Every one of our FSSP priests carries the Cross for us each day by celebrating Masses, hearing our confessions, baptizing our children, and offering us words of counsel. Our FSSP Mission Tradition priests carry the Cross in a special way by ministering to the needs of some of the world’s poorest people.
Father Angelo Van der Putten, FSSP, has served in our mission in Nigeria since 2013. Although he works tirelessly for his people, he kindly spared a few minutes to chat with Mission Tradition staff recently to update us on the impact your donations are making. We hope his comments will inspire you to support Mission Tradition this Lent.
Mission Tradition: Father, can you sum up what’s new in Nigeria since we last spoke?
Father Van der Putten: Well, as the French say, le plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, which means, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I think the biggest thing going on here is the change of the monetary system.
We don’t have any cash in the society, because they abolished the old money and they want to bring in new money. But the problem is, they haven’t brought any of the new money in. And so we’re living without cash. They demand that you use a credit card, but none of the banks work and the internet isn’t working. So often, when you try to use your card, it doesn’t go through. And more than 50 percent of the people don’t have a credit card anyway. They normally buy things with cash, and they live day to day. But now they have no cash, so they can’t eat. They can’t buy anything to eat.
So we have the federal election here this coming weekend [February 25]. And we’re hoping that the Catholic from the southeast [Peter Obi] wins against the two Muslim candidates. He’s a businessman, so he might be able to bring some sort of normality or reason into this. But if one of the other two wins, our shot is completely gone.
This whole monetary fiasco is pinned to the elections, but it’s causing an incredible amount of suffering. There’s starvation, and it’s hard even for people to go from one place to another because most people don’t have their own cars. They use public transport, but now they can’t because they have no cash to pay the taxi driver, so they just sit home and starve. It’s horrible.
MT: So you’ve got a country that’s already impoverished—but now even the people who have some money can’t use it?
Father VdP: We have the second largest number of impoverished people in the continent. And yeah, if you do have money in the bank, you can’t use it unless you have a credit card, and unless the vendor has a credit card machine. But most of the people in the market are just daily merchants and don’t accept credit cards. It’s a cash society. So it’s horrible what they’re doing.
Twenty years ago in America, I used my credit card for every purchase. I never used cash. But that’s America. Here, we don’t even have electricity everywhere. We don’t have running water, and yet they want you to use a credit card for food. It’s completely preposterous, but that’s where we are.
We’ve got 200 million people in the country. Half of them are living off less than $2 per day, and now they can’t even buy the little food that they used to buy because they don’t have any money. I went to get my money out of the bank last week. I got $75 out of the bank, and I had to pay a $15 fee.
MT: Did there used to be a fee before all this nonsense happened?
Father VdP: Yes, there was a fee of 25 cents.
MT: Can you tell me more about the election?
Father VdP: There are three candidates running for President. Two of them are Muslim with two running mates, which is unusual. The other one is Catholic with a Muslim running mate. The Catholic is from the southeast here, the Igbo tribe. He’s a businessman, he was very successful, and he was for eight years the governor of the state just next to us, Anambra.
You can’t become a politician or a President in this country without spending hundreds of millions of United States dollars. The two Muslim candidates have that kind of money, but it’s mostly in naira. So they’ve gotten truckloads of naira notes that they dash out before the election so that people will vote for them, because people won’t vote for them any other way. And so now the story is that the government has condemned the old naira notes so that these two candidates can’t bribe people to vote for them, and therefore, they’ll vote for the Catholic candidate because he wasn’t going to bribe anyone anyway. So that’s the excuse they’re using for the whole monetary fiasco.
MT: Father, with all of this going on, has there been an increase in the violence you mentioned on our last call?
Father VdP: One of the young men who came to visit at the parish just got his truck, a 2011 Toyota Tacoma four-door, stolen from him by these indigenous rebels. And it’s most likely that we’re never going to get it back. The rebel group has split up into two or three different groups, and they’re fighting each other now.
You can’t travel after dark, or you’ll get kidnapped or killed.
So yeah, it’s become much worse. Because of the elections, they’ve sworn to kill anyone who goes to vote. And so that’s a massive impediment to people in this part of the country voting.
MT: Are the Monday lockdowns still in effect?
Father VdP: Yeah, they sure are. That’s been going on for six or nine months already. And then they will sometimes randomly call another lockdown. Whenever Nnamdi Kanu, the guy that they’re protesting for, has a court date, they’ll call another lockdown. Or they’ll do it when they see he’s sick. It’s all kind of random and sporadic. But it’s horrible because it’s only hurting the poor people.
MT: Thank God that you and the people at your apostolate are surviving on the generosity of the old ladies in the market. But has the monetary crisis affected the apostolate in other ways?
Father VdP: Well, there’s just very little we can do. We can’t hire anyone because we can’t pay them unless they have a bank account and can accept a credit card. And we can’t buy supplies because we can’t even get to town. Gas has tripled in price in the last six weeks or two months. So nobody can drive because it’s just too costly. And when people want to get on the public bus to go from one place to the other, the fare has tripled as well.
MT: And this is all in the last few months?
Father VdP: Yeah, yeah. And the tragedy is that even these poor old women who are fronting us the food in the market can only do this for so long because they have to buy the food from the wholesaler. So there’s only so long that this can go on if things don’t turn around. But the new money isn’t even in circulation yet, so it would take several weeks or months before that money would be circulated and things could start picking up again.
MT: Have you been able to keep up your agricultural projects?
Father VdP: Well, we’re in the middle of the dry season, so we haven’t had a drop of rain for four months now. There’s nothing agricultural growing now, and the plants that we do have seem to be dying from a lack of water. We try to water them, but we have to run the generator to pump our well water because we don’t have electricity. We’re running the generator extra. And now everybody from the village is coming to get our water.
We don’t charge money for it because they don’t have any money. They will get their little wheelbarrows with little jerry cans in them and come here all day long. We’ve got hundreds of people coming to take thousands of gallons of water from us, so we have to run the generator extra much for that. Everywhere you turn there’s an incredible need, and there’s very little we can do.
MT: So, you’re not even able to grow more crops to make up for the fact that you can’t buy food?
Father VdP: No, because there’s no running water in the country and there’s no electricity so you have to buy diesel fuel to pump the water. And the price of diesel fuel has increased for a while. So it was 200 naira and now it’s 970. That’s a nearly 500 percent increase. It’s just insane. There’s not much that can be done other than staying alive.
And then you’re jolted by the reality that Nigeria has the second largest GDP in the continent. We’re called the Lion of Africa because of our GDP. We’re the biggest economy in Africa outside of South Africa. And this is what we’re faced with. If I weren’t living here, I would say it’s not true—it’s somebody making up a sob story.
MT: Well, Father, looking back to before all this nonsense began, what would you say is the biggest cross that Mission Tradition donors have helped you to carry in the in the past few months?
Father VdP: The cost of food has tripled in the last few months. Just staying alive has become expensive. On Sunday, my normal collection is $35. And in one month I spend $1,500 running the mission. All that money comes from Mission Tradition. Those funds enable us to help some of the widows and poor families in the area. But without our Mission Tradition donors, we wouldn’t exist. We would literally starve to death.
MT: Can you estimate how many people are you helping with food?
Father VdP: There are about 30 people we feed daily, three meals per day. Some of them live with us. And then there are other people who we help in their business, enabling them to buy ground nuts or grains or corn that they can cook. We also supply basically the entire parish with medical assistance. One of our parishioners is a nurse, and we spend close to $1,000 per month on medical assistance to our parishioners and other needy people.
And then, of course, there’s the water. We don’t pay for the water, but we run the generator, and hundreds of people per day come to get the water. So it’s food, water, and medicine that are our three biggest expenses, plus helping poor people get established in business. It takes surprisingly little to help someone start a business here. For $1,000 or so you can put somebody in a business that will support them for sometimes up to 10 years. So we really don’t need that much money to help a person out. It’s just that everybody needs help.
MT: Father, can you give us an update on the projects you mentioned last time, such as new windows in the church, new Catechism pictures, and painting the sanctuary?
Father VdP: Thanks to a donation from Mission Tradition, we just put the glass into three more windows today. That completes our window project. We also had our sanctuary walls screeded in preparation for painting. We were able to pay for half of that. The painting will be finished in time for Easter! And we’ve put up all the Catechism pictures around the church. We’re very grateful to our donors for their sacrifices. All of this makes a huge impact on the beauty of the church.
MT: Of course, there are people who would ask, “Why are you beautifying the church? You should be spending all that money to feed the poor people around you.”
Father VdP: Yes. That’s liberation theology, which says we have to feed the people before we can teach them how to worship God. But throughout the Catholic tradition, we’ve built beautiful churches, and it has almost always been from the pennies of the poor.
Man has a deep-seated need to worship God and to see beautiful things. There are beautiful things in this country, but people don’t really see them in the churches, which are mostly modern buildings and structures. With our church, we’ve tried to make it the most beautiful thing that they’ve seen, for the glory of God, so that when they enter the church, they’re enraptured with the beauty that God enables man to make in His honor. So I think the relatively little that we put into the churches is very deeply important. People can see that there’s no expense spared to beautify the world in which we worship God.
MT: Father, what would you say is the next big cross our donors can help you carry in the next few months?
Father VdP: The food, water, and medical care are the three main staples we’ll try to continue to provide. But we’ve also had some Filipino Sisters come on board with us. We’re looking to buy them land and then build a school and a convent for them. We’re praying and hoping that the land acquisition will be successful, which we hope to accomplish in the next two or three months.
As for our church, we really want to put in a ceiling. We have a roof, of course, but with no ceiling, the birds are perching in the rafters and then pooping into the church. And the spider webs are falling down now. So there are clumps of spider webs on the altar and in the sanctuary. It has been six years since we put the roof on. We really need that ceiling to make it more appropriate for the Holy Sacrifice and the Sacraments. But it’s going to cost $50,000 to $60,000. As for the Sisters and their land, convent, and hostel, that will all add up to $160,000.
MT: It’s nearly bedtime in Nigeria! Before I let you go, is there anything else you would like to say to our Mission Tradition donors?
Father VdP: I’m deeply grateful because if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be alive, literally. I would starve to death. And with all the funds we’ve received from Mission Tradition, we’ve been able to build this beautiful church to give the people a place to worship.
We’ve been able to plant a garden and raise some pigs and chickens and fish, which shows the people that farming is a good thing, not something to be spat upon. Many people here are obsessed with going off and getting degrees, but the problem is that there aren’t any jobs here. So you can be a Doctor of Engineering but find yourself driving a little motorcycle to make a living. The funds from Mission Tradition have helped us go into farming and show the people that it’s possible and viable. The animals we raise also enable us to have a little meat on the table now and then!
The initial costs of setting up this mission would have been impossible to pay without our Mission Tradition donors. Now that we’ve been here 10 years, running these projects continuously, we’re a couple years away from having the pigs and chickens pay back our initial investment and allow us to start generating some revenue to fund our mission. It’s gratifying to see this progress.
Help Father Van der Putten continue to Carry the Cross in Nigeria!
Our Nigeria mission needs $1,500 a month to operate during these difficult and dangerous times. Food, water, medical care and fuel are the major expenses incurred in assisting parishioners, widows and poor families in the community.
Can you help?
No gift is too small, as every gift will bring us closer to reaching our $50,000 Lenten goal.