Interview conducted by Angela Okune
In this continuation of our two-part interview with CIHA Blog’s newest Co-Editor, Father Dr. Kafarhire, we learn about Father Dr. Kafarhire’s background, motivations, and why he is excited to be part of CIHA Blog. If you missed the first part of the interview, find it here.
- Please could you share a bit of your background and how you came to be doing the work you are now doing?
First of all, I am a Jesuit priest. Which means a man whose vision of social reality is informed by faith in God and the goodness of creation. A custodian of God and men. A person who listens to the entire creation, as a medium through which God reveals himself. This faith reminds me that all men and women were made into the likeness of God, which is “love and freedom.” But we all know that unchecked human freedom can run amok. When gone wild, human freedom is destructive. A reality we call “sin” in the religious language, but which is simply the refusal to see the other (God, fellow human beings, creation itself) as an image, a reflection of God’s love.
I believe my trajectory, like most, has been so random that I found myself in the social science. Initially, I wanted to study medicine, which was a respectable profession providing good living standards. Then I became a priest almost 25 years ago when I was 19/20 years old at a time when I was also waking up to the social realities of my country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
My choices to become both a priest and also an academic were partly social and partly historical. What do I mean? First, I was rebelling against the paradoxical ideal of poverty in a country so rich like the Congo. I was simply angry against Mobutu who had been in power for almost 30 years and led and exploited the country which increasingly was becoming incredibly poor under his regime.
Historically, I would say, events of the end of the cold war and the process of democratization led Zaire to shut down all schools and universities. They were seen by political leaders as centers of revolution and civil disobedience. Finally, my family background simply oriented my decision toward embracing priesthood as the best way to contribute to improving Congolese society.
I never had any idea that I would study political science at some point but I believe the situation/context within which I grew up also enticed me to try to understand what was going on. In my home country, my Jesuit vocation was born from the social context of political and historical tyranny and the desire to fix things – hoping that I could fix things. I was happy and attended Jesuit schools as a child and teenager and that had a powerful impact on me. Later on, I went to California (Berkeley) where I studied theology. Then I worked in Congo doing parish work, high school work, and also social work. I keep telling friends in the US, one cannot be simply a priest in Africa, i.e. you cannot just meet the spiritual needs of people because they come embodied and embedded in social needs as well. So, these experiences back in the Congo pushed me to continue with my fundamental question: why can’t we organize ourselves better? So I went back to the US (Chicago) to earn a PhD in political science because I wanted to understand the impact of institutions and structures on the ways people conceive of themselves. Following the completion of my PhD, I was sent to HIPSIR by the Jesuit order because of a need for faculty and staff.
I continue to be in contact with younger intellectual elites in the Congo that I try to advise in terms of what we what we can do to begin shaping ideas. I am a firm believer that ideas matter. And they matter a lot. There is nothing that exists out there that was not first conceived by human minds. If reality is socially constructed, then the content of our thoughts is crucial in projecting how we feel about ourselves, what we hope to realize, how we go about it, and the world we produce out there. So ideas are crucial to begin to change this powerlessness that we face in our countries esp. in the Congo given the long history of exploitation, brutalities, etc.
Saint Augustine liked to say: ‘God who created us without us won’t save us without us’. There is, thus, a responsibility that we bear in changing this world. [Almost what Karl Marx said in reaction to Feuerbach, in his 11th thesis: The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.]
- Why are you excited to join the CIHA Blog Editorial Team?
Community. To share ideas and learn to listen to like-minded scholars with diverse experiences is so thrilling.
Sharing, listening, and contributing ideas in a critical way with other scholars is the best way, at least in my view, to trigger change and fight unjust social systems.
Mostly, I like the “dignifying tone” of the Blog with regard to Africa. It is my belief that if Africa has been robbed of anything, it’s primarily of its “historical agency” and its capacity to define what it really wants. Doing anything for Africa, without Africans is a grave injustice. And in my view, the Blog is addressing this.
- What fuels you to continue working in this field of work?
I have been a social activist since my youth. In the first place, I joined priesthood for idealistic reasons. Growing up, I then discovered that social engagement needs a serious backing of ideas. And so, I understand now my work to be socially and intellectually engaging. I understand this call to fill the void of good scholarship that is not propaganda for political or economic interests, but a quest for what stands to be true regardless of geographies or contexts. That is, the need for the liberation of every human being. That’s what gives me joy. That’s what calls me out of bed every morning. Because, in the end, my encounter with God is mediated by my interactions with the men and women I serve.
- As a Catholic priest, what do you think the Church should be doing with regards to neoliberalism and economic development?
This is an interesting question. A few years ago, in 2012, I went to attend a lecture by Reinhard Cardinal Marx, Archbishop of Munich, who was invited by Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago. He was engaging neoliberal economists such as Roger Myerson and Kevin Murphy on the very idea of neoliberalism made in U.S.A. Your question is interesting because it is a reminder that the Church needs to constantly watch for, listen to, but also feel with the people, especially the poor. Hence, with regards to neoliberalism and economic development, there is a great fallacy about the trickle-down economics which Pope Francis even underscored by saying: “we’ve been told that once the glass is full, it will overflow and everyone will get some of the water. We don’t understand the magic that makes the glass grow bigger every time it gets full.”
So, the Church needs to debunk what went wrong with the promises of globalization. The Church needs to continue with boldness in her tradition of advocating for the sacredness and inalienability of certain basic rights of every human person. The Church has a long history of social teaching that should engage neoliberalism for the sake of humane and humanizing economic structures.
Some key questions to think about:
- Understand the promises of neoliberalism. What went wrong with the promises of neoliberalism?
- How to prevent another such crisis?
- Can there be moral responsibility in a globalized economy?
- What would a moral economy look like?
So in my view, coming back to what Cardinal Marx said, the Catholic Social Teaching has a strong moral voice in terms of economic arrangements especially in our understanding of the worth and value of every human being. The church has been very vocal in trying to protect the rights of the poor, those who are marginalized, esp. those in the market economy who are left out without any kind of protection or security. The church can tap into the well of wealth that we have in the Catholic Social Teachings which goes back as far as the industrialization period in the West thus trying to bring back the inalienability and sacredness of every human being and to say that the economy should be in the service of those human beings. The victory of the West does not necessarily entail the victory of capitalism. We need to come up with a middle way, in which context, capitalism will not just keep exploiting the poor and powerless for the sake of a few countries. How can we come up with a model that really addresses or responds to the real needs of a society and peoples? Empowering the poor and standing up for their rights is something that the poor can bring to the conversation on economic growth and neoliberal policies.
Is there anything you think that leaders of other religious faiths should be doing?
I think creating space for dialogue so that we can have understandings for each other is very important. In most churches, there is a model for charity. I just hope we are not being driven by the model of neoliberalism in all of our churches as we approach the issue of charity and the poor. Because charity can be a quick fix / band-aid politics and does not address the issues that create poverty, inequality, injustices, and so on and so forth. In my view, these churches need to cut across the following questions: first, what anthropology are we bringing to this model of charity that we are using? Second, how is our charity a tool for empowering contemporary men and women to become self-sufficient, autonomous, responsible and not keep them under the power (because churches and churches can also be a structure and a model of power and exploitation). So I think all of us need to agree on a new anthropology or definition of what human beings are, what they should be, what values should drive their interactions, their ways of producing and distributing things and good and then hopefully they can become more humane and create more humanizing structures.
- What advice do you have for people interested in working in Africa? To what degree do you think a critical perspective is necessary?
I recently gave a talk to Congolese students on our national Independence Day. The only thing I told them was not to be afraid. Be yourselves. Stand your ground when it comes to your rights. Fight for them and defend them. Go out and protest. Be subversive. Don’t just accept the status quo as you find it there.
What do I tell the people who want to come to Africa? I think it is important to use the phrase, “we are in it together.” The world has changed so much. Those who can travel and mingle, expand your horizons; maybe some of your stereotypes and biases will begin to crumble. As human beings, we may have different paths and trajectories but the future belongs to all of us. Even thinking about what Pope Francis has said, about Laudanto Si’ regarding this planet Earth as our common house. If we do not work together in synergy; we will not be able to overcome the many challenges we face. So instead of bringing old stereotypes about Africans, I hope people come to Africa with the humanity to encounter other humanities. It is only when we treat the humanity in others as fit, that we also humanize ourselves. Therefore I am hoping the exchange will not be condescending, but liberating and empowering for both parties. I believe that, in spite of what the West has in material wealth, Western society may be lacking in other dimensions of humanity. And myself as an African, even I have been completely astounded by the amount of love and humanity I’ve seen expressed by poor African families. Sometimes I’ve seen the poorest families in Africa depriving themselves of what they have simply to give it to someone else. So these values we cannot quantify in terms of material possessions. Spirituality, openness, kindness…We may see it as naïve but it carries a long history of being human beings. If all people can come together with that openness of mind, then I believe it allows us to build humanity together. To humanize our planet together and to thrive together or perish together if we cannot.
To learn more about Father Dr. Toussaint Kafarhire Murhula’s professional bio, visit: https://www.linkedin.com/in/toussaint-kafarhire-murhula-ph-d-2b78427/
Find further insights from Dr. Murhula here: