Bishop builds bridges of all kinds after Congo’s long war
Bishop Nicolas Djomo of Tshumbe, Democratic Republic of the Cong
Due to the lack of roads and infrastructure, transportation is a huge challenge in Congo. Most people walk or ride old bicycles. In Tshumbe, we saw a couple of cars and a dozen or so motorcycles, most of them owned by the church. Travel between cities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo requires a plane ticket, which is prohibitively expensive for almost everyone (a roundtrip regional flight costs $800). Major overland travel is impossible in a country the size of Western Europe with no functioning road or rail system. If you have a few weeks, river travel between some major cities is possible.
In Djomo’s diocese, the two major towns of Tshumbe and Lodja are about 100 miles apart. According to Djomo, the journey used to take 12 hours or more. We made the trip in five, thanks in large part to Djomo and his partners in Catholic Relief Services who have completed the construction of a new dirt road. Teams of underemployed locals did the work by hand. As we drove through the countryside, our driver eagerly pointed out the achievements of the bishop. “He built that bridge over there,” he said. “And soon he will build one across the Lokenyi River.”
We began to think of Djomo as a modern day pontifex, the Latin word for “bridge builder.” Indeed, he reminded us of Pope St. Gregory the Great (died 604). Faced with the collapse of the Roman Empire, Gregory found himself trying to hold up the crumbling civic infrastructure of his ruined society. As in Gregory’s Rome, there are no government bridge builders in Tshumbe. So Djomo does what he can, and he builds more than physical bridges. As president of the Congolese Bishops Conference, he lobbies government officials and seeks international aid. Back home in Tshumbe, he reserves every Wednesday for one-on-one meetings with local villagers. People come with their financial needs, legal disputes and spiritual problems. He listens and tries to help. In Djomo’s words, “The plight of the people makes us humble.” When gubernatorial elections were held recently, locals became incensed that Djomo was not on the ballot, asking election officials, “Where is Djomo?” In the words of one of our guides, “In this region, Djomo is the government, and the people treat him that way.”
One of Djomo’s proudest initiatives is Tshumbe’s new l’Université Notre Dame de Tshumbe (UNITSHU), founded in 2006, the first Catholic university in the region. Led by Franciscan Sr. Rebecca Walo, the first Congolese woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics, the university includes programs in nursing, education, business, agriculture and law. At $250, annual tuition is less than a typical American college student’s iPhone. Many locals struggle to pay even these modest fees, however. Djomo is working hard to raise funds for both scholarships and infrastructural improvements. For Djomo, the university is a key part of Congo’s overall search for peace and social stability. “If they attend university, they have a chance to find good jobs. They do not need to seek work in Kinshasa or join militias in the east.” Militias are often attractive to young men because they offer at least the promise of regular meals and stable income (and political change).
The diocese also runs a medical clinic and a small hospital in Tshumbe and ……..
rest of article here