Letters from Africa – December 2014



Dear Friends of Africa,                                                                                              December 2014

In every one of our mission letters we are invoking the name Mazinde Juu and of course it appears on our mailing address as well. A little etymology of the title might be in order to clarify the meaning and the origin of the name.  Actually Mazinde Juu is merely a place name and Juu means the higher or the upper Mazinde. Hence it is also logical that if there is an upper Mazinde (Juu) then it also follows that there must also be a lower Mazinde. However the people of the original Mazinde living in the valley strongly contest that there is no such place as the lower Mazinde and furthermore that they are the rightful title holders of Mazinde which from time immemorial was simply Mazinde neither upper nor lower.

 The splitting of the name came about during the colonial time in Tanganyika when the foreign planters came and took possession of vast tracts of land turning the appropriated properties into large plantations of coffee, tea and sisal. In the case of Mazinde an enterprising English retired army officer by the name of Sir William Leeds came into the ownership of the vast plain at the foot of Usambara Mountains called Mazinde and planted thousands of acres of sisal. In the boom years of the 40s and 50s sisal was the key fiber in the manufacture of twine, ropes, gunny sacks and anything that needed long tough fibers to keep it together. Then with the discovery of and the proliferation of nylons and plastics, sisal production was superseded and production of sisal headed for an almost zero output.  Just for the record however sisal is making a bit of a comeback and along with decorative woven baskets and mats it has also found a humbler and hidden use as a packing in the empty spaces in car doors. The reason given by car makers is that car buyers want to hear and feel a solid reassuringly thud when they close the door of their vehicle and not the cheap clang of tin on metal which I suppose it really is. No doubt the impact absorbing features of the compacted sisal fiber is also an added safety reason for its use in car manufacture.

So our sisal planter Sir William Leeds decided to use some of his growing wealth in building a spacious mansion in the forest reaches of the Usambara Mountain which stood a towering bastion over his far reaching holdings in the Mombo plains. When Sir William’s wife took proud procession of her English Manor House in the mountains, then by association with her husband’s plantation in the plains called Mazinde the new home in the Mountains was styled Mazinde Juu meaning the Upper Mazinde. To facilitate the 40 kilometer journey up a torturous switch back cobbled road Sir William put in a little airstrip at each location for his regular weekend commute home in his own little monoplane.

In 1942 William Leeds died and his wife tried to maintain the residence at Mazinde Juu for some years but tired of her lonely existence there. She left the property to the church and moved to retirement in one of the Mediterranean Islands.

I won’t tire you with the subsequent history of Mazinde Juu, but following the trend of most enterprises run by committees, this one being the Tanganyika Bishops Conference, it gradually morphed from a Social Science Training Center for African Sisters to a small domestic school for local African girls run by a little clutch of Sisters. Being without any financial input aside for a bit of moral support from the authorities, the Sisters struggled to make a good go of their project relying on a lot of thrift and gardening to stay alive.

There is one incident that occurred during the early days in the history of Mazinde Juu that I only recently became aware of. It took place during a period in the late 60’s when the small domestic Training Center for African sisters was operational. A young German teacher by the name of Katherina Erhard was recruited to run the new school. It was a daunting undertaking, starting a school in a deserted property with overgrown lawns and gardens, a derelict building in sore need of renovations and repair and for good measure infested with rats. But Katherina being of solid intrepid Bavarian stock was not to be deterred. With practically no funds to speak of and a lot of heart and hard work she and her first group of students cleared and landscaped outside, cleaned and polished inside until Sir William’s mansion became a functioning school with an address and  even an oval rubber stamp that printed out, Mazinde Juu Training Center P.O. Box 90, Lushoto. Then it was official.

Some months after the opening of the Training Center some guests had announced their intended arrival and if I am not mistaken they were in part representatives of the organization which was supporting the fledging Training Center. At the same time as the reception of the guests was immanent the students informed Katherina that the water taps were all dry and the water system had shut down. Since they were not overnight guests and the tea was already prepared it did not seem a very urgent problem at the time.

 Thus the water problem was relegated to later when the guests had departed. The tea was very well received and appreciated and the visitors expressed their satisfaction with the progress of the school. Being without expertise in African plumbing, Katherina contacted a trade school operated by the Lutherans in the neighborhood to see if they could lend a hand in their predicament. A young German tutor appeared on the scene and began a thorough check of the water system from the spring to the storage tanks and found nothing amiss. When he asked about a storage tank in the main house no one had any information except for a student who had seen a trap door in one the upstairs corridors. When the plumber checked the attic he found a large copper holding tank for water distribution throughout the main building. He also found the cause of the water stoppage. There in the water tank he found half a dozen rats some still swimming, others not and one with its head stuck in the water outlet for the building.

He carefully removed all the unwanted trespassers and upon returning to the dining room he told Katherina that he had solved the problem. He also discreetly inquired about the tea that afternoon and was assured that it all went just fine. (Might we also have said“swimmingly”? first recorded usage in 1692). I do not believe that he went into the details at the time of what he found in the water tank. However Katherina must have learned of the water rats for she was the one who related the above story to me. And this brings us to another episode in the story of Mazinde Juu.

It was Katherina herself who introduced herself to me by letter after receiving information from the Archabbey of St. Ottilien in Germany that Mazinde Juu was still an educational institution with the very same P.O. Box Number 90 when she was here in 1966. Her father had close ties with the Archabbey and the family often went there for Mass especially on Holydays. When she learned that I was in charge as the manager and incidentally a member of St. Ottilien it was the beginning of an interesting correspondence.  To top it all off we actually met face to face last month on my visit to St. Ottilien. I had gone to the Archabbey to meet with the Superior there to present my reports on the programs here and to receive the Archabbot’s blessing for future developments at Mazinde Juu. The hours of that afternoon and evening with Katherina, her children and grandchildren went all too quickly. Much to my surprise Katharina introduced me to her elder sister, Theresa, who had actually preceded her to work as a volunteer in Tanzania. It was Theresa then who persuaded Katherina to come to Tanzania and to take over the new project of the Social Training Center at Mazinde Juu which was just waiting for a leader to get the program under way. Theresa herself had a very interesting story to tell after spending ten years here in Tanzania living alone in the villages teaching African women by her own example of how to improve their lives and the health and welfare of their families. Her lifestyle was as simple as that of the local women and she became a powerful example for her African neighbors. Using the means at hand she was able to show by doing how to grow gardens of healthful vegetables and showing the best means of preparing and preserving them as well.

Her lifestyle was on the same level as her African neighbors so her message became all the more valid for the African mothers to follow. Theresa’s expertise in home craft, child care and gardening was all well within the scope and ability for the women to understand and to put into practice. She became a marvelous apostle of spreading the message of good health and well being by doing and by sharing. Although she never married she adopted two African children. I met one of the children, a delightfully pleasant African named Maria who is now a full fledged teacher in a German school. Her knowledge of Swahili was sketchy but her German was dead on pitch. She was not so entranced with the idea of going back to Africa, having so few contacts there anymore and for sure not having a desire to leave her beloved Mom, Theresa.

I cannot conclude this German Tanzania exchange without a final note about Katherina’s rat tea  party. In March of this year we received a small group of Indian and German visitors who came on a sentimental journey to Mazinde Juu. The Indian visitors had been playmates of David Leeds the only son of Sir William and Lady Leeds. They were delighted to revisit the places which still lived with them in their childhood memories. The German gentleman described his background as an instructor of mechanics and plumbing at the Trade School which the Lutherans used to run just a mile away from where we were sitting. He elaborated on his experience as a plumber and in particular how his expertise applied to the very room where we were then sitting having our coffee and tea. Then the tale you have already read of Katherina’s tea party was related to all there in the William Leeds dining room, the tea at which the rats had the first sips. There is an old African saying that “mountains don’t get together, but people do”. I believe that this is a valid description of this episode. Quite a coincidence indeed.

 The education and rearing of children, especially adolescent girls, entails a lot of patience, wisdom, tolerance, insight and ingenuity. We had one student who teetered on the knife edge of expulsion for the entire two years of her advanced secondary years. She tried our spirits to the limits and it was only a combination of Irish stubbornness and African sagacity that brought this girl to the joy of graduation. Relief was written in bold letters in our hearts as we watched the mega malefactor ascend the stage to receive her diploma. Thank God, I breathed, as I watched her descend with her torture trophy.

Later that day I met with the parents of this daughter of Eve. We exchanged pleasantries and the usual chatter about parenting and education when the mother of the girl put one hand on the father’s arm the other on mine and  declared ”Father, how did you ever survive two whole years with this daughter of ours?”  I just smiled but the relief that came with the departure of that girl was palpable. There are those students whose company is a delight and thank the Lord they are in the majority and who are truly God’s special gifts to creation. They compensate for the naughty ones. Thank you for being partners with us in this great endeavor of education of keeping the good girls on the high road and not letting the not so good go too far astray.

As a final note let me frankly put to you a special request. Firstly, I am trying to keep our school rooms lighted during the night study periods. This means electricity. It is costing us $2000 and often more per month to pay the grid electricity bill. The grid is very erratic and we can go days and nights without power relying on the mercy of God for light. With the installation of solar panels I can bring this expense down by 75%. I can purchase solar panels from Germany and install them with my own people. For the four classroom blocks and the library I need $4000 each to electrify these areas with solar power.  This would be a onetime investment for a very essential function of the school.

The other item I want to mention is our kitchen. Obviously nothing functions here without heat. My massive 30 gallon stoves consume acres of fire wood to keep them stoked and cooking the food for our seven hundred students. I have already installed a biogas digester which can heat such a stove for six hours. It has functioned now for a year and has never faltered. Now if I can install six more such digesters, I can save so much more forest land for timber use and transform my whole septic system into biogas generators. The output of a biogas generator is pure methane gas for the kitchen and liquid nitrogen which goes straight into the gardens. One biogas digester comes at a costs $2000. I have not used this forum for begging but I do entreat you to give a practical thought to our children in whatever manner the Good Lord urges you.

And the Peace of our Blessed Lord’s Christmas be with you all. And on a practical note reflect that the greatest gift of Christmas was enshrined in Light and Warmth. A great gift too for our children in Mazinde Juu.


Father Damian

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