A story of faith, personal angst and peace, footballing curiosity

In the years where my third career shaped I had the pleasure to meet a number of people who can best be described as living the life determined by their choice of faith.

Working in a number of environments where religion was the crutch, the support or possibly the reason for all types of behaviour, I became Hanifo. Hanifo is a term used, excuse my lack of theological prowess, to describe someone who puts aside other humans in how they look for the way to live their lives as their Maker intended: Be good to your fellow humans and other living things, respect all those and their personal beliefs, and we shall see come judgement day.

Two priests illustrate how worldly events test how we behave inside ourselves and towards other people.

When in Rwanda during 1994-95, there were many, many, times where heart rendering stories unfurled in front of our very eyes; many of my team lived lives left with huge gaps as whole families were massacred. Many were emotionally empty and we all learned to communicate in ways I had never felt possible as we shared and supported; never, never, offering empty platitudinous sympathy. We spent hours in Land Rovers together talking work, life, and life and love. Even this reticent Englishman told stories to encourage others to talk further. I had come from the hard lands of the Horn of Africa where men were men and women did the harder work and real caring. Men were men and possibly emotionally crass – it suited me as I reinforced my shell. But to listen, live with people, who had experienced so much changed me as well. Maybe a little bit for the better.

We were high in the mountains of northern Rwanda, somewhere beginning to look like the Ruwenzori Range if you want to find pictures. The gorillas and people who devoted themselves to the gorillas is another set of stories. Fidens, a fantastic driver who knew the vagaries of the weather 2,000metres above sea level could have us come round a corner into a massive mudslide, drove with practiced ease as we headed up to a church and small Catholic commune where we had been informed there still may be children separated from their families and not registered to allow child tracing. We had dropped off health workers and were following up to see whether our social workers needed to come and be here for some time to register children and assist families. The clouds swirled past below us in the valleys and every now and then we were in the clouds laying down dampness allowing Fidens to show how to drift a Land Rover around bends where I would feel we were best crawling on our hands and knees for surer grip.

We came to a red brick church, huge structure, with a spire lost in yet more cloud, fog, cloud, swirled between the buildings of a large house and numerous other structures the Catholic church, as an institution, had built – Or had built for them by people with belief the church would offer protection and reward come Judgement Day. In my halting French guided by initial enquiries I sought out the priest in his residence. It was barely 10 o’clock of the morning as I entered a cold, dank vestibule and found the gentleman sat on a sofa with a crystal glass tumbler half full of the elixir of life; or so a true Scottish whisky drinker will tell you. Introducing myself, the priest told me about the local communities, how things were currently and welcomed Save the Children’s teams to come and help further (we were already known for our work on health where we partnered with the Regionale Sanitaire and Medecins San Frontieres Netherlands to restore health outreach services). He offered me a whisky, I declined elixir of life or not, drifting through muddy corners 500 metres above the valley floor was life moving enough this morning. He told me of his church’s history during the genocide, my poor French made him laugh and he explained his Belgium heritage with the quatre-vingt and nonante differences.

Then, taking another shot of whisky, he told of his failing for his congregation, how eighty-six of his flock had been slaughtered having taken refuge in the church and the other buildings of the mission. Killed for nothing more than being the wrong heritage when all were sharing the Catholic faith.

Supposedly a faith to unite

He had failed his congregation.

Now he sat here, quietly drinking himself to death seemingly with little faith apart from the delusions coming from alcohol and the blurred vision not to see the beauty of nature when the clouds did clear. The vibrant greens of the hillsides as rains came and crops were planted; life would build again even if man would not always learn the lessons of crude mass manipulation leading to mass slaughter.

Genocide. The Genocide

The women, babies on their backs, many the results of rapes accompanying the massive genocide and law being that of mass brutality and mob infused with drugs and machismo.

Never knew what became of the Priest, never returned to the place and, on leaving Rwanda in mid 1995, never have returned. This is the first time I have ever returned in the deed of writing about it. I doubt he neither made peace with himself nor restored the faith of the people around the church. Edifices to the establishment rather than saviours of souls. Hanifo.

Step back a few months and being in Hwambo, Angola, Jonas Savimbi’s stronghold being starved of resources and pounded by Mig fighter bombers flying sorties to destroy what infrastructure remained. Sanctions were tight, the government grip tighter – even us aid workers felt the bite and had to decide how strong we wanted our tea so we could share a teabag between two or three of us. Pint mugs the children in the feeding centres used for their therapeutic feeding served to give us what looked like a builder’s brew of sweet tea.

We were rationalising the dry feeding distribution systems, having made a reputation for managing to make things work in the thorn scrub of semi arid lands, now come to this verdant place where generations of people had been exploited for their affability. Used as slaves by various conquerors of the lands, they remained remarkably positive but undoubtedly bowed to power of yet more people seeking to exploit them and their lands.

My first time being bombed had me in a panic. A matron of one of Dublin’s hospitals was a marvel. As the percussion from the bombs past through, she had already organised singing for the children, deflecting from the noise and stopping any panic from such indiscriminate weapons. What a person. I learned.

A few days later, out of town travelling by lorry carrying rations for villagers seeking to eke out a living in between whole areas sown with land mines, we were reminded of the war all around us. The lorry smelt of chips frying I remarked – because it was running on diesel blended with WFP delivered cooking oil. Problem was no one had checked the transmission and no one had guarded the lorry overnight so we were stuck at the distribution site as the gear oil had been stolen during the night. Adversity breeds ingenuity and a dog eat dog mentality too often.

We were stuck, the afternoon sorties could be heard flying in fast and low, nothing to deter the Mig fighter bombers as they aimed to destroy the dam some five kilometres from our distribution site. Taught well by the matron, we organised for the children to stay under the cover of the trees. No one to panic and run off the tracks or marked areas where mine-sweeping had happened. We heard the bombs drop. We felt the percussion waves and watched the trees rock in man’s own destructive winds.

As swiftly as they came, the Migs were gone. Back to the comforts of a sun-downer, ready to fly again tomorrow removed wholly from the reality they were creating and the hopes they were destroying among these obsequious peoples.

I had seen a Catholic church next to the dam as we drove out, as we were rescued and returned to town I asked if we should stop by to see how people were. I was told there was a Dutch priest who lived at the mission and maybe we should stop in to see him and others who lived around the mission. The front of the church was ripped off by the percussion, stained glass windows made of Perspex sheeting stood no chance against bombs designed to destroy the reinforced concrete of a dam.

I knocked on the outside door, no answer, door open and I entered to be directed to a musty smelling study at the back of the church where I found the priest at his desk, calmly writing his sermon for the Sunday Mass. The room was booked lined, tomes of hard backed books from different disciplines. All the place damp with age; the climate not being good for books – and health

The Priest offered me English tea, it was, he explained, after all, afternoon and I was English. His inner calmness radiated out and I felt peaceful with him as we sat to exchange who we were. Names exchanged, looking into the gentleman’s eyes and feeling his calmness, I had to ask – What about the bombing? On seeing the damage to the front of your church, then I feel a little, English word, rattled. He replied – his faith was strong and what will be will be. The church will be fixed and, thank God, no one was killed. We have to prioritise and realise property becomes meaningless in such situations where he was charged to look after not only the spiritual wellbeing of his flock but also their physical safety and health. He was working with people to support the people.

Then, to reinforce the calmness, he changed the subject.

To important matters, you are English? Yes, which team do you support? Without waiting for an answer he asked, how did Liverpool do at the weekend? He had not been able to catch up with the BBC World Service and wanted to know how his team had fared in the weekend games. I could only laugh, feel his wellbeing and calmness infect me and we could argue the rivalries between his Liverpool and my Manchester United.

He was an old man back then, 1994. Maybe he has gone on to meet his Maker. Our Maker. I do not know. What can be said is wherever he is his soul will continue to radiate tranquillity as he had made peace with himself through helping others.

His faith was his faith.

His humanity was something we all should seek to emulate in whoever’s name

We shall – Come Judgement Day