They still hardly let anyone through in Ndolo. At the barrier at the domestic airport, soldiers only wave passengers past with their suitcases and a truck loaded with steel beams. This is needed to build an open-air church on the site by Wednesday.
Pope Francis will hold a mass here, for which one had to wait a little longer in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Pope, now 86 years old, had to postpone his trip by half a year for health reasons.
Yellow minibuses, mototaxis, jeeps and trucks rush past the airport entrance. At the next crossroads, Jean Marie Yenga has lined up his self-made beds on the ground. The 35-year-old actually studied education, but couldn’t find a job. There he is now, with a worn-out polo shirt, selling furniture when customers come. The visit of a pope is a special joy for the devout Catholic: “I really want to see the pope myself and take part in the mass. But I don’t know yet if there will be free entry for all of us.”
It has been 37 years since a pope last visited the country. Back then, John Paul II met Mobutu Sese Seko and the country of Zaïre. Then as now, Kinshasa is considered a city of “ambiance”, known for bars, rumba music and openly displayed wealth. But it is also a metropolis of contrasts: a large proportion of the approximately 15 million inhabitants live in poverty.
In the east of the country, people often feel let down by the capital. Peace has not returned in many places since Mobutu was overthrown in the 1990s. According to a study by the aid organization International Rescue Committee, between 1998 and 2007 alone, up to 5.4 million people lost their lives as a result of conflicts or the resulting humanitarian crises. The human rights organization Human Rights Watch counted more than 120 rebel groups in the east of the country in 2020.
One of these, the M23, recently went on the offensive near Goma, sparking a new conflict with Rwanda. Because the neighboring country supports the rebels, UN experts confirm.
The Pope will travel to Congo with a message of peace, says Ettore Balestrero. He is the nuncio in the Congo: the ambassador of the Vatican, who resides in a stately home in the government district.
“The Pope wants to comfort the Congolese who have suffered so much in recent years. He wants to heal the open wounds of this violence,” Balestrero told DW. Just last week, UN blue helmets discovered mass graves with more than 50 victims in Ituri province. In October 2022, attackers killed a nun in a hospital, among other things. The Pope wants to condemn such massacres, says the nuncio. “He wants to ask God’s forgiveness for the blood that has been shed and will be shed.”
Congo is among the countries in the world with the most Catholics. According to Vatican statistics, more than 52 million, or around half of the Congolese, are followers of the denomination. According to the figures, the Catholic Church supports more than 13,100 preschools and elementary schools in the country. And 40 percent of healthcare facilities, adds Balestrero. The church sends election observers and reconnaissance missions to crisis areas. “That is the role of the church: it supports democratic awareness in the country and helps with internal social reconciliation,” says the nuncio.
Yenga, who sells furniture across from the airport, is from Kisangani. Around the turn of the millennium, Rwandan and Ugandan troops fought each other in the city. “It would be really nice if the Pope could reconcile people. Peace is needed in the East,” says Yenga. He himself lost a brother back then, he says, pointing to a scar on his lower leg.
Actually, the Pope would have wanted to travel to Goma in the East. But the current M23 rebellion intervened. After all, a delegation of war victims flies to Kinshasa.
Not all events are marked by conflicts. On Thursday, the top minister of the Catholic Church invites young believers to a stadium. Before his departure on Friday for South Sudan, the Pope’s second stop, the head of the Catholic Church is still consulting with the Congolese bishops’ conference. It should also be about the next presidential elections, which are due in December 2023 in Congo.
Meanwhile, a few days before the visit, preparations continue. Ndolo Airport is part of the Barumbu district: more than 100,000 inhabitants, the area is known for its technical university, packed bars and a few unsafe side streets.
Many people throw plastic bottles on the ground here. Vehicles slalom around potholes. But these days, construction workers are patching up the worst with jackhammers. They will give the Pope a “warm welcome,” says Christophe Lomami, mayor of the municipality. In the next few days he only wants to call it “Vatican”, so proud is he of the Pope’s visit.
The mayor has a number of problems in his community. Poor power supply, overused sewage system and wild influx. The Pope’s visit has something invigorating for the community: “We are in the process of making the population responsible, especially the Catholic Church. We’re going to go out into the streets and do a big cleanup.” In some places, the governor of Kinshasa has had street vendor stalls demolished and burned on the spot. Lomami says the action in his municipality was not so drastic.
The Holy Father is traveling to Kinshasa in the very west of the country. But in his speeches he will focus a lot on the suffering in the East, which hardly plays a role in everyday life in the capital 1,500 kilometers away. Will they feel addressed in Barumbu with their very own concerns? The war affects them all, says Mayor Lomami. “The Pope comes with a message of peace. Is there anyone in this world who can refuse peace?”
In truth, the conflicts in the east of the country are so tangled that a simple message of peace from the pope will not be able to untie the knots. But for people who are experiencing the war in eastern Congo, it is perhaps a comforting message for them that they will not be completely forgotten in these days.
Author: Jonas Gerding (Kinshasa)
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The original of this post “Pope’s trip to the DR Congo: The pious wish for peace” comes from Deutsche Welle.