50 years in Ivory Coast

Father Michel Carteron SMA, a member of the SMA Lyons Province (France) has just left the Ivory Coast to return finally to his homeland. He is doing so after 50 years of missionary life in the Ivory Coast, mainly in Bauole country in the diocese of Bouake. Before his departure, he was kind enough to answer some of our questions. Happy reading!

We would like to know what is in your bags after 50 years of missions in the Ivory coast?

In my bags there is nothing. I wrote many books. But I don’t have them in my bags. I have them all in a DVD. I made a DVD in which I have all my Bauole studies: the liturgical books, proverbs, my research on customs, culture etc… But the original books are either in Rome or in Lyons and perhaps some are here in the SMA Regional House in Abobodoumé, Abidjan.

What I carry with me is the result of 50 years of extensive research on the Bauole language and people’s tradition. Last week, when we celebrated my years in Bouaké, women composed a song in my honour, which says:
“Father Carteron we say thank you.
Because of you we have heard the Word of God in our own language;
because of you we were able to sing the praises of God in our language.”

In the early years there was practically nothing, no serious things. It is because of this that I have given them everything they needed, I worked with them for the catechism, missal, bible translations… We prepared it all together with the catechists. We spent hours and hours studying, to seek, to choose what is best. Finally we prepared the books that have spread throughout the country, which have allowed many people to hear the Word of God to understand, especially the ordinary people, the poor.

The last SMA General Assembly reaffirmed the necessity of primary evangelization for the Society. For you, the 50 years of primary evangelization is a treasure. What do you think of today?

When I see the discussions of the Assembly, it seems that the SMA is in the process of losing its originality. Now it will take care of street children, AIDS patients, etc… Already there are thousands of people working in these areas. Millions and billions of money is spent for these purposes.

But for direct contact with people, I’m afraid there are not many people or organizations. I was carried away by the Bauole language. In Ivory Coast there are so many languages ​​which have never been studied, which have never been written nor yet used in evangelization. Who will do it? If we wait for the local clergy to do it, I have a feeling they will not do so; it doesn’t interest them. There are many small regions with original languages ​​near Béoumi and M’bahiakro. Nobody is really interested in these languages. Yet there is a richness and extraordinary wisdom in these villages. There is a whole cultural area that is overlooked. Who will examine and use it if not an SMA? Caring for street children seems to me not for SMA.

You are now standing near the memorial to the SMA missionaries buried in the Ivory Coast. They shared their passion for the mission just like you. You knew some of them. What do you keep of the legacy of the ancestors?

The best memories I have is that of my first parish priests in Ivory Coast, who are no more namely: Fathers Piau, Martel … they knew the people very well, knew their mentality, they knew the language of the people very well, they lived a poor and simple life, in contact with ordinary people. That was wonderful!

I’m afraid that now we turn slightly more towards money matters. Running shops, being close only to the rich, leaving the ordinary people or making them angry by asking for money for many needs, making many special collections during the mass! People do not like it much.

In the early years our missionaries were very simple, living a poor life, material conditions were harsh. Many missions had no water or electricity. Or there was electricity a few hours a night and water not every day. There were even frogs in their water tanks. Life was simple, but I feel they were more engaged in real mission work.

The testimonies of former missionaries recognize their ‘inner conversion’, the changes that happened within them because of their work in meeting others. Is this the case for you too?

Of course! When you are constantly in contact with people we are led to prayer, kindness and charity. When you’re conducting a session, and you are going to teach people to pray when you do not pray yourself, how will it be? And then you see that you do not waste your time and you see the results. Results in the conversion of the people, they discover the Gospel, they try to live it. This shows that you can go on; you are not wasting your time. The Word of God that you announce, it is not you who do it, but the Word that is announced converts not only the people who hear it but also the one who announces it. Because before going to the people, it passes through the filter of your mouth and especially your heart.

What legacy are you leaving to the Diocese of Bouake?

In the Diocese of Bouaké, I worked in two parishes during my 50 years. On arriving in the country I spent the first 5 months in Béoumi . I arrived in March, and in March they do not appoint someone. And then there was need for a school principal in Béoumi and I was sent there. After 50 years of my presence in Baoulé region I am leaving behind mainly the work in Bauole language. My works were appreciated by the language experts and certified by them. Now in all Bauole villages and in surroundings it is my books that are used in the liturgy. They have not made anything to replace mine. And the day they will try to do so, they will be disappointed. It will be very complicated because they will only give a word by word translation of the Bible and of the liturgy. But they are not going to find proper translations. I worked with an open mind to make very large translations. Currently it seems there is a return of fundamentalism in the Church, in the world, in all religions. We will be less faithful to the original sources.

Q. What advice would you give to young people who are now beginning their missionary adventure?

We must go to the ordinary people, the poor, the abandoned and listen. Listen to what they have to say, because they have their own way of seeing the world which is very attached to their tradition of life. Today’s youth are no longer in the African soul. The youth of Abidjan may be closer in mind to that of Jamaica rather than to the one of his village. This is globalization!

We invested many years of our life in inculturation. And now we do not talk of it anymore. It is as if it no longer exists. A few years ago inculturation was the big thing. Inculturation is now banished in Catholic universities. But if you have not studied at the Sorbonne, if you do not have a Master’s degree how will you understand the African thought today? In my opinion we should go back to the simple things. We need to restudy the wisdom of the elders, in their proverbs, in the day to day life of the ordinary people. It is through this we find the soul of a people.

Q. Now you are going back to Lyons, for which project?

There is no project! I’m old, 76 years of age. I was 50 years in Africa, and now I am going to sit! I will be at Saint Symphorien sur Crosses, a small village of 3000 inhabitants. I will be available to celebrate the Mass. If people want me to celebrate Mass, they will come for me. I do not have a car. My life is now a past. We will not start a second life.

I may give a helping hand to the SMA but, at 76, I do not dream of anything big. The world is going too fast now. In our time we had our own way of doing things. Already for some years I am able to follow it. Now it will be worse. If I could not follow the speed here in the Ivory Coast , how am I going to follow in France? All I know is the Gospel, the Word of God. I can explain it. But realistically, movements and other activities, the younger generation knows them better.

Q. A speciality of Carteron?

In the SMA each one has his own character, each one has his charisma. In some congregations or societies like Jesuits, Dominicans, the White Fathers, Spiritans: they are all alike. Because God creates them with a mold. However, for the SMA there is no mold. He makes each member of the SMA one by one. There are no two who are alike. They are all different.

Take me as an example. Unlike many SMAs I have never built a church, I have never built a school, I have never been a parish priest. I spent 50 years in the same diocese, in the diocese of Bouake, in Bocanda 20 years and 30 years at the Cathedral of Bouake. But I hope I have worked that was pleasing to God.

Interview by Andre N’koy Odimba