"...This year I experienced the most intense feelings in my life and the secret way of God’s answering in the innermost recesses of the soul. The first meeting with the Orthodox Pygmies in North Congo is what dominates my thinking. A very old tribe that lives in the rainforests on anything nature can offer, inherently noble and good-hearted. When I first met them, they did not talk to me either about problems or future plans. They experience in practice the constant present of the ecclesiastical time, without planning for tomorrow. They did not fail to mention the benevolence and undivided love of the Orthodox Greeks who they came to know through Orthodoxy, the way this was expressed through the Orthodox Missionary Fraternity, which offered the amount of 7,380 euros for the purchase of valuable primary necessities for their difficult living conditions in the woods. Axes, knives, files in order to grind their tools, and also cooking utensils were those items that they chose in advance as absolutely necessary. This amount also helped cover the annual rental for the small house that is used as a temporary “Church” for their operational needs as well as the monthly stipend of the trained Parish priest, Fr Sergio Mabelemo".
Panteleimon of Brazzaville and Gabon (from here)
When I was a kid and read about the desperate and strenuous efforts of the missionaries, who with the help and Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ spread the Gospel in the vast African continent, not even once did it cross my mind that one day I would have the blessing to partake of this experience myself, let alone that I would be in charge of the Bishopric ministry.
Impfondo: a city of 20,000 inhabitants at Likouala region, in the northern part of the Congo Republic. There, under the sleepless care of Fr Theologos Chrysanthacopoulos, Fr Sergio Mabelemo, (parish) priest of Saint Mark’s Parish, and the indigenous catechists Marios and Joachim, managed to constitute the first orthodox nucleus in this remote corner of the country. The flock, apart from the city dwellers, consists of fifty Pygmies, who refuse to adopt the modern lifestyle and live in the heart of the rainforest.
After plenty of efforts due to the difficult access to this area, my first pastoral visit to the region was finally set for Friday 7th June . The faithful gave us a cordial welcome. We were deeply touched to see them in two-wheelers (the most common means of transport in the north), forming a bustling procession as long as the entrance of Saint Mark’s Holy Church, which is actually a house whose larger room is used as a shrine. Early in the evening in the same Church we conducted a supplication to the Most Holy Theotokos and preached the Word of God.
Saturday 8th June: ten new souls will shine from the enlightenment of the Grace of the Holy Spirit and will enter Orthodoxy. They have been patiently waiting for this great moment at the banks of the Oubangui River since the dawn. A pirogue was used as a platform, from where, deeply touched, I baptized the new members of Orthodoxy in the calm waters of the river, glorifying the Benevolent God for this proto-Christian experience that I was granted to live.
Noon of the same day in the city market. Thanks to the most eager and brotherly support of the Orthodox Missionary Fraternity, the Holy Diocese bought relief items for the Pygmies in order to help them materially as well in their difficult struggle for survival in the forests. Machetes, axes, tools, knives and files were the things they chose as necessary for their survival in nature and their hunting lifestyle.
Sunday 9th June: the church and the yard have been overcrowded since the dawn by the faithful who are waiting patiently in order to participate for the first time in an Archieratical Divine Liturgy and take the Bishop’s blessings, discreetly touching the prelatic vestments.
An old table stood for the Altar, a smaller one for the Oblation. The psalms and the pulse of the youth inundate this blessed place and take you to the apostolic times. On this occasion, I preach the life and spiritual heritage of Apostle Mark, the Enlightener of the Alexandrian Church, and eventually, through the constant apostolic succession of the martyred Patriarchs of Alexandria, I end up with the contemporary fruitful ministry of our “Mother-Church”.
On Sunday afternoon visit to the reservation of the Orthodox Pygmies. Traversing the lush vegetation of the tropical forest, we reach the first houses. It feels like having set the time back. Around the mud-brick houses, one could see children climbing up the trees, or looking after the land, copying their parents’ moves. In the cooking pots, on a bundle of burning sticks, the goods offered by the forest through the omniscience of its Creator are being roasted.
The politeness of the ninety-year-old chief of the village is characteristic. The traditionally proud Pygmies, who of course are not aware of the fact that Homer and Herodotus spoke about them in their famous works, talked to me mainly about their life and very little about their problems, since they know how to accept and enjoy their life as the most valuable gift of God. They were grateful for the benevolence and the undivided love of the orthodox brothers.
As it is getting dark, we are in the hospitable residence of the Governor of the region, who requested officially the erection of a beauteous Orthodox Church in the center of the city of Impfondo in a plot that the Bishopric already owns legally. And if our Church manages to offer them a school as well, then “the joy will be complete”!
Monday 10th June: farewell time has come. As we are returning to the capital city of the country, Brazzaville, I am making a review of the journey. I express my gratitude to God, considering the burden of the pastoral and missionary responsibility, I envisage the Orthodox Church, only built of the traditional red brick, evident internally as well as externally, with a beautiful tiled roof and a low proto-Christian wooden iconostasis, carved by the skilful hands of the natives. The mind is full of beautiful images and the soul of spiritual exultation and strength for the continuation of the pastoral activities of the Bishopric, which geographically covers a total area 2.5 times larger than Greece, and which God has entrusted in my littleness.
+ Panteleimon of Brazzaville & Gabon
Pygmies: Where there is no lie
The addiction to the violation of nature, which is a creation of God, captures the mind into pain. It makes big efforts to escape, seeking the supremacy of serenity. It expects to see images of purity of daily existence.
A journey to Africa, bathed in a reverie of love, takes as far as the mouth of the legendary river Congo and its tributaries. It is there, in the tropical rainforests, where the diminutive Pygmies live. You see them crowned with “leaves of truth” on the forehead, because they ignore the meaning of “lying”. This word has never existed in the vocabulary of their race.
The meeting of the Pygmies with history takes place mainly in the central basin of Africa. They were already known to Homer and Herodotus due to their short stature. The average height of men is no more than 1.45 m. Their name is owned to the Greeks since the word “pygmy” refers to their height and compares them to the fist (’pygmi’ in greek).
The Pygmies were the first people to settle in the area of Congo, followed by the big negroid family called Bantu. Later they were repulsed by the latter, and today they are dispersed in small groups known by different names: Babongo, Bagyeli, Batwa, Bambuti, Babenga, Aka….
Nowadays, a part of them has become hooked on the bait of technical social development, working in the cities. However, their picturesque villages still impart a tasteful touch to the image of the jungle. Every circular hut, like most of them, is thatched and is supported by little tree trunks. The circumference remains open so that the air can go through and cool them from the suffocating heat and humidity.
When the dawn bids farewell in the night, it finds them ready to participate in their daily working routine. Some go hunting, others go fishing in the rivers in their pirogues and others climb up the huge trees in order to collect fruit, even honey from natural hives.
Only women cultivate “manioka”. From the dried roots of this bush they produce flour with which they make a kind of gruel. It is usually eaten with meat or fish and a variety of fruit.
From infancy the children of the Pygmies are trained in archery while women around the huts knit their hunting nets with thin branches of vine. They are 40-80 m long and 80 cm high. A 12-year-old boy is ready to grow into a man by hunting with a bow and carrying a net on his shoulders. He encircles the animal by spreading the net, and then it is easy to aim at it with his arrow.
Many times the long marches in the forest make them spend the night in trees and continue the next morning until they achieve their goal. However, when they return to the village carrying an antelope, they all start a joyful dance that shows acknowledgement of the hunters’ dexterity. The most formal dance is that of the Elephant, which is indicative of the hunter’s big strength.
Times goes by, leaving the Pygmies in the freedom of the jungle.
The Orthodox Missionary Fraternity, showing great sensibility towards the tribe of the Pygmies, has affectionately embraced one of their villages on the banks of the Ubangi river, near the little town of Impfondo in the northeastern part of Congo-Brazzaville. The missionary Fr Theologos humbly crossed the threshold of their heart! His simplicity and kindness were united with their own merits and made spiritual fruit flourish in their souls, by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!
The Orthodox Church in Congo & Gabon & the Orthodox University "St. Athanasius Athonite"