YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – The Democratic Republic of the Congo is arguably one of the world’s richest countries, with untapped mineral deposits estimated to be worth $24 trillion.
Yet that wealth has never been reflected in the people’s wellbeing. According to 2016 estimates from the United Nations, more than 80 percent of Congolese people live on less than $1.25 a day, defined as the threshold for extreme poverty.
Moná Toirésa Ó Loideáin Rochelle, a Boston Irish Catholic, holds a Doctor of Philosophy and Master of Public Health in maternal child health and epidemiology from the University of Washington and a Master of Science in midwifery from Case Western Reserve University.
She served as a professor in epidemiology and high-risk obstetrics at University College Cork, Ireland, and the University of Washington and as consultant to the World Health Organization, National Institute of Health and Center for Disease Control. She now volunteers for the Catholic Relief Services and Médecins Sans Frontières.
Ó Loideáin Rochelle is also a poet and has been published in The Southern Review, Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, Journal of Medical Humanities, and Notre Dame Review, among others.
The poem “Mysteries of Love” looks at the contradictions that exist in the Congo: Wealth and poverty, peace and violence.
She spoke with Crux about her motivations for capturing human suffering through poetry, her interest in the Congo and its multiple crises, and her motivations for offering her royalties to works of charity.
Crux: What justifies the title “Mysteries of Love” when the poem is effectively talking about the multiple crises in the Congo?
Ó Loideáin Rochelle: The title testifies to the sacrifice, love and courage of mothers, children, fathers, Christians and more in the Congo.
Can you briefly sum up the story or stories in the poem?
That’s a tough one. I started the poem three years ago and it went under multiple revisions; it germinated for years. Stories: The brutal and heartless colonization by the Belgians; the plight of the “common” person in the Congo; the rapaciousness of repeated war; the fortitude of people of faith; an Ebola epidemic that does not make international news to speak of; the rich mineral resources that most people in the Congo do not benefit from and Western consumers do; and a bit of humor at the end with a riff on poets!
You describe scenes in which a mother and her daughter have to trek for several days through the forest, fleeing fighting. Is this something you have lived and what are the threats to their existence as they run for their lives?
I have not lived through this. My own experience of growing up orphaned at age one, being poor, suffering sexual abuse and beatings as a young child gives me compassion for those who suffer far more and go unheard.
The poem also establishes a telling dichotomy between the natural wealth of the DRC and the poverty of its people. You seem to be blaming westerners for this dilemma. How can you explain that?
Poets have a long history of being prophets and giving witness to injustice. Blaming westerners? Yes, to some extent I do blame Westerners (and for that matter the Chinese). We often remain ignorant about how our materialism and consumerism comes at a cost to our brothers and sisters living in poverty. It would be wonderful to see the natural wealth benefit all the Congo, not just a few. Build universities, primary schools, roads.
At one point you make reference to morning Mass in a local church and you say “a pastoral peace of morning Mass descends” on the Christians. But then, the local priest is shot. How do you reconcile these contradictions and what explanation do you have for the priest who was shot as he tried to prevent Christians from being killed? Is that what real priests should do – give themselves so others can live? How difficult is it for church leaders to operate in such an environment?
I’m sorry, but this first question made me laugh. Poetic license. One isn’t reporting like the news, one wants to engage and keep the reader’s interest, so they don’t “change the channel.” Thus, the tension and seeming contradiction. This section “Saint Dominic Church in Libete,” drew from a true story. I’m sure you’re familiar with it. I read from several different sources to cross reference for accuracy. Perhaps you can interview that priest as he is a true hero! Real priests? I live in America and we have a shortage of priests and most are older and thus far we have few martyrs. I’m no theologian or historian. I love Óscar Romero and also know that the Catholic Church has a long history of laypeople protecting priests’ lives. So, you see, I have no answer for that question.
You talk about love but can there be love between victims of rape for instance and those who raped them. How should the people of DRC forgive the Belgians who so blatantly exploit their resources while leaving the people impoverished?
I’m Boston-Irish-Catholic and we historically hold generational and transgenerational grudges and do not like colonizers of any type.
What particularly did you see or hear that sparked your interest in writing this poem?
As an epidemiologist I’m trained to research epidemics and outbreaks. I became interested by the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2015 and wrote a poem entitled Ariana that was published in JAMA.
Why do you give proceeds from your poem to CRS?
My royalties go equally to Médecins Sans Frontières and Catholic Relief Services. In addition, the publisher of Cave Moon Press contributes or matches sales to both humanitarian aid agencies. Notably for both agencies almost all funds go to program projects and not overhead.
Have you traveled the Congo? Do you have any memories?
Surprise! I’ve not traveled to the Congo, but, have a crazy imagination and ability to research primary sources. I volunteered with Sister Barbara Brilliant, a Franciscan who’s been in Liberia for 40 years – now hers is a story worth reporting. That was immediate post-civil war 2006 and the tanks, bombed out buildings and working the West Point Slum were terrifying. Best memories? The children’s purity and the food. I did research in Mombasa, Kenya the next year with HIV positive “whores” so let me know if you want those memories. My poetry collection On the Brink of the Sea had poems about Liberia and Kenya.
What role do you think the Church can play in restoring peace in the DRC?
I don’t know. I follow Vatican News on the Congo, yet, it’s difficult to know what/who to trust … Pope Francis appears to be paying attention.
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