There are 1,600 Jesuits in Africa and they work in 34 countries. They are mainly involved in the fields of education, management of natural resources, prevention of AIDS, and assistance to refugees. In addition, they dedicate themselves to the training of the future African leaders.
The Jesuit presence in Africa dates back to 1542 when, two years after the founding of the Society of Jesus by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the first mission was established in Congo. In 1554, some Jesuits were sent to Ethiopia to establish their first contact with the Christians living in that area, while in 1561 they settled in present-day Zimbabwe.
Since then, the Jesuit missions have spread throughout the continent, and today the African Conference of Jesuits gathers the Jesuits of seven provinces and two regions of Africa together. The countries of North Africa are part of the provinces of France and of those of the Middle East.
The apostolate of the Society of Jesus in Africa mainly focuses on formation. The so-called formation houses, which are institutes of philosophy and theology, are five in all Africa. These formation centres play a decisive role in understanding the mission of the Society of Jesus in the continent.
These institutes provide formation for almost 300 Jesuits and hundreds of students, whether lay or religious of different orders and confessions. Thanks to these initiatives, the Society of Jesus forms the new African leaders according to Christian values, and principles of justice and peace.
Among the formation centres, it is worth mentioning two important theological institutes: the Hekima College in Nairobi (Kenya), founded in 1984, and the Theological Institute of the Society of Jesus in Abidjan (Ivory Coast), which opened its portals in 2003. There are also three Institutes of Philosophy: the Saint Paul Philosophate in Antananarivo (Madagascar), the Arrupe College in Harare (Zimbabwe) and the Institute Saint Pierre Canisius in Kimwenza, (Democratic Republic of Congo), one of the historical structures of the Jesuits in Africa which was established 1954. In 2000, the faculty was incorporated into the Faculty of Philosophy of the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome.
The intense activity of the Jesuits in Africa also includes the social apostolate. After about fifty years of activities, the social centres of the Society of Jesus are currently re-orientating their commitment. The seven social centres in Chad, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, DRC, Zambia and Zimbabwe are adapting their work to the present situation in order to respond to current needs. The Jesuits encourage debates about peace and democracy, economy and governance, conflict and reconciliation. These centres, which are grouped in the Jesuits Africa Social Centres Network, try to mobilise society for the development of the continent.
The Jesuits in Africa are also active in the prevention of AIDS. According to UNAIDS data published in July 2017, Eastern and Southern Africa was in 2016 the region most affected by HIV both in the world and at home, with 19.4 million, the largest number of people living with the virus. In 2016, there were 790,000 new HIV infections, forty-three percent of the global total.
Meanwhile, in Western and Central Africa, in the same year, around 6.1 million people lived with this disease. In response to this situation, the Jesuits established the Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) in 2002 to ‘help individuals, families and communities to create a society without HIV’. The network currently operates in Burundi, DRC, Kenya, Madagascar, Togo and Zimbabwe and it develops home assistance projects, provides educational, medical, nutritional and pastoral assistance to all people including orphaned children, vulnerable underage boys and girls and widows. Much of the work focuses on HIV prevention and on information in order to combat the discrimination that is very often suffered by those who have contracted this disease.
The Jesuits also offer their service to refugees. According to UNHCR, a large number of the 65.6 million people in the world who were forcibly displaced in 2016 were living in the African continent. They were forced to flee their homes because of critical realities such as those in the DRC, the Horn of Africa, the Central African Republic or South Sudan. In 1980, the then General Father, Pedro Arrupe, founded the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), an international organisation whose programmes are found in over 50 countries around the world.
JRS has four regional offices in Africa, in Chad, Kenya, Burundi and South Africa through which the organization serves 15 countries. Most of the workers contributing to the work of JRS work on a voluntary basis; they are Jesuit priests, religious women and men of other orders and lay people.
The purpose of JRS is to ‘serve, accompany and defend’ refugees and internally displaced people by helping them to rebuild their own lives and to have hope in the future despite the unexpected and painful flight from their own villages where they had a house and a piece of arable land that allowed them to live.
The commitment to the protection of human rights has become a fundamental point of the Jesuits’ mission, especially after the 2008 General Congregation. Forced migration, peace and human rights and, finally, the management of natural and mineral resources are at the centre of the Jesuits’ action in Africa.
The Jesuit Network on Peace and Human Rights in this continent mainly focuses on the situation in the Great Lakes region, which was a theatre of tragic events, such as the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the civil war in Burundi, which began in 1993 and officially ended in 2005, as well as the conflict in the Congolese provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu which is still an open wound in the region.
While Rwanda and Uganda are currently experiencing a relative stability, political instability remains an ongoing concern in Burundi. On the 4th September of this year, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry said that Burundian officials at the highest level should be held accountable for crimes against humanity, and in DRC, guerrilla groups’ attacks, some of which are supported or encouraged by Rwanda and Uganda, do not allow civilians to lead a normal life. Forced population displacements, massacres of civilians and other serious violations of human rights make this area one of the most unstable in the continent. The abuses committed against women and young people by rebels and even soldiers are the order of the day in the region.
Leonard Chiti and Rigobert Minani, two of the Jesuits promoting the Jesuit commitment in Africa, acknowledge that “in spite of several regional and international attempts, mainly promoted by the United Nations and the International Conference for the Great Lakes region to bring peace to the region, no great steps forward were made in order to determine and to face the root causes of the conflict, including the proliferation of illegal arms trafficking”.
The Jesuits, therefore, have promoted a series of initiatives aimed at making investors and those who do business in the region, aware of the direct relations between war and arms proliferation. “Having a vast network of contacts around the world is the Jesuits’ strong point”, says Fr. Minani. “If we manage to use this potential, we will be able to raise the voice of those who suffer because of the proliferation and trafficking of weapons at the highest levels, in Addis Ababa (seat of AU), in Brussels or Washington. By talking about what happens in the region of the Great Lakes we will be able to contribute to the restoration of peace in the region”.
The vast African natural resources have turned out to be the root cause of the instability of many countries of the continent. The exploitation of resources, in the majority of cases by foreign companies through privileged agreements with local governments, aggravates poverty and causes conflicts, forced population displacements and human rights violations.
Chad’s government, after implementing special revenues sharing systems for five years in order to allocate adequate resources critical for poverty reduction, failed to stick to the original project by cancelling the funds allocated for the population and it increased instead those which flow directly into the state budget. An example of management of natural resource revenues to the detriment of the population.
“The process of extraction of natural and mineral resources transcends local and national boundaries. That is why there is need for transnational advisory actions to regulate the sector and make multinational oil and mining companies work with greater transparency”, the constituent document of the Jesuit Network of Natural and Mineral Resources says.