Niger: Poor and Forgotten

Interview With Missionary Father Josep Frigola

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NIAMEY, Niger, JUNE 5, 2005 ( Niger is virtually ignored by the international community, according to White Father Josep Frigola.

To know more about Niger, ZENIT interviewed the Spanish missionary who has worked for 20 years in Burkina Faso, and 20 years in Niger.

Q: Let’s talk about Niger, the African country that seems to be the most remote, not to say ignored.

Father Frigola: It’s very true. If it weren’t for extreme situations of sociopolitical instability or fatal drought and famine, no attention would be paid to our country. Could it be because it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, where there is little vested interest?

It is important to know that at present there are 12.5 million inhabitants, and that the population will double in 20 years, if the rate of demographic growth doesn’t change. There is another factor that gives much food for thought: Virtually half the population is under 15 years of age!

Statistics to one side, what we need to ask is what to do about the situation of so many people, and what will be their fate.

Q: Islam has experienced great expansion in Niger. How do you see yourself in this context both as a foreigner and a Catholic missionary?

Father Frigola: Here Islam is tolerant, and to a large extent, fosters peaceful coexistence between natives and foreigners.

I have always been able to go everywhere without problems and have been properly received. At present, 90% of the population states that it is Muslim. But it is also true that it exists within a general environment of sociological religion.

Many people don’t practice, but they adjust to the social life and the pressure of the family or clan community. No doubt the long historical process of integration, ethnic resistances and wars have fashioned an individual and collective «modus vivendi.»

Since time immemorial, and taking into account Niger’s relationship with Sudan, the caravans of traders and pilgrims [to Mecca] left their mark of Islamic faith.

Later, some pious and learned pioneers from Maghreb and the West established themselves in strategic places and coexisted easily with the people of the country. These movements of Sufi obedience organized themselves into Muslim orders and confraternities. The Qadiriya and Tijanya are the best known, and are the pillars of the more than 40 official associations that exist today.

Q: But not everything happened peacefully to achieve the present state of Islam, spread to virtually the entire country. Nigeria is next door, where serious conflicts and aggressions against individuals and institutions continue. How does all this affect them?

Father Frigola: The powers, both the old as well as the modern, with all their capacity to do and undo, have forged the establishment of different countries, either fostering or not fostering the penetration of a particular religion.

In any case, it is a fact that the numerous campaigns of proselytism and holy war against the «pagans» have never been able to make the substratum of ancestral religions and customs disappear from a considerable part of the population.

In regard to external influences and the impact of a more radical Islam, it must be said that in the decade of the ’60s to ’70s, after independence, many of Niger’s students returned from Arab universities with new knowledge and a spirit of reform.

The traditional guidance and motivation of the faithful by sultans, sheikhs, imams and marabouts seemed too tolerant and soft to them; a purer and harder Islam was needed.

A new movement called Izala, of Wahhabite allegiance, has caused a great stir. Its reformist manifestations of a fundamentalist character are increasingly frequent.

Q: And the Christians? Are there important communities? Are they recognized?

Father Frigola: All Christians together, from all confessions, comprise 0.5% of the population. More or less one-third is Catholic and, for the time being, only one-third of this community is native of Niger. From this one can already deduce that we are an infinitesimal minority.

Despite everything, there is a representation of the Church in virtually all the important towns of the country. Moreover, the testimony they give goes far beyond what they represent numerically. Everyone speaks well of the schools, day clinics and social actions of the Catholic mission.

Q: What are the possibilities of evangelization in such a situation?

Father Frigola: Well understood, one can — it being a duty for every disciple of Jesus — to evangelize everywhere and in all circumstances.

However, before opening any book or reciting any prayer, to evangelize means to respect the other in his human condition, and to acknowledge and appreciate him.

To evangelize means to go out to meet the other, bringing him the Good News. It might be better to put theories aside and go to the core of what is lived day by day. In this part of the kingdom of God and of our world, evangelization and human development mutually complement and enrich one another.

On one hand, there is pastoral action more centered on the Christian community.

On the other, there is action of a social character open to the entire human community. One can fall into the temptation of separating them but, thank God, the Catholic Church in Niger is vigilant so as to not fall into this separation.

The communities of the capital and other regions cooperate generously in the struggle against poverty in general and in very specific areas such as education, health, promotion of women, emergency aid, etc. Many well-known organizations in the West assist. Mention should be made of one that is more solicitous about this, and which has headquarters in Ouagadougou: the John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel.

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