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Marist Bulletin - Number 240


Interview with Brother Acal Frances José Manuel

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Brother Acal Frances José Manuel was born in Madrid and started his apostolate in Spain. His missionary vocation was born by “chance”. Called to Rome as a translator for the General Chapter, the Vicar General asked his Provincial during a meal, “Would you have a brother to send to Africa?” The response came immediately: “There he is!” It was brother José Manuel who was seated at the same table.
Br. Onorino Rota

Liberia with its 99.093 km² is one of the smallest countries of Africa. It has about three million inhabitants of which half live in Monrovia, the capital. Officially, it is a presidential republic. 70% of the inhabitants are animists, 20% are Moslems and 10% are Christians.
Politically, Liberia has been a victim of civil war since 1989. The most recent elections took place in November 2005 and brought Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to power.

You have lived in Liberia for a number of years. What are the things that particularly struck you on your arrival?
I stayed very impressed by the people who flow towards the capital to swell the refugee camps where they are constrained to having nothing to do all day and, unfortunately, they have taken the habit of putting out their hand and receiving one meal per day. Another thing that struck me was that there is no electricity, running water, public transport, banks, post offices in all the country. The State does not offer any of these services.

When you claim “they are constrained to having nothing to do”, what do you mean?
That means that in the refugee camps there is enough food for all. The majority of people are not very demanding and content themselves with one daily meal. Why work the earth? Why struggle to earn a living when it is not necessary? It is enough to put out your hand and you have what you need. This situation, especially if it lasts for several years, has some very negative effects for it engenders apathy and resignation, to the point that some abandon their own villages to come to Monrovia to be looked after.

Who controls the refugee camps?
I believe that no one knows, but the UN has a contingent of 15,000 soldiers in Liberia. No other nation has as many, not even Palestine or Iraq; it’s the largest contingent ever sent by the UN into a country. If we consider the number of inhabitants, we realise that the situation is not normal. In all cases, it is the soldiers who assure order in the refugee camps and who distribute the supplies.

What is the basic food in Liberia?
It is essentially rice and to make you understand I will give you an example. Each Sunday, I usually prepare the midday meal and sometimes I try to cook something special, often European recipes. The brothers from Liberia eat these dishes, but at the end they look around and ask: “But where is the rice?” Without rice, the best dishes lose their flavour. Unfortunately, due to the idleness of the people, the rice has to be imported.

Have you met people who live in the refugee camps?
Yes, and I would say that I have been struck by the wisdom of the elders and by the formation they have received: they are extraordinary! On the other hand, this is truly worrying for the young people. Nearly all are unaware of and have never heard classical music, know nothing of literature, etc. The years of civil war and the lack of stimuli of a future weigh heavily on them. The big challenge is to reconstruct the person from the interior. For that it seems that our commitment vis-a-vis the school is fundamental.

Can you tell us about the school?
Exaggerating a bit, I could tell you that the school does not exist but that we have 650 boys. I’ll explain. In many countries, when someone talks about a school, they show us beautiful buildings, with equipment, laboratories, etc. Our school has some classrooms where there are desks and a blackboard. The principal and the secretary have a desk each and an old typewriter which each morning is carried under a tree and each evening is put into a classroom. We have only two toilettes. And as I have already mentioned, there is no electricity and we do not dream of acquiring a generator to produce it, because our salaries are not even sufficient to buy the petrol necessary for it to work.

What do you do at school?
The classes are very big. I teach two senior classes with fifty-four and fifty-six students in them. The boys do not have books and during the lesson I must give all the explanations and write a summary on the blackboard so that the students can take study notes. We have a few books for consultation but don’t think it is anything like a library. Someone wanted to give us a gift of slides, CD, tape recorders, etc. But what can we do without electricity? I am also responsible for the primary school: I visit the classes once a week; I try to accompany the teachers and teach them a little about our Marist pedagogy. I assure you that there is no lack of work.

How many brothers are in the community?
The community has four brothers. The youngest is thirty years old and the “oldest” is forty-four. There are three of us in the school, while another brother teaches at the seminary, looks after groups of scouts, etc. The two Liberian brothers also help a religious sister who runs a work for children who have locomotion problems due to the war or poliomyelitis.

What is your dream?
This would be to have a sufficient number of brothers to be able to open another school in the Christian zone of the country. There are currently four Liberian brothers, four novices and a postulant. In a country such as ours you see so many needs that could lead to many projects; we believe that our work in the schools remains essential for building another type of man. We are grateful to the Marist Provinces who help us economically, but we would also like to become autonomous in this respect.

You were born in Spain and you worked with the young people of your country. Do you sometimes make comparisons?
I have just met some older brothers of my Province. The question that they ask the most often is: “Who is better? Our boys or those in Liberia?”
The response is not easy, but it is certain that the boys of Liberia are poorer than those of Madrid, and because of that they can offer you their human warmth, their kindness, their smile, their will to learn that you find with difficulty elsewhere… They are not the usual things that are offered to you, they offer themselves.
I do not want to make a judgement, but in working with them, I feel that I live Marcellin’s charism with more authenticity and I feel closer to the smallest ones about whom the Gospel speaks. For all of that, I give thanks to the Lord who has given me this chance to live my Marist life in a place that I would describe as extraordinary in many aspects.

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