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18 June

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Marist Bulletin - Number 12


Interview with Brother Giorgio Bigotto

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Interview with Brother Giorgio Bigotto, Director of the Mwanga Institute, Goma

Giorgio Bigotto, a 66-year old Marist Brother, is the Director of the Mwanga Institute, now largely destroyed by the volcanic eruption. He has been 37 years in the Congo (at Nyangesi, Bobandana, Kindu and Kisangani), four of these in Goma. He has recently been in Rome. He was interviewed by our editor—accompanied by his brother Giovanni, also a Marist Brother, currently Postulator General and residing in Rome—just a few hours before boarding a return flight to the shores of Lake Kivu... 100 kilometers wide and 2600 km2 in area.

Tell us about Marist presence in Goma before the volcanic eruption.
We had a school, called Mwanga Institute, of 1306 students, following courses at middle school level (media) and also at high school level (lycée) in classics, science and commerce. There were 54 teachers.

How many Marist Brothers?
Four. I was the Director; Brother Marcel the Assistant Director; Brother Lino who taught Latin in spite of his 80 years; and Brother Elie (from Rwanda) who was pursuing studies and living in community with us.

What are the special characteristics of your students, and of the people of Goma?
They are very practical people, also intelligent and tenacious. This year we had the best groups I have ever known in Goma. Disciplined and open, with an excellent school spirit

Do you accept Goma residents only, or those from the surrounding region?
Also from the surrounding area. There are students who travel for two hours to get to school, and two to return. They leave home at 5:30am. All travel by foot, except a very few—maybe 15 or 20—who come by car.

Are there other Catholic or religious schools in the area?
There are four Catholic high schools and three primary (elementary) schools. Opposite us the Protestants have two high schools and two primary schools. Within a radius of one kilometer, there were 20 high schools.

What were the employment possibilities for the students when they finished school?
Those who graduated in the classics department went to the University to study Law. There are also girls who study Law in order to defend women’s rights. Of those graduating in the scientific section, almost all become doctors. Our Commerce graduates go to the Higher Institute of Commerce, given that Goma is essentially a commercial centre of great economic activity—in fact it is the major centre in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

What is the attitude of the Marist Brothers in the educational field in regard to women’s rights?
In our school there are 560 girls. The fact that they are educated together with the boys enhances their self esteem and mutual appreciation. The girls will often be the first in the class and the most productive intellectually. They are loved and respected. In tomorrow’s society also they will ensure they are respected.

Socially, how is woman considered?
Traditionally , woman had been seen as “mother”, as the one who produced children. Her intellectual qualities were of little importance. The man was in charge. Now girls want legal equality with men. Our female students have, for the first time in R.D.C., a Day of the Woman celebration, with dances, poetry, etc... This year again they were preparing a fiesta, but...

What is the profile of the region in regard to religion?
60% are Catholics; 20% Protestants; 10% Muslim, and the remaining 10% belong to African Traditional Religions. Many people go to Mass. Marriage is always celebrated in Church. Each Saturday there would be six or seven marriages in each church. Christian formation is strong. Each year at the completion of their studies in our College, there are one or two priestly/religious vocations among the boys. There are also girls who join the Sisters. At least one young man each year goes to the Marist postulancy. The school fiesta is Marcellin Champagnat’s feastday, the 6th of June. AMC (= Amis de [Friends of] Marcellin Champagnat) groups meet each Sunday, gathering boys and girls who want to better understand St. Marcellin, to engage in group activities, and to listen to God’s Word for the week... A very positive experience for all.

How do you view the project of a “tent-school”?
Only 9 classrooms remain out of 32. We have lost laboratories, the hall, a library with 3000 volumes, etc. The students returning to school will have nothing, and will not be able to pay school fees—hence the problem of finding sources of future finance. Fortunately, the playing fields were not covered by the lava, so we will be able to place our tents there. We must complete the academic year, regathering our teachers and attending to as many students as possible. We must keep in mind that in our region 44 schools have been destroyed, amongst them a dozen high schools. The Superiors have told me not to plan for the future, given that the situation remains precarious. The lava came from a depth of 800 metres, forced out by another molten mass which is still in there preparing to burst out one day. The experts calculate that this will occur within the next 3 or 4 years. Another danger is due to the great quantities of carbon dioxide which are produced by the reaction of the lava with the methane gas contained in Lake Kivu. This could threaten not only Goma itself, but may well place in danger some 5 or 6 million people living in the affected area.

Does the warlike situation currently obtaining in R.D.C. cloud any optimistic vision of the future?
Right now a meeting is being held in South Africa. We are hoping it will assure the unity of our nation. The countries which buy our primary materials may well be behind the current conflicts. The UN reports of April and October of last year speak in terms of a plunder of the nation’s goods. These reports quote countries and corporations in a very concrete manner.

What is the significance of the fact that the Lions’ Club conferred its 2001 medal on our school as being the best in the city? Does it mean ours is an “élite” school, or notwithstanding this may we speak of a school “of the people”?
Of all the schools in the city, ours is the one which charges least. Keep in mind that for ten years the government has not paid a single school. At the beginning of each year the parents and teachers agree on how much the students will have to pay. Our students pay $4 per month. A degreed professor receives $85 per month, a graduate $75, a non-certified teacher $65 and a labourer $60. The Brothers receive the same. As Director, I get $85 (because I have a Master’s degree) plus $10 for the specific work of administration. But in July and August, we get nothing because there is no teaching, yet these are the most intense working months for the administration. We try to get external aid for particular projects or investments of an educative kind. The parents contribute $2 per term towards school functioning. The medal is the fruit of a recognition that ours is a serious school, in spite of its humble construction, and it achieves good results in the terminal examinations. The students who were preparing for the examinations next July, came each day during the Christmas vacation from 8am to 6pm. Study is extremely demanding, yet is the only way for them escape from their situation.
In our school there are no ethnic difficulties, even though we have students coming from some 20 different tribal groups.

The current situation has intensified the people’s suffering with problems of hunger, homelessness..?
“Caritas” is very active... also several other organizations.

Returning to the volcanic eruption... would there be any sense in rebuilding in the same location?
The city would have to be rebuilt some 50 kms away. Its core has been destroyed... The threat is continuing. The next explosion could be worse than the one we have just experienced.

What has been the reponse to the appeal launched by our Superior General, Brother Seán, calling for solidarity?
Some Provinces had asked how to help us, even before receiving the letter. In the Institute there is great sensitivity to, and generosity towards our situation. The Superior General intervened immediately, sending Brother Kalisa C.G. to draw up a report. Apart from the necessary adjustment to their salaries, the teachers will be able to make the school go.
There have been wonderful reactions and magnificent responses from the schools. I experienced a very notable instance of this here in Italy. The mother of a family died. Her nine children, together with their father, decided that the money set aside for the funeral flowers (equivalent to some $600) should be given to our school at Goma. Knowing the Italians’ love for flowers gives this fact tremendous impact.

(Interview conducted by Brother Lluís Serra; Rome, 20 February 2002).

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