By Michael de la Bedoyere
THE Berbers, the native peopie of North Africa, have lived through millenia as conquered subjects. Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Turks and finally the French have ruled in succession these ancient pirate inhabitants of the "Barbary Coast," and in consequence never was there a more mixed blood. To this day, the children in the Kabyle villages in Algeria vary from the lightest of blondes to the darkest hues, from pale blue eyes to deep brown, from golden hair to black.
Once they were largely Christian, and St. Augustine himself was a Berber. Today they have accepted the Moslem religion of their Arab conquerors, though they practise it for the most part in a debased form.
Nearly a hundred years ago a French priest, Charles Lavigerie, dreamt of the return of these wild, disparate, unorganised Moslem people to the faith of their fathers, to the faith of Augustine, and it seemed to him obvious that their latest conquerors, sons of the Eldest Daughter of the Church, were called upon to effect this great conversion and to re-establish the historic primatial See of Carthage.
Today the Berbers remain stolidly unconverted, though not a little perverted by the inrush of Western ways under predominantly secularist French rule. To the traveller of imagination the persistent question arises: what is happening to these people and has the failure of the French to bind them into a spiritual and moral formation superior to their tough, exterior, conventional Mohammedanism inevitably opened the door to a new conqueror who has no uncertainties, either about his faith or about the means to enforce it, the Communist conqueror?
THERE are some who think -.1that had the French Government, at the time nominally Catholic, understood the nature and value of Cardinal Lavigerie's vision and supported him, instead of fearing and baulking him, the back of Berber Moslernism would by now have bee n broken. Whether this is true or not, it can hardly be doubted that the love and charity of a Lavigerie would have attached these people to their latest conquerors and opened new outlooks for them with results differing considerably from the situation which both France and the Church face today in French North Africa.
The French colonial system differs greatly from the British. For Frenchmen a colony is simply an extension of the Motherland. hi it will be built a new community of Frenchmen, enriched and varied by accessions of immigrants and natives, developing their own provincialisms and interests, yet first and foremost French.
Perhaps it is a superior and more fundamentally Christian ideal than the British one of race separation and education for eventual political enfranchisement; but its success must depend on the quality and strength of the ideology presented to the conquered people,
and the readiness of the latter to absorb the faith and ideals of the colonisers.
HE France of the last hundred years, and especially in the early part of this century. has proved spiritually unfit to inspire North Africa with the faith which once made France herself, even though Gambetta was forced reluctantly to admit to Cardinal Lavigerie that "anti-clericalism is not an article of export." Lacking that faith, the native peoples have in effect been left to try to reconcile their static, primitive, social Moslem ways with the emancipation of secularist values and the rough school of capitalist economy, nowadays more and more imbibed through an immense seasonal immigration to France to earn money for their depressed families trying to live on barren land.
It is not a healthy situation from any point of view, and despite tardy political reforms designed to allow the natives to participate in local government and in the Paris Parliament, as well as social and economic advantages, the traveller cannot but feel that the great French "Fort National" standing on a topmost peak of the Jurjura Mountains overlooking hundreds of Kabyle villages, as well as the apparently numberless military barracks, camps and territories, symbolise the underlying reality of the situation. Not 10 years ago military force was required to hold down the aggressive tribes.
In conversation with observers, one notes that the almost invariaable reply to questions about the future of Algeria is that the natives of that colony, never having had a unity of their own, will always prove unable to coalesce into serious hostility. Quite apart from the long-term danger of Communist infiltration and organisation, the reply is not one to give the foreigner great confidence in the quality and vision of present French rule.
IN sharpest contrast with this undigested secularist French official outlook—one, by the way, too complicated by native differences and the interests of the colonists to allow of the easy liberal generalisations in which the British and American Press indulge—is the ideal of a small band of priests, dressed in Moslem costume, the followers of Cardinal Lavigerie, the White Fathers.
Though international, many of them are Frenchmen themselves, and those working in North Africa are usually French. They are loyal and loving ::renclimen who for the most part take little or no interest in political questions.
For more than three-quarters of a century they have been there, in the towns, in the Kabylias, in the desert, offering their lives to befriend the natives and to set before them the pattern of Christian life and behaviour. A hundred among millions, it is not surprising perhaps that theirs has not been the influence which has shaped the destinies of North Africa.
Yet where their mission houses
stand, sometimes almost lacking the necessities of life, one senses a different atmosphere. The people love them, and to them they will come for advice, trusting them rather than to the jealousies and suspicions of their own people. Hospitals minister in Christian love to every comer, with White Sisters bringing the latest medical technique with their own prayers and self-sacrifice. Schools, in addition to Western learning, bring a fresh and enlightened moral atmosphere to the children—children, alas, destined for the most part to fall back into the crude Moslem village life or to be perverted by Western influences.
Witness to Christ
0 one—least of all the White Fathers themselves — denies the toughness of the resistance to any solid Christianisation, but today even the Moslem peoples are in the melting-pot, and the future must depend on the contrast between the witness to Christ and the witness of Lenin politically proselytising within decadence and unrest.
It is well to remember that the Moslems, for all their apparent corruption and formalism, arc God-fearing and God-believing people. High spirituality is to be found among them, and their values are such as to enable them to discern the man of God. Thus it is that the Sisters' schools arc more effective than the French lay schools, for the simple reason that the natives despise unmarried teachers, whereas they regard the Sisters as holy women dedicated to God. The Fathers, too, are Christian "Marabouts" or holy men, participating in some degree of the authority of the man set apart.
I T is an extraordinary work— some perhaps would say a futile one. That is for others to judge, but there are many who feel that the reward so long looked for will not now be so long delayed. But to the observer, travelling for the first time in this country, once the glory of Christendom, the lesson and the moral are amply clear.
Here are a fundamentally religious people, strongly and toughly surviving in a world which seems in so many ways to have passed them by. Are they to be emancipated to a botch-patch of the worst secularism and the worst Mahomrnedanism, with the virtual certainty of falling sooner or later to the latest Communist conqueror? Or are they to be educated to Christian civilised values? There are no alternatives.
The powers-that-be, the learned, the experts, the capitalists, the governors drift along one way; a handful of men untiringly hold up the standard of Christ to proclaim the other way. It is the story of the world of today epitomised in startling contrasts.
And with Africa placed as it is along the meeting place of West and East, the lonely crusade of the White Fathers is of far more than academic interest. On it depends spiritual life or spiritual death for millions. Lavigerie was dead right —though almost alone.