Michel Kayoya was born in Kibumbu, Burundi on December 8, 1934. From 1948 to 1955, he attended classes at the Minor Seminary of Mugera. After studying philosophy at the Major Seminary of Burasira, he studied theology in Everlee (Belgium), from 1958 to 1962, at the Scholasticate of the Missionaries of Africa. He was ordained a priest on July 8, 1963, and assigned to the diocese of Gitega.
He was Diocesan Consultor and member of the Episcopal Commission for Seminaries. In 1963-1964, he became vicar at the parish of Rusengo, in the diocese of Gitega, before the creation of the diocese of Muyinga, to which he was thereafter attached. He was also chaplain of the Teacher Training School in Rusengo, where he created a small cultural center for the training of future leaders.
He returned to his studies, taking courses in Lille, France at the Missionary School for Catholic Action and Social Action (EMACAS). Back in Burundi, he was put in charge of Catholic Action Movements and Cooperatives. Rector of the Mugera Seminary in 1967, he was appointed bursar of the diocese of Muyinga.
Finding himself at odds with the bishop about the disastrous financial situation of the diocese, he then returned to his diocese of origin.
With a quick and restless mind, Father Kayoya sought christian solutions to the serious problems besetting the country. This became a line of research that shines through, especially in his two books.
Below is one of his most famous poems:
Yes, my friends
Yes, my children
We are sacrificed
Fruits of a meeting of cultures
Generation of transition
Offspring unrecognized by the past
Buttons still unnamed
Of a nascent civilization.
You couldn’t understand my book,
It’s a cry
The cry carries outside only its weakened echo.
My cry was necessarily incomplete
In me there is lightning
In me there is thunder.
What you have read, my friends,
Was only the echo
The echo weakened in its expression
In its foreign verb,
Words from France hardly assimilated!
In his poetry, Abbé Michel attacks a “faith” that does not flourish in fraternity and solidarity; a faith that does not change racial and tribal prejudices; a religiosity that cannot break down the walls of division and reciprocal fears, distrust and hatred.
Were we going to suffer another?
Another more terrible
Colonization by baseness
That every day embodies laziness and pride
Weights that weigh on the heart of man
And prevent it from growing
The struggle for liberation changes into a struggle of brothers tearing each other apart.
When I heard of advocating a march towards unity
I felt real joy
One single people
It’s beautiful when man pays attention to it
and submits to it
It’s nice to see everything that brings men together…
Where is the man who must know himself, small and great?
Where is the man who becomes more man
By taking respect into account?
Where is the man approaching infinity
looking with a similar human gaze
that he is approaching?…
I see religiosity
I see superficial charity
I see half charity
I see charity-alms
A charity that is afraid
To attack head-on
the real causes of underdevelopment.
I call religiosity your religion, Simon,
Your Sunday religion
Your religion of the sign of the cross
Your 7-year-old religion…
The rest of the week
Without renewed oil.
A witness said: “He was working on his third book. It was a common phrase to say between us that the brains of all the ministers, bishops and priests of Burundi put together were not as valuable as the brain of Kayoya. His words were like a sharp knife in the abuses we had to live with every day. “We live in an anti-development mentality. The feudal spirit is even stronger now than it was before the years of 1885,” said he.
The diocese of Muyinga, in addition to being the youngest diocese, was also the poorest. Kayoya had gone there by choice…and to write.
The first of his problems began with the new bishop, Msgr. Nestor Bihonda, who seemed to have a complex vis-à-vis his own roots: his father was Hutu and his mother, Tutsi; he was later removed from the episcopal office. Father Kayoya immediately realized this difficulty and did his best to improve relations between the bishop and his priests.
He had a big heart animated by a simple and intelligent faith: he loved the life of little people. This is why he had created a small congregation of Burundian young women who devoted themselves to the service of the poor. In his eyes, the nuns who came from Europe, although they were edifying and charitable, could never be ‘Barundi’ with the Barundi.
Father Kayoya was right. The young women who lived together in a few modest premises very similar, inside and out, to the mud and thatch constructions made by the people, could therefore really be the sisters of the poorest and the abandoned. This group of young women lived very close to the parish of Kanyinya. They kept with them, ‘like mothers,’ young orphans; they cultivated the land and gave part of their harvest to families in misery. They lived and also contented themselves with what little they had to clothe themselves. They met people as they had always done, whether they were at their home, on the road, in a banana plantation, or in another’s house.
This new congregation was certainly one of his most beautiful dreams. Father Kayoya was used to suffering, and sometimes he closed his eyes and raised his head to heaven; he suffered not only for his country, but also for the Church of Burundi, which he would have liked to be very different…that is to say, much simpler, truer, closer to the people, committed to overcoming interethnic problems.
Michel Kayoya was arrested during the night of May 13, 1972 in Gitega. According to witnesses, he was always calm and serene during his stay in prison. He encouraged other prisoners to pray and sing. A protestant student, who escaped from prison on the day of the massacre, said: “When Father Kayoya arrived at the prison, he managed to make us sing. “We are going to our Father’s house,” he often said to us. Before his execution on May 17, 1972 he gave his stole to a soldier, saying to him: “Give this to the bishop, because it is sacred.”
He was taken to the Ruvubu River Bridge, at the very bottom of Mugera Hill. There, bulldozers had dug eight trenches for 7,000 people.
A witness told us: “Before the execution, Father Kayoya sang the Magnificat and said words of forgiveness towards those who were going to kill him. The soldiers who shot him wept.”
P. Neno Contran et Abbé Gilbert Kadjemenje
- Entre deux mondes (1970) et Sur les traces de mon père (1971). Presses Lavigerie, Bujumbura.
- Entre deux mondes, passim.
- Sur les traces de mon père, passim.
- MIRROR, ibid.
- MIRROR, ibid.
This article is reproduced from Cibles: 235 prêtres africains tués (copyright © 2002), with the permission of the editors and of P. Neno Contran and Abbé Gilbert Kadjemenje (Afriquespoir, B.P. 724 Limete - Kinshasa, RDC). All rights reserved. Translation by Luke B. Donner, the DACB Research Assistant and PhD student at Boston University at the Center for Global Christianity and Mission.