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Father Francis of Assisi Hategekimana, friend and protector of the Batwa

F eventTuesday, 05 July 2022

Three weeks ago, we were saddened to learn of the death on 17 August of Fr Francis of Assisi, a priest from the diocese of Cyangugu, Rwanda. The BGSD had been in contact with him since 2015 and had financed some of his development aid projects for the Batwa. His last email, sent on 30 June, ended as follows, "Let us pray for each other. Have a good life."

His was truly a "good life", spent doing good to people in need. Fr Francis of Assisi was born in Rwanda in 1958. He was ordained a priest in 2001. His commitment to the poorest dates back to 2002.

In an article sent to BGSD on 10 April 2021, he wrote,    

 "It all started with the words of our Bishop at the closing of the General Assembly of the diocesan Caritas in February 2002, "Go and see why the Batwa children do not go to school like the others. Their behaviour is worrying, they are called thugs and thieves. Touched by this, I got involved to find out about this community and its way of life. There are many of them in the parish. But who are they? Before the genocide in 1994, we used to talk about ethnic groups in the country. These people belonged to the ‘Batwa’ ethnic group. They lived in very poor villages, near the forests; they were despised and marginalised. After 1994, the law abolished the ethnic groups. The New Constitution recognised these people, victims of social injustice, and designated them as a 'Community of Historically Disadvantaged People'.

Education of children, the real priority

"In my talks with them, they have expressed themselves widely and asked me to help their children to go to school. In September 2002, the diocesan Caritas gave me a little help and I enrolled 165 girls and boys from the Mwezi Parish. In the same year, the American Catholic Relief Service helped me to extend the action in the whole Diocese of Cyangugu. From 2002 to 2012: 975 children went to school, of whom 5 went to University, 76 to Secondary Schools, the remainder to primary schools in the Diocese."

Advocacy at the political level

"When I started, nothing was done for them politically. Among my activities - renting fields, distributing seeds and utensils, obtaining identity cards, regularising marriages, training in human rights and cultural activities, etc. - there was also advocacy. It was necessary to draw the attention of the country's authorities to the situation of the Batwa. Little by little, action was taken: free health care, housing development, allocation of small plots of land, scholarships and places at universities and colleges.

The search for financial support

Between 2011 and 2013, various donor organisations stopped their financial support. Deprived of scholarships, families can no longer send their children to school, especially since a new problem was added. Father writes,

“As an art form and source of income, the Batwa make pottery - making and selling clay jugs and vases. For the protection of the environment, to deal with the problem of erosion.  it is forbidden for anyone to destroy the land and extract clay. This is good, but for them it accelerates their misery by depriving them of their only source of income.”

Father Francis of Assisi is looking for other donors, but is having trouble finding any. He also turned to the Sisters of the Assumption. A first project is sent to the BGSD, it will be financed by Assumption Solidarity in May 2016, and it will be followed by a second one in 2017, then by a third in 2019.

New projects

In his request for help, Father writes,

"As the number of children attending school and formerly financially assistance being significantly reduced, there is the risk of seeing all the children drop out of school, I think the strategy is to save some of them, by training them to take charge of their own schooling. In our regular talks, this is what they told me, "If we get financial help to start, we can:

  1. Raise goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens;
  2. organise vegetable gardens, rent fields to grow beans and manioc;
  3. sell vegetables, fruits, flour.

It is from this exchange that the present project emanated.

With the money he received, Father Francis of Assisi set up a small farm and used every means to help children and families move from being recipients of assistance to being actors in their own development, from immediate consumption to management that includes saving. Ten months later, in his report, Father makes a lucid and rigorous assessment of the project's implementation. He writes:

"From the results foreseen in our project, I foresee six positive effects:

  1. Training for work: children and parents have been trained in the breeding of large and small livestock and poultry: good treatment, reproduction, diseases and care of animals. The vet has become our friend and has committed to continue helping us.
  2. To serve as role models for others. The distribution of these animals to the child beneficiaries has sparked their interest in the work. This is a lesson for other children in their environment.
  3. To give encouragement and a spirit of unity: the child beneficiaries are happy, united.
  4. To have an interest in the school: there are only two cases when selling animals to obtain school materials is permitted; otherwise this is forbidden. Except if it is for the sake of school!
  5. To love their animals and to suffer from their loss. I see this suffering in them.
  6. Denounce cheating and injustice.

Throughout this report, the Father's love for this marginalised community and his confidence in the Batwa's ability to integrate into modern society by pursuing the right means shines through.

To conclude, here is a short testimony sent by his parish priest, “Father Francis of Assisi was a priest who lived the virtues of his patron saint. He sincerely loved prayer and in particular the Mass; he had a special attention for the poor, the sick and the marginalised. In the last years of his life, he assisted disabled children. His last journey was to transfer two children to a Centre for disabled children."

 

Sr Claire Myriam

BGSD

 

Sor Claire Myriam

BGSD