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Sr. Neloumta in Gabon: ‘Try to understand Africa like Pope Francis'

Sr. Paola Neloumta, the Provincial Superior of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Jeanne Antide Thouret, describes the social crisis among the young people of Gabon, as the African nation grapples with the exploitation of its forests and the need to pursue sustainable economic growth.

By Antonella Palermo

Gabon, in western Central Africa, is one of the six countries of the basin of the Congo River. Eighty-eight percent of its territory is covered by what is considered one of the world’s largest green lungs, so large in fact, that in early March, its capital, Libreville, hosted the One Forest Summit, promoted by French President Macron, who also visited four other States in western Central Africa.

At the Summit, which included the participation of heads of state from Latin America and Southeast Asia, it was shown that the protection of forests and the economic development of countries in the region in question, are not in conflict.

Judging from the conditions in which the majority of the population lives however, one gets the impression that keeping things together is a struggle.

Thus, fears have arisen that the concerns expressed by Pope Francis during his recent Apostolic Journey in Africa will go unheard.

A Sister of Charity with young people in Gabon
A Sister of Charity with young people in Gabon

Widening wealth gap

Sister Paola Neloumta, the Provincial Superior of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Jeanne Antide Thouret, also seems convinced of this.

“The gap between the rich and the poor is too great”, she explains, noting that at school, the missionaries seek to help young people understand that they “need to fight, to find another solution to poverty, not to be discouraged.”

Sister Paola says that 20 years ago Gabon could have been considered among Africa’s most developed countries, but that “lately, there has been a very strong crisis”. The people are concentrated on the coast, where the sisters’ tiny community lives.

Her congregation’s mission here was born in 2001. The first assignment was in a lagoon where no other congregation had wanted to go; then there was the move to Port Gentil, where they run a parish school, work with Caritas and teach in a Catholic school.

A costume party with young people
A costume party with young people

Foreign exploitation

“The retreat of the French weakened the country,” she observes. “[The people] were not prepared to face the void; now there are the Chinese, as well as some Spaniards. Everyone tries to take what they need, not looking out for the local population,” she laments. “At the moment, Gabon is not able to move forward alone. Poverty arrived in a violent way. In my opinion, what is needed is a government that worries about the good of the people, beyond any corruption with the exterior.”

Her words reveal not so much a form of nostalgia as a recognition of the lack of social growth and the disappearance of a foreign presence.

Sister Paola talks to us about Chad, her base, “where the situation is much worse also due to political instability.” She recalls the tragic events of October of last year: the devastating floods and the harsh repression of demonstrations over Chad’s transition.

She is confident: “We think, despite all this evil, that God does not abandon us.” And she highlights that “strength is in women and in solidarity among the poor.

For example, those who lost their homes to the flood were among the first to go to the church to let others know that hospitality was available for evacuees.”

Forming future generations
Forming future generations

Social crisis and human trafficking

In Gabon, “the sister who goes to school also works in youth ministry. There is a crisis destroying families and bringing forth so much violence,” explains Sister Neloumta. “There is so much to do; we are few.”

From her story, essential but concrete, a “new” and challenging phenomenon also comes to light: “many young people go ‘crazy’ and live on the streets. It is a shock to see people literally lose their mind. The sisters and lay people try to do something, but it is difficult. It seems to be the sign that there is something wrong in the country.”

Sister Paola talks about the presence of sects, which “are appealing to young people in particular; they seduce them.”

She speaks of a state of disorientation which is fed precisely by groups who manipulate consciences, resulting in serious damage and social destabilization. They are very delicate situations compounded by traces of trafficking, which “continues to be a large wound and has also caused internal hatred between those who live on the coast and those who live inland.”

In this regard, the religious sister explains that people who were to be enslaved were taken from the country’s internal areas by those who managed to ‘befriend’ human traffickers.

Students at a primary school run by the Sisters of Charity
Students at a primary school run by the Sisters of Charity

‘Hands off Africa’

The memory of the Pope’s presence in places as close as the Democratic Republic of the Congo is very much alive.

“All of Africa, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, felt close to the Pope,” affirms the religious sister. “We felt that he is someone who understands us. Now we know more clearly that our resources hurt us. It’s a paradox. When he said, ‘Hands off Africa’, this phrase in a way freed us from someone. It was as though it had given us the strength to raise our head. It is true that we were the ones to welcome him, but in reality, it was he who welcomed us. We see that he is very attentive to the Church in Africa and this does us much good. We must continue to offer a witness of Christ here, we consecrated people, priests and bishops. We must also purify ourselves a little, and this is very good for us.”

The appeal which rings out yet again is “to try to get to know Africa, to offer a word of comfort,” she repeats. “Our media does not share everything; when someone talks about us, we see that we are not alone.”

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14 April 2023, 09:49