Catholic Priest from Zaire writes a book for Americans

October 5, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

The new priest at the Catholic Newman Center in Davis is Father Tongele Ngbatana (call him Father Tongele, you can contact him at who has written a book about his home country in the hopes that Americans will read it and understand.

"From Congo to Zaire to Congo: Challenges and Prospects for the 21st Century" is the title of the 119-page paperback, published just last month. In it, Father Tongele describes the magnificent physical attributes of his cruelly impoverished country and outlines certain steps that can be taken to redeem it from years of abuse. The abuse comes not just from within but from the hands of foreign countries, too - multinationals interested only in taking out raw materials, not in giving back an infrastructure and something to build on.

Father Tongele, 35, was born in the Belgian Congo and grew up in what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. He still calls it Zaire.

"Zaire is a modern-day tragedy," he said in a recent interview. "But there is a lot that can be done and I will return there when I finish my five-year assignment within the diocese of Sacramento."

Father Tongele has already served two years in the diocese at St. John the Evangelist in Carmichael.

In July he took up the Davis ministry. But he can't lose sight of the fact that someday he will return home to his native country, a country that has great potential, sorely misused. He has a master's degree in philosophy and a doctorate in theology and studied both in Zaire and in Rome. He likes to instruct students by telling a story from his own life.

"If I had stayed in Zaire I probably would have been an engineer," he said. That's a life that appeals to his desire to help reconstruct his country. Through a program administered by the Los Angeles diocese, Father Tongele was able to study at Cal Poly Pomona where he recently earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, something he always wanted.

"Now I even have an engineering degree. You see? You put your faith in the kingdom of God and everything else is given to you in surplus. I believe it. If you have God on your side you have everything."

Father Tongele said his father worked in the Belgian Congo colonial administration until 1960 when civil war broke out. His family then returned to Zaire where his father began a second life as farmer. Father Tongele -- he is the fifth of nine children - grew up in a small rural village.

"My father emphasized education. He told me that only people who know things will be able to run the country. He saw the Belgians maintain the people in a state of illiteracy...and as a result he told me to go as far in school as possible."

Looking back on his life, Father Tongele sees several turning points that led him to the priesthood - his older brother's insistence that he go to Catholic boarding school instead of attending a village school - the grooming he received in school that steered him toward the seminary - and the credibility of his calling in a country that lacked credibility.

"I thought becoming a priest was wonderful in a country where everyone was a crook," he said.

Father Tongele said he last visited Zaire in December, a few months before the country's longtime leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, was ousted by rebel leader Laurent Kabila.

While Father Tongele saw malnutrition and poverty in the cities, his extended family in the countryside was not in danger and had plenty of food.

"Zaire is one of the wealthiest countries in the world in terms of natural resources," he said. "It is beautiful and green and could feed the whole of Africa. It could be an industrial or agricultural leader...but it has been ruined by greed and corruption. It is a modern day tragedy. But I will return there...I'm recruiting technical people and already have a great team assembled for a good ministry."

Father Tongele will be signing copies of his book and several of his friends from Zaire will be drumming in front of the Newman Center at the corner of Fifth and C streets on Saturday, Oct. 18, from 9 a.m. to noon. To order his book by phone, call the Newman Center at (916) 753-7393 or the office at St. James Catholic Church in Davis at (916) 756-3636, or e-mail him at

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