Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Basankusu: Politics and Pancakes


Francis Hannaway enjoying pancakes
 in 2015 - with Fr John Kirwan

“Stay indoors over the next few weeks,” directed Fr Des, from our General Council in Maidenhead. Elections are often violent affairs in the Congo – but there was more to it than that, and the three of us knew what he was implying. In Cameroon, one of our Missionaries, from Kenya had been shot dead by the police while meeting refugees within the English speaking area. Fr Des didn’t want a repeat of this in the Congo.

Having been alone in Basankusu, I’d taken myself to Kinshasa, as a place to escape from should things get really bad.

Just before the Election Day, the internet and text messaging services were cut. The elections came and went. A new president was sworn in ... not necessarily the one with the most votes, but a change from the last one. I decided that things were quiet enough to make my return to Basankusu – I was bored in Kinshasa.

It was possible that the opposition would start violent demonstrations – and even more likely that the departing president would brutally put down any such uprising.

However, the country had had enough of that over the years. The majority of people feel no connection to a government that doesn’t actually govern; they just want to get on with their lives.
I arrived back in Basankusu to singing, dancing and a cold beer! After four years with Mill Hill Missionaries, I’m now working directly for Basankusu Diocese. I was pleased to see only ten children at our malnutrition centre. In May, this will rise to seventy.

Delicious pancakes
in Basankusu in 2015

The isolation of having no internet, or text messages, made me think about other things that we take for granted in England. In Basankusu we consider small things to be great developments. Now we can buy chocolate spread and mayonnaise. Even four years ago, when darkness fell every evening, people lit their homes with small oil lamps – if there was no moon the streets would be in compete darkness. Thanks to innovators such as our Chinese trader, Huang, people have modest electric lights, run from solar panels. One politician, standing in the election, even left eight solar powered street lamps in Basankusu. Satellite television has now appeared in at least fifty households in a town of 40,000 people.

The internet returned after six weeks. My shaky contact with the outside world restored, there was only one more sign of development needed – pancakes on Shrove Tuesday!

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Basankusu: New Year 2019

Fr Joseph, one of our diocesan priests, who works 500 km from us, came to visit Basankusu.

“How are things with Mill Hill?” he asked.

“How are things with the Congo?” I replied. And so began our conversation.

Francis Hannaway

Fr Joseph had seen many changes in the country over the years. We sat with a cold glass of beer each.

“You’ll be happy that the presidential elections will soon be taking place,” I continued.

He looked cynical. “The elections are already two years overdue.” he said. “This imposter has stayed in power long enough. He’s either killed or imprisoned his opposition, or driven them into exile. Demonstrations are brutally stamped on; even in January 2018 his police entered churches and shot people.”

President Joseph Kabila came to power after the assassination of his warlord father, in 2001.

“But now at least we’ll have elections on 23 December,” I replied.

“Elections of a sort,” he said. “The opposition candidates are all prima donnas who can’t agree on a single candidate. The electronic voting machines haven’t been distributed to every village ... and there won’t be the power to charge them. Anyway, tell me about Mill Hill. Where is Fr. John Kirwan?”

“Fr John went back to England with a bad back, but I’m happy to say he’s completely recovered.” I said.

“I’ve known him over many years,” said Fr. Joseph, his eyes sparkling. “He has given great service as a missionary here!”

“Fr. John has been asked to consider retirement. It will be a sad loss after thirty-eight years.”

Fr. Joseph looked troubled, but then asked, “What about your colleagues, Fr. Stan and Fr. Otto ... and what about new missionary priests being appointed?”

I told him about Fr. Stan, having been ill but now on his way back to Basankusu, and of Fr. Otto in Kinshasa setting up our new seminary. As for new appointments, we have about thirty seminarians from Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon, and Congo. So it’s quite possible new people will soon be sent.

“Ah, yes, I knew Otto and Stan when they were at school. And what about yourself?”
Francis Hannaway
with Judith Bondjembo

“I’m looking forward to continuing my work with malnutrition. In four years we’ve treated 2,500 children. Last week we gave our seventeenth wheelchair-bike - all paid for by kind donations sent by people from Middlesbrough Diocese.”

A broad smile spread across Fr. Joseph’s face as he lifted his glass.

“Well, here’s to 2019.” he said. “Let’s hope we have a new, good president, that your students do well, and people continue to support your work with malnutrition and wheelchairs.”

[Just before the election date of 23 December a fire destroyed 8,000 voting machines, solar panels and a dozen or so cars destined for the election in Kinshasa. The date of the election was moved to December 30.]

Friday, 21 December 2018

Basankusu Cathedral Inauguration

I’d never seen so many people at our local airstrip. The inauguration of the new cathedral was about to take place in four days’ time - not only that, but our new weekly air service is still operating with its twenty-eight seater plane. Thursday’s plane brought eight bishops for the celebrations ... it also brought several invited politicians, so their supporters were also among the crowd.

Basankusu welcomes the bishops

All the cars in Basankusu, which isn’t many, were commandeered, including our three, to carry the guests. A choir sang at the corner of our house and greeted the bishops as they passed.

I heard from our night-watchman that I would be leading the Grand Parade on Friday, representing Mill Hill. I didn’t relish the idea at all. Fortunately, Fr Otto, who had travelled up from Kinshasa, and myself were given seats with the bishops.We watched the different diocesan organisations march past to the raucous rhythm of the brass band. I was especially pleased to see my malnutrition centre volunteers joining in.



With so many bishops in town, Saturday afternoon saw several masses which included baptisms, First Communions and weddings. During the evening, we gathered to re-bury Basankusu’s first bishop, a Mill Hill Missionary called Gerard Wantenaar, who died in 1951.

Sunday’s inauguration mass lasted six hours! We waited a long time outside in the scorching sun. I eventually took my place with the invited guests ... but it was much a matter of ‘grab a seat if you can!’ It was packed! The new cathedral is built in the same style as the old red-brick cathedral. The interior plastered walls are painted pale blue and white. Much more light enters now ... it really is quite something, and right in the middle of the rainforest!




But, all good things come to an end. Some visitors only flew in for the day; others left on the Monday. I, myself, was called to a meeting in Kinshasa and secured a place on our Thursday flight.

With the scarcity of flights, passengers were a bit panicky. They thought they wouldn’t all get a seat ... and they were right. People pushed and shoved to get up the steps into the plane. It was chaos! Eventually, they gave me and a local priest a place to sit on a cooler-box full of soft-drinks. The air-conditioning didn’t work and we were all dripping wet in the heat ... but two hours later we arrived in Kinshasa.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Basankusu: Another Busy Day

We had yet another busy day, today, here in Basankusu. After my morning wash in a bucket of rainwater, I set off on foot. First I called in at the new centre to follow-up hospital treatment for Mama Julie - she's from Baringa, 120 miles away, where I worked in the 1990s.

Francis with Mama Julie

Next, we welcomed Sr Felicity and SrPetronella, to our original centre for malnutrition, on the other side of Basankusu. The sisters are local nuns, both with experience in health and community development.They werevery impressed by our work in feeding malnourished children and teaching their parents. We’ll share our experiences another day with a view to developing a common project.

Srs Petronella and Felicity


On the way back, we called in at the wake of one of Judith's grandmothers. The all-female meeting had women chanting and dancing mischievously in a traditional ceremony that distracts people from their grief.

This afternoon, back at our new centre, we made a further follow-up of the woman from Baringa. In her seventies, she has an enlarged spleen because of suffering from malaria so many times. We’re trying to convince her son, that she should stop working in her vegetable garden. Typical work in a garden includes chopping firewood with a machete, digging, and carrying huge baskets of wood and vegetables on your back. It’s not very good if you have a medical condition like hers!

Then, a woman arrived with four small children and a pair of new-born twins ... she needed help to get back home, 140 miles, after her husband died.
The mothers with their poorly children

At the same time, a woman appeared with a 6 year old child, who looked like he was two years old, who'd had severe diarrhoea for two weeks and decided to come to us in the evening. We took her next door to our hospital and they decided he needed a blood transfusion. We had to go and get the nurse from his house and watch the transfusion by torchlight. Then we went to find medication for three of the malnourished children at a nearby pharmacy kiosk.

Just as we were getting served, a motorbike pulled up beside me on the dirt track; it was Fr Franklin, one of our local priests, who asked if I would be opening our internet this evening ... I climbed on the back of the bike and soon found myself back at Mill Hill opening up the internet room for local priests and NGO staff.
Our Chinese shopkeeper arrived and asked to charge all his gadgets, one in each room, while our generator was running, and then talk a little business.


Finally I've been able to grab a sandwich and write this ...

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

My first stint with Mill Hill Missionaries was three years beginning in 1991. I taught would-be Mill Hill candidates English and about the wider world outside the forest, in preparation for their entry to the seminary in Uganda.

Mill Hill have been present in Basankusu Diocese since 1905. Hundreds of our missionaries have been here to build Christian communities over the years. Even in the 1990s, there were about twenty five of us. I found only two members left in Basankusu in 2014 ... with me added, that made three of us in the whole country.
The isolation of Basankusu has made it more and more difficult for Fr. Stan and myself to select and teach students to the priesthood. We had a visit from, Andrew Mukulu, from our General Council, two years ago. He suggested that we move the teaching programme to Kinshasa, the capital city.

“The candidates would learn a lot in the city – there are more possibilities there,” he said. “Not only that, but we can extend the programme to include a degree in philosophy, the first cycle of studying to become a priest.” He continued with obvious enthusiasm, “We wouldn’t have to restrict ourselves to Basankusu Diocese for our candidates ... we have the whole country to recruit from.”

We stopped teaching in Basankusu two years ago with the idea of moving it to Kinshasa. That has freed me up to spend more time on my projects for malnutrition and wheelchairs, of course, but we’ve been waiting to see whether we would be teaching our candidates again.

This month we saw a development. Fr Otto Bambokela, who is Congolese himself, like Fr. Stan, arrived in Kinshasa to start looking for suitable accommodation for our students to live and to study. We’re all very excited about it.

However, our first glitch has been that Fr. John Kirwan, suddenly got a problem with his back, ended up walking with a stick and has swiftly sought medical assistance in England.

Fr. Stan and I were planning to travel up to Basankusu this week, but Stan’s doctor has asked him to stay another ten days in Kinshasa to have some tests for a minor problem. So, I’ll be travelling alone to my malnutrition centres.

Well, so far, so good – we now total four Mill Hillers in the Congo and with a brand new project to give us national presence. We just have to pray for the speedy return to good health of Fr. John and Fr. Stan.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Francis Hannaway: Malaria strikes!

I started to shiver a bit. “Oh, it’s nothing,” I thought, and carried on as normal.

I’d been in Kinshasa, when I was called home to a funeral. I stayed for a week in Maidenhead, at Mill Hill Missionaries headquarters, before staying with my sister, Rose, in Middlesbrough.

The day after the funeral, which took place on a Monday, Rose said that I seemed a bit under the weather. “I know what it is,” she confided. “I suffer with hay fever, every year, myself.” So, she gave me an antihistamine. I took it – but I wasn’t convinced.

Tuesday, I started shivering and took a nap to overcome a fatigue which had gripped me. I lay in bed, still in denial about what this illness was. I pondered the days leading up to the shivers.

I take pills every week while I’m in the Congo, to stop me from getting malaria which I had 25 years ago.
Malaria is a parasite that lives in your blood and is Africa’s biggest killer. The day before I returned to England, I ran out of tablets - but having been free of malaria during my recent four years, I wasn’t unduly worried. “I’ll sort it out when I arrive in England,” I’d thought. But I didn’t.

Wednesday, I was as right as rain, and more than happy to join my brother and his children for a walk in the nearby hills. Thursday, I called in at my doctor’s to arrange more malaria pills for my return to the Congo. The same afternoon I started shivering again at my brother’s house, shivering so much that I ached. I walked back to my sister, Rose’s, and warmed up in the sunshine. I went straight to bed.
Eight o’clock, that evening, I texted Rose from my bed, “I think it’s getting serious!” Fifteen minutes later we were in the hospital’s Accident and Emergency Department.


Francis Hannaway with
his sister, Rose Lawson.

I was very ill – low blood pressure, low temperature, alternating with a high temperature, headache, nausea...

After spending the night on a drip and having countless checks throughout the night I was allowed to go home on Friday evening.

One week before,
in Saltburn.


Treatment continued for another week, followed by another two weeks of building up my strength.

The treatment was for Plasmodium falciparum  malaria, comprising quinine, which is harsh on the body, tiring, and makes your hearing become dull. Really, it was three weeks of sleeping, but at least I wasn’t dead.

Anophelese mosquito
- pesky little critters ...

I’ve now arrived back in Kinshasa, to yet more political upheaval and yet another Ebola outbreak, this time in the east of the country. The number of children in my centres for malnourished children is starting to go down from 72, as edible caterpillars become available locally.

The biggest wish I have for my return, though, is never to have malaria again!

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Basankusu: Rainforest Cathedral by Francis Hannaway

They demolished our cathedral, in Basankusu, in 2012.

It was never intended to last so long. Built during the Second World War, cracks had appeared as long ago as the 1980s. I visited in 2013 and the building was progressing well. A new cathedral was slowly rising from the middle of the rainforest – but this time, instead of fired clay bricks, it was being built of reinforced concrete and cement bricks. The foundations would also be much more substantial to ensure that it would last much longer.

Francis Hannaway outside
Basankusu Cathedral in 2007

Now in 2018, after many stops and starts, it is almost complete. The inauguration will take place in October.

There are other churches and chapels in Basankusu, and mass is always well attended. But there’s always a need for a central place for everyone to come together. So, the construction engineers made a concrete hardstand nearby, with a corrugated metal roof over it, which became known as ‘the Hangar’. For the last six years a familiar sight on Sunday mornings has been people walking to the Hangar with plastic chairs on their heads for Sunday mass, so they’d have a seat when they got there.

The all new Basankusu Cathedral
October 2017

I started my work with malnourished children three and a half years ago. I’ve walked past the cathedral building site every day that I’ve been to my centre. I’m pleased to say that in that time, as the cathedral slowly rose, we’ve treated 1,800 children with malnutrition and got them back on the road to good health. It hasn’t been easy – and there have been many times when I’ve thought that the money would run out. Until now, we’ve managed to keep afloat – and the vast majority of donations I receive come from people in Middlesbrough Diocese. So, it’s your success as well! We can’t be complacent, of course, I’m always about two months away from running out of funds ... but someone has always saved me at the last minute!

More good news from Basankusu is that our own Mill Hill Missionaries house, which burnt down two years ago, is almost rebuilt. And ... to top it all, we have just seen the ordination hįof the first Congolese Mill Hill priest since 1998 – with quite a few more coming up in the next few years. Fr. Placide Elia MHM just missed being ordained in the new cathedral, but the inauguration was delayed because of the Ebola outbreak in neighbouring Mbandaka Diocese (which, I’m pleased to say, seems to be over).

Congratulations to him!