . Still, I don’t think God entertains himself by playing checkers.
In his last instruction this afternoon, Father Marc came back to the essential paradigm of our faith: “He is Love . . .” He is the source of life and thus the symbol of our permanence and the continuity of all hope. I had expected the usual expressions: He has chosen us and we are responsible for his reign. Apparently from another age, this Benedictine surprised me once again. Sure, he picked up on an accustomed framework by insisting on the symbolism of a verse from Isaiah: “You are mine, I have called you by your name for all eternity.” The classic theme being wrapped up in words. And then came the surprise. In his dry voice Father Marc stood up to us: “Yes, certainly, we are the fruit of God’s obsession, but He does not need us at all, not a single one of us. We follow Him, we celebrate Him because we must in order to survive and to make sense. Our love for Him, like our generosity in His name, are only indications of our hunger and our lack. It is greed for our own happiness.” On the whole, as I heard him, I thought that my gestures and prayers through all these years were only scattered accidents responding to my own connivances. I tolerate myself and invent a meaning for myself. God probably does watch me, but from the other side of a pane of glass upon which my dreams and my own density are superimposed. “He does not need me at all.” I contain myself, surrender myself to His power. To live, contemplative, in His service as I have done, would simply be a walk on the other side of my greed! He also said: “Let us find ourselves capable of eluding God and his images so that we may be able to deserve merging with Him.” The allusion comes from mysticism. It opened not one door in me. I remained, as I still am, tethered to the perception of my own uselessness.
Long after the instruction I moved forward to the altar. Some sisters were still praying in the chapel. I dropped down on my knees before the statue of the Sacred Heart. Lightning struck. Jesus had the face of Father Marc. The same short hair, a small curly beard, and a fixed and empty gaze. Yes, it’s true, I am incapable of long meditations. I wanted to pray. It was worse. I was contemplating my own desire. It had the face of Father Marc. I understood to what extent I allowed myself to be carried away by the length of time words last. Jesus, in solid stone, seemed to me to be a partition of another world: His realm was very obviously that of an impossible exploration. I was a ridiculous sleepwalker, fascinated by a certain silence.
In the quiet of my room, I tackle the problem again, in vain; all I find is the line of my inauthenticity as a sin. My Lord and Master stands confirmed as a necessity. I need Him. I resist. Why should I have to lean on the dusk so that I can love Him? As the day falls, actually, into the vagueness of the rising night, his traits have vanished and I thought I recognized the object of my love in the shadow surrounded by candles. He was of no race. A dry look, my thoughts clear and my heart sputtering, I thought I encountered my own love for Him. He was my significance and my body trembled. This evening I question my emotion. It feels all too much like a monstrous sin. I’m ashamed of it, as a woman and as a nun. Of course, I will have to go to confession. But will Father Gasemans be able to understand me?
June 6th Sister Marie-Andrée died this morning. It must all have happened quietly and in less than an hour. In any case, that’s my feeling. She wasn’t there at morning prayers. One of our Sisters went up to her room before mass. The priest was going up to the altar when the bells began to sound the dry, short rings for the dying. A window opened, all in sad light. We were reciting the Kyrie. I was confessing my sins. The Gloria came, the Epistle followed, and then the Gospel. The priest did not preach. The miracle was happening. “This is my body . . . This is my blood.” The sounds of the bells continued with regular intervals. Mother Laetitia, her face pale, left the chapel just before the Pater Noster. And still the bells were marking the spasms of a departure. They stopped brusquely at the moment the priest was intoning the Agnus Dei: “Lamb of God who takest away the sins of this world, have mercy on us . . .” A destiny had found its closure. The stained-glass windows were reflecting the day. The world was turning. Life went on. The priest came away from the altar. Mother Laetitia, back again, was intoning the De Profundis, her face solemn. A mourning period had begun. If that’s what it can be called, this cold ceremony around the death of a member of the community.
I was able to attend to my usual tasks, as always. After Catechism, I participated in the wake. An opportunity for meditation upon my own human condition. I thought: there it is, my body growing heavy, and from one month to the next I live through my monthly ordeal like a painful ritual. I pray for my liberation. Which, in fact, comes down to a mortal wish: to grow old as quickly as possible so that I can find it back again, the carelessness of my body as it was in childhood. In a certain way, yes, I am lying to myself. But the call of death seems here to correspond to an ascent toward a purification. Blood belongs to my everyday life and I’ve learned to live with it. As it comes flowing out each month, my own blood brings with it metaphors that I have learned. They resound like insults. Such as: “I’m bleeding like a slaughtered pig.”
Sister Marie-Andrée signifies the paradox of my plan. To die peacefully, as she has, smacks of an easy out. Yet, it is beautiful by its very discreetness. I come from a background in which death, in and of itself, is a catastrophe. By braving it we try to ward it off. The cries and sobs during the period of mourning create all the fuss around every departure, and the death which in itself marks the continuity of life, is celebrated in the form of doubt: the women in the family and of the community weep and, in the name of the very same symbol, the men drink and laugh. Memories of my adolescence come surging up. They all touch on this paradox.
Is it the violence of this symptom that explains my life? The past! Ah no, that past is no longer mine. And, yet, yes it still is. The shamelessness of the hired mourners, hired to weep, packed like flies in the space of one room around a dead person. And outside the freedom and the joking of the men. Two sides of life, in short. But in reality that division never pleased me. Moreover, the silence and the flowers around our Sister Marie-Andrée make my blood run cold. During the wake I was restless and kept shivering at regular intervals: do the dead spy on the living? The least little sound actually was giving free rein to a feeling of panic. Or simply an ancient wound. And so, for a moment, the purity of her habit brought back a memory from long ago. It was toward the end of my novitiate. I had gone to confession to Sister Marie-Andrée. “The launderers aren’t doing a very good job. My sheets, for example . . .” She silenced me with just one sentence: “But, my dear Sister, you ought to be happy that you have sheets with which to cover yourself . . .” I tried to understand the meaning of her reaction: was she asking me to practice greater humility or was she reminding me of the poverty of my own people?
Here she was. Our last meeting alone together. The turbulence of the past could no longer be applied to the metaphors of our shared hopes. Her face had taken on the shape of peace. I will not see her sewing her stitches any more. Her closed eyes had probably opened onto another universe already. Her wrinkles were softening. Her chin had sagged a little. A spirit had left the bark of a tree. It was then that I embarked upon my own tour of these ravages . . .
Choosing to live in a community of women only, watching yourself beginning to age and growing old, and finally dying far away from home. A beach was stretching out . . . Marie-Andrée at the far end of it. She’s coming out of the sea and I’m coming from the opposite direction, out of the woods. Two small shadows fighting against sand and wind . . . We approach each other and our silhouettes become sharper and recognize each other: two women meeting. She says to me: “I hadn’t thought of you as black.” I answer her: “I didn’t think you were so old.” We laugh. She introduces me to the anguish of the Garden of Delights. I find myself intrigued and worried: what am I going to offer this woman who has come here from the north? Then, as today, I see myself without any gift she might be able to accept . . . And I got up and slowly, because I was miserable, I offered her myself. I bent down over her and kissed her at length on her forehead. It’s cold. Despite the effort of creams, my lips encountered the hard work age had done. Without a sense of shame for the first time since I’ve known her, I inscribed her in the code of my heart: “My aged sister, my friend from across the sea, come and let us walk together to our Beloved . . .”
The flowers, the wreaths around Sister Marie-Andrée became voices. Her face seemed to me to have taken on a new beauty. I was dreaming, no doubt. I envied her. She had joined the Spouse. And I murmured: “Come, please come, Bride of Christ . . .”
Veni, sponsa Christi, accipe coronam, quam tibi Dominus praeparavit in aeternum.
June 7th The desperate will to live. That is the only way to describe Jacqueline’s strength. Her parents seem to be waiting for an impossible miracle. The doctors can’t understand her resistance at all. I made fun of the doctor and told him that faith in life holds secrets unknown to medicine. He looked at me as if I’d said something absurd. Jacqueline is the embodiment of strength and joy of life, despite her tubes. I understood to what I could link the symbol of the Mother of Joy whom I invoke every day. We had a good talk. That little bit of womanhood taught me an important lesson. It all began by accident. At a given moment, I wanted to fill the silence and asked her, forcing a smile on my lips:
“You’re not frightened of dying, are you, Jacqueline?”
She seemed to relax. Her laughter shook the tubes.
“But I have to die . . . We all have to die . . . What’s so abnormal about that? God loves me, that’s why . . .”
She looked at me, seemed amused. I understood. The phrase belongs to my stockpile. What to say to her next that doesn’t sound completely trivial? I was cornered and offered her my helplessness:
“You know, my little Jackie, I’m not sure that I understand the love of God . . .”
She smiled sadly, then said in a cold voice: “I am the love of God . . .”
She turned over and pulled out one of the tubes. I tried to put it back in, became unnerved and gave up. A nurse came, straightened things out, and I was able to get back to my little Jacqueline. Her eyes filled with tears, her nose stopped up, but her mind clear, she confronted me:
“I’m upset with you, Sister . . . I’m going to die . . . Why are you afraid of my dying when God loves me?”
It was a joke! Images came to my mind: Sister Thérèse of Lisieux . . . More heroically, Saint Agnes . . . No, they weren’t the same age as Jacqueline . . . Yet, age had nothing to do with the strength of this child. The measure of their offering seemed of the same order: “I am the love of God.” I promised myself to mention it to Father Gasemans. Then almost immediately I said to myself this would be investing the memory of the living to my own selfish advantage. I felt guilty. I looked at her. She was staring at me, her eyes wet with tears, and I threw myself at her, took her in my arms and gave strength to her conviction:
“Yes, oh yes, Jacqueline, you are the love of God . . .”
This afternoon, we held Sister Marie-Andrée’s burial. The Monsignor said the funeral mass. Then everything went very rapidly: the coffining, the procession to the cemetery, and the last rites. It is ten in the evening and already it seems as if it all happened a week ago. I don’t recall having shed a single tear.
June 8th Was at the exhibit “Sanga Village, Tenth-Twelfth Centuries” this afternoon, at the Cultural Center of Manika. It’s a beautiful display. The arrangement is excellent: oil containers, very pretty small jars, a series of flasks with human and animal heads, minuscule pottery, jewelry of copper and ivory that came from the tombs. Short and well-organized commentary introduces visitors to the culture and the customs of ancient village in the Sanga region.
Secondary school students accompanied by their teachers file by in front of these objects, in groups. The girls look sweet in their little blue skirts and white blouses. The guide murmurs dates, explains historical periods and the techniques by which the work was done. I left unobtrusively, a few words skipping around in my ears: leg guards, goldsmithing, pendants, clasps, Kisalian . . . They’re beautiful and, with a secret light, they embellish my lack of archeological knowledge.
On my way back I stopped at the chapel. It was deserted. As usual, incapable of concentrating on intense and earnest prayer, I allowed myself to be enveloped by the silence and the darkness. A concession, yet one more concession to my zest for living and feeling. For a few moments I dozed off. And then my eyes opened. The little lamp of the tabernacle came crashing through the night. I was not alone. It was watching over my Faith. It seemed to me that it was taking up all the space of my imagination and my sensitivity. Why this need to intellectualize my prayer at any price? It was enough to mend my ways and to become one with this small trembling flame in this empty chapel . . . I thought that I would suffocate with happiness. At long last one world had welcomed me . . . A beach was pointing me toward hope, but a wall was keeping me separated. I was simply, fully, happy in the patience of the night. Infinitely . . . comfortable in the flickering of a flame. For the first time in my life I thought: yes, the beating of my heart has become perfectly wedded to the rhythm of my blood . . . and I’d like to live this way . . . on the other side of the opposition between what is exterior and what is interior. I understand very well that the dualism of theology makes God into a kind of emergency system against the malignity of nature and the workings of Satan. But it is, alas, also one way of denying his extreme goodness and his all-embodying presence.
June 9th Saw Father Gasemans for spiritual guidance. I shared my experience of yesterday in the chapel with him. He took on that vague and distant look he has on days that I’m in despair . . . Is my appetite good? And am I sleeping well? And my work? How did I react to Sister Marie-Andrée’s death? It began to feel like an interrogation . . . Sad beyond measure, I became depressed about myself and found the spirit of submission once again. He asked me to be wary of the temptation of Mount Tabor . . .
“Remember the apostles and Peter’s vow: ‘Master, let us build three tents . . .'”
My God, what has that to do with my happiness of yesterday? My spirit had melted away in the peace of my body. It was a feast. My confrontation with the frailty of the sign of the Holy Sacrament did not set me on fire. On the contrary. I recognize no penchant whatsoever in myself for flights of mysticism, even less for the spiritual convergence with the deity. Why, then, wouldn’t I accept the circles of my fantasies’ activity if they are able to inscribe me in the expectation of God?
I left him, my nerves on edge. Ran across Sister Veronique, who was coming back from the novices’ quarters.
“We had a bewildering evening. Do you know Proust’s questionnaire? You can’t imagine the answers of those children.”
“Proust’s questionnaire? What questionnaire?”
She gave it to me. I became engrossed in the game and abandoned the idea of starting my reading of La Crise du Muntu by Father Eboussi. Let’s see what answers I’m able to come up with.
What do you regard as the lowest depths of misery?
To deny myself.
Where would you like to live?
Right here, where I am now.
What is your ideal of earthly happiness?
To be a sign of joy.
What faults do you accept with greatest ease?
Those caused by poverty and abject misery.
Who are your favorite fictional heroes?
Samba Diallo in Cheik Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure, and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
Who is your favorite historical figure?
Francis of Assisi.
Who are your favorite heroines in real life?
Mothers of large families.
Who are your favorite fictional heroines?
Who is your favorite painter?
Pili-Pili of the School of Lubumbashi.
Who is your favorite musician?
What is the quality you prefer in men?
What is the quality you prefer in women?
What is the virtue you prefer?
What is your favorite occupation?
Who would you have liked to have been?
What I am.
What is your principal character trait?
What do you appreciate most in your friends?
What is your principal fault?
What is your dream of happiness?
To remain a happy Franciscan.
What would be my your greatest sorrow?
To abjure my Faith.
What would you like to be?
A witness of peace.
What is your favorite color?
What is your favorite flower?
What is your favorite bird?
Not any one in particular, all of them in general.
Who are your favorite prose writers?
Bernanos, Mauriac, Hamidou Kane, and Tolstoy.
Who are your favorite poets?
Paul Claudel, Anna de Noailles, and Leopold Senghor.
Who are your heroes in real life?
Who are your heroines in history?
The great Teresa of Avila, Joan of Arc, and Sister Anwarite.
What are your favorite names?
Anne and Mary.
What do you despise above everything else?
What historical figures do you most scorn?
Several popes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
What is the most admirable military feat?
What is the reform you most admire?
What is the gift of nature you would like to have?
Greater physical resistance.
How would you like to die?
Like Sister Marie-Andrée.
What is your present state of mind?
What is your motto?
“Deus Meus, Pater Meus.”
God, my Father . . . and Master. “I am a jealous God …” My confessor had harshly reminded me of that: “He shows His love by giving Himself to us while He can do without us.” More than other people, I carry the mark of original sin. How can I be worthy of what the ambitiousness of my motto states so that “You will be mine”? You also have had that dreadful phrase: “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” Would I truly be able to do so in my lamentable weakness?
Thought again of my secret sealed in a blue envelope on the eve of my first vows and presented at the offertory the following day during mass: “I have only one life, Lord. I offer it to You. Take it back if ever I should betray You, or should even doubt the grace of serving You and of being Yours only, until the end of my days.” A bit sentimental, all that. But how else could I say it? In any case, I remain true to these words.
I went out on the little balcony of my room. The night enfolded me. Very cool air, almost cold. In the distance, the lights of the city. The sky was very clear, strewn with stars. Yes, I said to myself, that’s it as well, lives full of strength whose vocation lies in the risk of bearing witness to beauty. All of a sudden, Proust’s questionnaire and my responses seemed so laughable. I am so wanting, feel so stripped down in the face of the Lord’s magnificence.
June 10th We woke up in an occupied city. The Katangans are supposed to have surrounded the city during the night. This morning, it was in their hands. Not a single shot was fired. One wonders if the regular army wasn’t waiting for them, ready to hand everything over. At breakfast, the Mother Superior insisted:
“Attend to your work as usual. Insofar as it is possible, go out in groups of three or four. And I want all of you back at Emmaus before nightfall, between five and six o’clock at the latest.”
The streets were crowded as usual. Our teaching sisters took me along in their van and dropped me off at the clinic. We agreed that we’d meet again at the lycée at four o’clock. The line of patients is as long as always.
People’s faces show signs of festivity. Yes, of course, a good many of them are happy to know the army has fled, that sign of a gentle and permanent insecurity, as Sister Marie-Andrée used to call it. I went to put on my nurse’s coat. Jacques welcomes me with a satisfied look.
“Liberation, Sister, it’s our liberation. They packed up without any resistance. Like panicky rats. Those who weren’t able to leave town put on their civvies and have burrowed under.”
How do I tell him he was probably wrong to be rejoicing? He was amused by their cowardice and forgetting to envision the possible retaliation. I was afraid. I am afraid, my God. If the Katangans don’t take Lubumbashi before the end of the week, so they’ll be in a position to negotiate with Kinshasa, we are in for some difficult times.
I wanted to brush my pessimism aside. Move about as much as possible, pretend to be indifferent. I was bustling around, coming and going, watching the eyes of the children, questioning the look in their mothers’ eyes. Jacques was whistling softly behind my back, humming by my side, speaking to the patients of victory. My God, how foolish the good man is! Can’t he keep his joy a secret until he can safely express it? I calculated and was being judgmental, once again.
I was handling one syringe after another. Cotton balls. A persistent smell of alcohol on my hands. A penicillin shot here. A calcium injection there. “Do you give him Nivaquine regularly? No? You really should be doing that, Ma’am. It’s nothing. Just a bout of malaria. Take care of him.” I was massaging a boy’s foot. “Where did you get that awful wound, little guy?” Found my hand on the forehead of a little girl: “How long have you had this fever? I mean, for how many days have you been this hot?”
My fingers were holding the eyelids of another patient apart when Jacques said to me:
“You know, Sister, it’s almost four o’clock.”
I let out a little cry of surprise:
“Lord, I forgot to have lunch.”
He burst out laughing.
“You see, Sister, that’s the spirit of the liberation. You begin to find such pleasure in working that you skip your meals.”
The atmosphere during the communal meal this evening was heavy, painful! Murmurings. Worried eyes, questioning, dodging. Dreadful. My soup had no flavor at all. Nervously I added salt and pepper. When I put the salt and pepper shakers back down, I felt the presence of Sister Veronique. She was almost directly across from me and was looking at me as if I might solve some drama for her. Well, I said to myself, she’s not eating with the novices tonight. Again, as at the clinic, fear rose up in me. I was all flaw. Dizziness was sneaking into my body. The soup was altogether inedible. Vulnerable and alone, I felt my self-assurance become blunted. That is the price one pays for being one of the rare African women in an almost entirely European community. I bear the responsibility of all the follies of my compatriots. And almost never the advantage of their generosities. I look to catch Sister Hyacinthe’s eye, to no avail. Is this affecting her in the same way? She’s at the other end of the table, her head bent low over her plate. She raises it only to hurry into the kitchen. It is a felicitous way of living on the sidelines, in the middle and outside of it, all at the same time. The hierarchic segregation between the nuns and the lay sisters protects her from racial tensions. She bends and vanishes as if she didn’t exist. And one forgets about her in the kitchen. I bend, too, but I have to take a position and recognize myself to be guilty of a collective sin. Today it is only a potential one. What will happen to me, though, tomorrow or the day after when the violence will have exploded?
After supper, I was in the chapel and knelt down in my pew. Bowed down over myself, defeated by shame, I abandoned myself to my tears. Incapable of adoration, I could at least offer my wretchedness and my frustration. The community joined me for Complines. I etched myself into the communal prayer as if into a passion. If only the sincerity of my heart could do justice to my lacunae! I was then, as I am at this very moment, ready to immolate myself just as long as no violence erupts. My lips were trembling as I recited the Salve Regina. That closure spoke to my humiliation. It was an indication of every hope and, for a moment, it was able to make me veer toward trust: “We greet you, oh Queen; oh Mother of our Lord Jesus, our hope goes out toward your heart.”
I tried to continue my reading of Eboussi. My attention was flitting around. In despair I stopped. Decided to do my spiritual reading instead. The first Letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Chapter 13 brought me back to what’s essential: “. . . Charity never faileth . . . believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things . . .” And I began to write down the events of today. A reflexion on my doubts, my fears, and probably on my lies. How then can I obliterate my illusions, the false justifications, and my flight forward in order that in my life love show through?
June llth Jacqueline died this morning. A poor little body surprised in the night. Her face had hardened. Her eyelids had been badly closed. I had the feeling that with her I was losing part of myself. Never before had the idea crossed my mind with such tenacity: Jacqueline could have been my child. She loved me, I loved her, and now she’s been torn away from me.
Strangely, her death is forcing me to examine my own body. When entering the convent, I had thought that I was shedding my feminine nature. Or at least undoing myself of what they told me that consisted of. I chose virginity and chastity as symbols and signs of a destiny. Putting on the habit took me away from the world and offered me another one. The ritual of the mystical wedding kept my heart warm as if it were a sacrament. To be a bride meant to be faithful to the meaning of my vocation and devoted to the services of my order. The commentaries on the eternally feminine, the cult of pleasure, and the celebration of the body in which I was steeped in my literature courses at the university generally left me indifferent. At best, they would illustrate the good reasons for my gift: surrendering the flesh to the efforts of the spirit surely leads to the abundance of generosity.
Thus I found a meaning in following the command of my calling. It reflected that of my spirit and showed me how to scrupulously respect the duties and constraints of my state. And then my mother died. When the shock wore off, I understood my celibacy to be a break in my bloodline. What has tortured me ever since then, in certain moments of loneliness, is not so much the concern with my inability to carve a place for myself into the coming generations as it is a knowledge that I am, by my own choice, responsible for a stopping point. I spoke of it to Father Gasemans. His words were adequate: “It is a price we have to pay for other graces. In your case, it is not an absolute ending. There are still your brothers and your sisters . . .” It was only a question of time. The temptation had come back. Indeed, without knowing it, Jacqueline had stripped me of my protective armor. I wanted to recognize myself in a child’s face that resembled mine, and to find the world’s whole future in its vivacity and freshness. Jacqueline had grown attached to me and, in a motherly way, I was able to watch over her in her death struggle.
Have I found the peace of my novitiate back entirely? I don’t think so. I would rather invest in time’s duration. Every passing day marks me, thank God. With age this inarticulated and offensive dream will vanish by itself. “Your hips are getting heavier, Sister,” the doctor said at my last medical exam. I thought that just as well. This way, in a few years, I’ll be able to break once and for all with the status of fertile woman, forget about the temptation of physical motherhood and, as I promised long ago, to be there only for God so that I may be there for everyone, all the Jacquelines, all the little bodies bubbling with health or curled over in their death struggle. Thank you, Jacqueline, thank you for your love, and thank you for this last lesson of yours.
June 12th We’re getting used to our state of siege. The regular troops are supposedly surrounding Kolwezi. In any case, the Katangan flag flies in front of the big military post. A new administration is being installed, they say. Jacques is visibly flirting with the new masters. Yesterday he didn’t come to the clinic. This afternoon he arrived all excited and confused. His song of liberty strikes me more as a curse. Two deferential and silent policemen were keeping him company. They were wearing light-colored uniforms and shiny boots as if they were coming from a parade. They introduced themselves and told me they were in charge of the district. They took down the names of two severely injured patients. Obviously, these are army men who, after the defeat, are hiding under other identities. Other patients, quietly on line, were observing us carefully. Jacques was on cloud nine, explaining how the clinic functions as if it concerned a hospital complex. The policemen, modest conquerors, left as they had come after assuring me I would have any assistance I might need in the weeks to come.
I let Jacques know of my resentment. We’re in charge of a clinic of the diocese and not of a political post and I intend to keep things dissociated. He looked at me, incredulous, then left the treatment room without a word. In a bad mood, I went back to work. I really do need him.
At four o’clock I went to the funeral mass for little Jacqueline. There weren’t many people in the church. I joined her parents in the front pew and sat down next to the mother. The celebration was like the missed apotheosis. The priest had chosen the liturgy of the Angels. Throughout the ceremony I had the feeling that the signs of joy and the promises of eternity rang false in the surrounding sadness. Moreover, I had unfortunately not managed to rid myself of the afternoon’s tension. Through mortification, I wanted to deprive myself of taking communion. At the last minute Jacqueline’s memory helped me decide. I moved forward toward the priest, took communion, and recovered the simplicity of my conviction: God forgives me, for we all should live by that sign.
When I returned from the cemetery, I tried to continue reading Eboussi. Impossible to concentrate. I gave up and went down to the library to return the book. Too difficult for me. After dinner, conversation in the garden with Sister Veronique. All she had to do was open her mouth to tell me of her fear regarding the reconquest of the city for my tension to come right back again. I listened to her talk. She’s afraid to die. She made me want to laugh. First of all, because I don’t see anyone in this city laying a hand on a white nun. Then, because what she said came as a total surprise: Jacqueline, a child, had told me a few days ago that she was glad to leave this world. And here we were, two adults, busily calming ourselves down about imaginary troubles.
On the other hand, how to remain silent about that which fear opens up? All these wounded people I see parading by all day long! They are victims of a violence for which they know neither motive nor justification. They say that, as it retreated, the official army was shooting at anything that moved. Other tales of horror are making the rounds in the city. Today I was told that this army rabble supposedly mutilated all the adult men in a village of the Luluaba in order to prevent them from joining the Katangans. Why then must the State, from wherever it hails, necessarily take it out on the individual and his or her right to live?
Instead of meditation, which my fatigue prevented me from doing, I reread the Passion of our Lord according to Saint Matthew. I came away from that with an odd wish: if only our politicians could have Pilate’s hesitation! Did he tremble when, questioned about the truth of his kingship, Jesus answered him calmly: “Thou sayest”? Pilate invites him to defend himself, is astonished at the victim’s silence, and bargains with the persecutors: “Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ?” Did he have the power to change this Passion’s course, and so the course of the history of salvation? Perhaps he perceived its inescapable character, poor man, and took refuge in neutrality. “What evil has he done?” he asks. He knows the answer, too: none. He washed his hands and immediately thereafter, to save face, he had the Lord lashed with a whip. In short, the art of politics: don’t take any risks.
Prayed for Pontius Pilate. And for all those in this city who, like him, want to win on every front, thereby adding to the number of innocent victims. The Passion of my Lord, once again, lies in this work of cowardice. Prayed also for those who, instead of rousing the consciousness of my compatriots to life and its generosity, tyrannize them and propagate death in the name of liberty’s illusions.
The last entry is dated 29 June. The book ends with the announcement that Sister Marie-Gertrude disappeared on 30 June, the anniversary of the country’s independence; her mutilated body was found on 3 July by two adolescents who were fishing in Lualaba.
From Shaba Deux: Les Carnets de Mère Marie-Gertrude (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1989). By arrangement with the author.