Newsletter from Africa – April 2016

Dear Friends of Africa,                                                                                                  April 2016

The events I would like to relate now came from an encounter I had 55 years ago and the descriptions of events related to me at that time took place some 55 years previous to that. In other words, what I’m now describing are the observations of a young man who saw firsthand the havoc and the destruction of missions and villages during the Maji Maji rebellion of 1905 in Tanganyika. Very briefly the Maji Maji rebellion was the uprising of the people of Tanganyika against the German Colonial rule which extended from 1895 to 1916 when German occupation in East Africa came to an end with the defeat of the German forces by combined British forces from Europe, India and South Africa. The causes of the uprising were the usual complaints of any subjected people; forced labor, taxes and in general, unwelcome foreigners ruling over them.

The MajiMaji, came from the Swahili word “maji” meaning water. The medicine men who were key figures in recruiting fighters for the cause would sprinkle the fighters with “maji” water, which they were told would turn German bullets into harmless water.  Needless to say it did not work as prescribed by the medicine men and hundreds died in the conflict. The Maji Maji were strong in Central Tanganyika and spread south to Lake Nyasa and then East to the coast along the Mozambique border. It was the arrival of the Maji Maji at the mission of Nyangao where my story begins. Nyangao was a mission just 5 miles from where I was stationed at Namupa, my first appointment in Africa. That was in 1960.

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon and the boys at the seminary where I was stationed were busily occupied with sports and games during their Sunday free day. An elderly man came to my office where I was dutifully correcting English and Latin homework. This man was accompanied by an elderly woman seemingly of about the same age as her husband which I was later informed was in the mid-seventies. They were not at all enfeebled but quite vigorous, having walked the five miles from Nyangao to Namupa in little over an hour.

After the usual formalities of greeting the gentleman as I truly recall him from the impression he made on me at the time, made me a proposal. He needed money to buy a piece of property and needed 100 shillings to meet the price that was being asked. At that time 1 US dollar was worth 7 East African shillings.  He said that he had no collateral but would leave his wife with me until he returned the loan which he promised to do within ten days. I told him that I trusted him and after giving him the 100 shillings I said farewell and told him his wife would be better off with him than with us at the Mission. On the 10th calendar day he appeared again and with the wife as well. He thanked me profusely for the loan and brought a big bunch of bananas as a token of thanks and the 100 shillings wrapped into a dried banana leaf. I offered them tea and cashew nuts and we talked at length about local affairs, the coming of Independence in December of that year 1961, the rains and the nuisance of wildlife in our area, namely elephants who found the village cornfields handier for good lunches than foraging for hours in the forest for grass and tree bark. And the lions, leopards as well as hyenas thought the mission cows, goats, sheep as well as chickens were better for nighttime snacks than chasing wild pigs and fleet footed bush bucks through the woods.

I asked about his background and here came a story one of the most compelling I have ever heard and I believe this is the first time I have ever put this story on paper. He was born and raised a Muslem and was given the name Ramadhani. At the age of twelve he was given the job at the Nyangao mission as a cook’s helper, keeping the wood fire stoked and the pots and kettles scoured and gleaming.

It was the time of the Maji Maji and missions were vulnerable being the centers unfairly associated with the German government authority, but the most visible manifestation of foreign rule, big buildings, schools, hospitals all quite un-African in spite of being primarily for the benefit of the Africans. Even baptized Christians were targeted by the Maji Maji perhaps being seen as collaborators with the foreign rule.

Anyway to get on with the story, my friend Ramadhani told of the terror and fear of the approaching Maji Maji fighters. The Priests, Brothers and Sisters made preparations to flee to the nearest military outpost in Lindi some 65 miles away. The small mission band had weapons and as events unraveled according to Ramadhani they knew how to use them. As he was later to relate in his story that Sister Walburga was a crackshot and the best in the party. He himself was risking his life by fleeing with the missionaries but he was true and loyal throughout and never left his devotion to his benefactors in those hard and desperate times. He could have easily stayed at home in safety and let the Maji Maji ransack and burn the mission but he never left his Fathers, Brothers and Sisters in their desperation. I watched Ramadhani closely as he narrated his story of the flight to Lindi as he relived the harrowing events of that fateful night some fifty-five years ago. They left the mission in flames but were now bent on making it to safety in Lindi. However, the Maji Maji were also determined to obliterate the white faces that represented the colonial oppression and quickly began tracking the small band of fugitives. The details were not many but my narrator, Ramadhani, had the gift of the real story teller. The Maji Maji were hot on the trail of the fleeing missionaries about 4 or 5 in all. After a few hours of a mad dash through dense forest in the dead of night they felt that they had put a safe distance between themselves and the pursuing Maji Maji. They felt a bit relieved having escaped with their lives the destruction and the plundering of their mission and paused for a brief halt to regain their breath. Unwisely they made a small fire to boil some tea, a signal the Maji Maji picked up straight away. The missionaries were huddled in a small depression with a false sense of protection but totally exposed on all sides by the determined Maji Maji. The fighters had wiped out the mission but were determined also to finish the foreigners, the perpetrators of the foreign rule regardless of the peaceful services the mission gave, particularly the hospital and the schools that the missionaries ran. The little fire and the smell of smoke alerted the Maji Maji fighters and they began a bitter assault with spears and arrows on the missionaries. The arrows and spears were not very effective especially in the dark but the ferocious gun fire from the missionaries put the Maji maji on a more cautious footing. Any moving shadow on the rim of the enclosure called for gunfire and the initial results of the missionary weaponry made the Maji Maji very wary. During a lull in the battle Ramadhani bought the hot tea for the missionaries to drink. As Sister Walburga laid aside her rifle aside and turned to take her cup she was fatally struck with a spear in her side still reaching for that hot cup of tea.  Now I don’t know if there is an official account of this incident but these are the recollections of a man who claims to have been there. Those who survived the attack eventually reached Lindi mission and relative safety. Sister Walburga is now highly revered to this day and processions in her honor go to her grave every year on the anniversary of her death.

I never looked deeper into the history of the Maji Maji uprising and took as bare fact the unsolicited account Ramadhani gave me. It would be interesting if there is an official account of the destruction and flight from the Nyangao mission. If I find an approved authorized version of the death of Sister Walburga I will share it with you. For now, we have Ramadhani’s account of the recollections of a little 12 year old boy which I feel are quite authentic. At that time of this narration there were still many survivors who could have corroborated his story if I felt he was he was fabricating but the circumstances were such that I had no reason to doubt the veracity of this man’s reminiscing.   And for the processions to the grave of Sister Walburga on the anniversary of her death we may just as well be honoring a hero trying to save her fellows as others want to honor her as a martyr dying for the faith. That for me is all for the dear Lord to sort out.

But in our Benedictine congregation of St. Ottilien, death has certainly stalked our predecessors. In the late 18 hundreds and early 19 hundreds scores of missionaries, Priests Brothers and Sisters died before completing a brief one or two years of mission service, succumbing to malaria or some other tropical disease which were rampant and fatal at that time. A walk through the mission cemeteries is a revelation. Scores of mission personnel dying before even getting into their third year of service many never completing a single calendar year.  For our Congregation the death knell continued during the First and Second World Wars when all able bodied men were called up for military service from our German monasteries and 143 Priests and Brothers lost their lives. Daily as we call to mind our deceased for-runners in our congregation who have passed on, the KIA {Killed in Action} after the names of all those young men, is a grim reminder on not just being unknowing of the day or the hour of death but the how and why that they gave their lives is just as imponderable.

When the Communists took over in North Korea many of our mission personnel were captured and imprisoned. Thirty four missionaries died due to starvation or brought to their deaths by brutal beatings or frozen to death. St. Ottilien has published a book illustrating their heroic lives. It is mentioned there that many of those who were killed were specifically made to suffer for their Christian faith. Our very first mission in Tanganyika opened at Pugu near Dar es Salaam in 1889 and was overrun during the Bushiri revolt against the colonial government. It was burned to the ground and a brother and two sisters lost their lives and others were captured and held for ransom.

In the early days of the congregation many of the young confreres were inspired by the ideal of martyrdom for the Kingdom of God. But of course our goal was never to come out to die for the Lord but to live for Him and build up the Kingdom by fighting the big enemies that our first President Julius Nyerere so constantly identified as Poverty, Ignorance, and Disease. With our focus on Education we hope to provide the people with the knowledge to identify and find the means and have the will to eliminate the Poverty and Disease themselves.

Last month our Form VI students sat for their final National Examinations. The results of these exams will determine who will go on for further study at University level. As part of our preparations for the exams every Sunday night prior to the examinations we had a vigil for the Holy Spirit to enlighten their minds for the task ahead. It is a moving experience with just the Pascal Candle in the Chapel lit and letting the singing and the silence fill our hearts and souls. I never miss being there with the students and lend an encouraging word from time to time as well with a little ferverino to keep our sprirts high. I give them credit for their seriousness and devotion. Nobody walks out during the Holy hour which invariably goes on for two hours. And it is all voluntary. Now the exams are over and the students have gone home. Those who have been with us for the full six years of Secondary school have become like our children and leave a mark on the school as well as on us and leave a void as well. We are with these children day and night and hour after hour so in all likelihood we will have been with them longer than their own parents. However, the first year students fill the place with their youth and exuberance and help us to get over the loss of the ones who have gone on with their lives and we hope for bigger things. Our prayer for them is also that they will also be better beings.

Our new Library functions as a key center for them now and they put it to day and night use in honing their study skills. It completes the triangle of classroom and chapel in enabling the students to gain the moral and the mental habits that will fit them for their lives in the big outside world. That is what I like to think is happening.

Our sincere thanks to all of you who have enabled us to make a difference here in Africa in the lives of these children with the sincere hope that they too will also go on to continue to make a difference in the world in which they live.

Examination timeMazinde Juu Carpentry


Father Damian

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