Letters from Africa – March 2015

Dear Friends of Africa,                                                      March, 2015

Last month the Headmistress of Mazinde Juu had the sad duty of attending the funeral of the father of one of our third year students, Elizabeth by name. During a private moment in the evening of the burial, Elizabeth pointed out to Sister Evetha the high wall around the courtyard of the house, topped with shards of broken glass. She then said “See how much our father loved us, me and my two sisters? Who will protect us now that he is gone?” She was referring to the fact that she and her two sisters are all albinos and savage attacks upon on sufferers of albinism in Tanzania today continues unabated. Outright kidnapping and maiming especially of children for arms or legs as well as other body parts are common gruesome newspaper stories. Some very thought provoking editorials delve deeply into the barbaric practice and seriously probe the deplorable superstition founded on gross ignorance. Superstition is still doing well and thriving at all levels of our society. And now with the national elections approaching, there are open allusions that the political hopefuls are leaving no stone unturned to secure a successful election. The belief is widespread that witch crafting using  the skin or body parts of albinos is one of the most powerful and efficacious  means of securing a successful outcome of any grand human illusion whether it be finding gold, winning an election, or landing a big job. The sky is the limit.

The President of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, recently met with the leaders of the International Association of people with albinism and pledged full support in eradicating the evil practice which is rife in our country and during the very last days of the meetings a 6 year old boy had his arm severed by the devilish dealers in body parts. The dichotomy between public policy and actual practice could not have been more dramatically brought out. Cries of the national shame and the blemished image of our country also fill lengthy columns in the national daily news reportage. However the common belief that politicians will exploit every avenue to secure elections tarnishes every campaign speech and promise.

During the last Presidential election which coincides with the parliamentary election as well, I was approached by one of the hopefuls for a post in parliament. He had a promotional T-shirt with his image and logo colorfully portrayed on the front and asked me confidentially whether I would wear it during the 12 hours of Election Day. I thought at first that he meant it as a joke but he was serious.

 With regard to the baleful record of human suffering brought about by such superstitious practices, I recall a long conversation I had with a well educated and highly regarded Tanzanian on this very topic. He was a devout Catholic and spent many years with the International Refugee Services as an administrator. At the time I was the priest appointed to a Refugee Camp in the South of Tanzania during the war for Independence in Mozambique. My friend, Cassian by name, had invited me to his home for supper and we continued our discussion after our meal. This was some 45 years ago and even then secondary education was a very special prize to have achieved. Cassian‘s book shelf was well stocked with Swahili and English titles. On my departure he handed me a rather thick green bound volume entitled in gold lettering “750 Irish Superstitions”. He told me to be sure to return the book as soon as I finished with it.

Now having come this far in my revelations about witchcraft and superstition I must make a confession of having indulged in it myself. The occasion was a robbery at our school, a minor seminary for boys in the South of Tanganyika as it was known then. During a Sunday night movie entertainment for the boys, my room was broken into and my clothes closet forced open. Oddly enough the only item taken was a steel ammunition box containing cartridges for my 30.06 rifle. The rifle came in handy to frighten off the stray lions and hyenas which frequented our school compound at night and also more to the delight of the boys to fetch an antelope or wild pig from time to time adding a bit of bush soup for the table. I was relieved that the rifle had been left for had it been taken I would have been in serious trouble with the police who were very strict on the regulations concerning the safe keeping of firearms. I suspected that the thieves were only interested in money and mistook the heavy steel box for a small safe.

However this was still a loss for us and furthermore the fatal shooting of a local shopkeeper added to my uneasiness. The police were making a village by village search of every dwelling and persons owning firearms were to make a full accounting of weapons and ammunition in their possession. Here I am now the owner of a rifle without a bullet to go with it. Records were also kept of the purchase and use of ammunition and these were also scrutinized by the police during the yearly inspection and licensing of guns and ammunition.

I had a bit of authority as prefect of the school at the time and told the boys that instead of sports that afternoon they should all make a search in and about the property and a reward of 50 cents would be given for every bullet recovered. Monday and Tuesday passed without the recovery of a single bullet. The police were approaching our village and would be demanding an accounting from me within the next 24 hours.

That Tuesday night at supper over my tea I had a brainstorm. I took my used tea bag in a bit of newspaper and back in my room I arranged a little framework of bamboo around the broken window and then suspended the tea bag in the center of my construction. The pathway behind our building was a thoroughfare to and from all our local villages. The next morning one of the students came to my office and told me that he had seen the metal box. He took me to the back of our building and there neatly covered with fresh grass was the green US army ammunition box with every bullet, 52 of them, accounted for. But not only was the use of black magic effective in recovering the lost items but the security of our school boundaries was now assured. The trespassing on the school property as a shortcut stopped abruptly as of that day.

To tell the truth I felt guilty in pandering to the local fears of witchcraft. I confided in a fellow priest, an African father, and he told me the end in this case justified the means. He also told me that the general belief of all the local people was that we whites had just as many spells and antidotes to them as the Africans. The problem for them he said that the Africans could not really tell what antidotes an African could use against white witchcraft.

While on the subject of white witchcraft, I recall a lion hunting expedition I was called to join to drive out a pride of four lions who had taken over the village springs. It was a first encounter with lions for me and one which I only reluctantly participated in. Frankly I was a bit scared and being the only participant with a gun, my position in the drive was to be point man backed up by villagers with spearmen and others with bows and arrows. Even the primary schoolboys absconded from school to take part in the hunt. We did manage to kill two of the lions. Two ancient tribesmen put one lion out of the game with their homemade bows and arrows and I managed to dispatch a second. The two remaining lions seemed to have disappeared or so we believed. But the point of this narration is the witchcraft element. After I had gone back to the mission the men who had taken part in the lion episode all came to the mission. To tell the truth I was calming my shattered nerves with a double shot of Gorden’s Gin when they arrived. I could not believe that I had just been a matter of three feet from an enraged lion bent on my demise and my defense was not at all great hunter’s skill or cunning but just putting my rifle in the lion’s mouth and letting go. When I answered the knock on my door, it was a rag tag assortment of warriors of sorts with a varied collection of knives, spears and clubs. When I asked what I could do for them they said they wanted ‘’dada’ from me, meaning medicine. The medicine needed was to ward off any evil that the dead lions might wreak upon us. It was their firm belief that being the cause of death, even an accidental one, to any of five animals namely, a lion, a leopard, a hyena, a kudu, (a very regal antelope) or a human being, required a very special ‘dawa’ to neutralize the evil spell attached to the death of any of the above. I looked back at the half empty glass of Gorden’s and knew that it would hardly suffice for that crowd. But it dawned upon me that it being Ash Wednesday and “Remember man that thou art dust”, that surely the holy ashes could also suffice for warding off the deadly curses. So I led the whole troop into our makeshift chapel where all dipped their fingers into the bowl of ashes, swallowed some and rubbed the ashes on their faces and then took big swigs of holy water which was always on hand in a great earthen pot in the sanctuary. We all rested peaceful that night. However it was well that the villagers all stayed securely inside that night for the two remaining lions who escaped the daytime drive paid a visit to every house where there was a bush knife or spear that had been bloodied in the killing of the two lions that day. Fortunately there were only claw marks on the earthen walls and veranda floors and sometime a bit of damage to the bamboo doors to let the occupants of that house know that they were on a watch list. You can take it or leave it, but I was there and am happy to be still around to tell the tale.

I am writing this letter tonight on the 26th of March, bathed in the comforting glow of our energy saver bulbs powered by 4 hundred watt solar panels on the roof of the building. It has been my dream of using as much of the friendly African sun to help us illuminate our school in the night time hours. This was part of our appeal last year and we are now on the way to the reality of the dream. We have always had solar of a very minor sort to light stairways and critical areas during black outs on the national grid. These are becoming more and more frequent and fueling a generator is almost as expensive as the national electric power supply. So in January we started in earnest in implementing the solar electrification of our major buildings. The present classroom building contains four large study halls with 65 students in each hall. Along with labor this investment comes to about four thousand dollars.  If this trial period is successful then I’ll continue to solar power all our study halls and eventually the entire school complex. With our electricity bill running to three thousand dollars a month our investment should be repaid easily in a year or two.

Along with the sun powered lighting we are also going to fully supply our kitchen with biogas. Our pilot project has functioned beyond our expectation for over a year so the time is right for us to gas power all seven of our 40 gallon kettle stoves. We are talking of keeping seven hundred and thirty teenagers from the brink of hunger. Our consumption of firewood keeps 3 men fully employed to keep these fires burning. Although wood is a renewable energy source, I’d rather see our forests return to their original species which blanketed our hills for eons. This year we have planted 1400 indigenous species of trees and some wag commented that who would be around in 150 years when they matured. I replied that we all could look down from heaven to see the Usambara Mountains again adorned in their original arboreal splendors.

I so well recall my first association with the scattered Christian communities here, especially the sick calls, bringing the sacraments to the sick and the elderly. One venerable old woman would delight me with her stories of escapades herding her father’s two cows and six goats. She had vivid stories of driving off elephants and buffalo, pelting them with stones when they got curiously close to her precious live stock. What a sight that would have been with an eight year old girl driving off five ton elephants and two ton buffalo with shouts and pebbles. Now, the only wild animals to be seen are the occasional Blue or Colubus monkeys who help themselves in the patches of sweet corn which is equally desirable to the rapid expanding human population.

In my former letter I described the ordeal of a new mother called Ester, who had worked for us in the Kindergarten of our parochial school for a number of years before getting married and moving off to Arusha with her new husband. Ester had skirted death by just a matter of hours, snatched as it were from eternity by the gifted healing hands of our devoted Sister Avelina who does part time duty in the government hospital in the town of Korogwe about a two hour drive from here. Sister Avelina also by the way had spent a couple of years with us as a student teacher when we first opened Mazinde Juu back in 1989. As I was giving the anointing of the sick to poor Ester, she uttered a lament from a breaking heart saying “Why O Lord did you give me my son Michael and then taking me away from him? Who will care for him now?” Obviously that prayer was being answered as she prayed it and within hours the deft doctor’s touch brought Ester out of a crisis of acute sepsis, back to the land of the living and just as important to both of them the maternal care of Michael. My sincere thanks for your loyal support of the future mothers of Tanzania.


2015easter01                      ESTER & MICHAEL TODAY





Father Damian Milliken

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