Dear Friends of Africa, August 2014
On one of my home leaves during a family gathering, one of my little grandnieces asked me“Are you my Uncle Jack from Africa?” and I replied readily, ”Yes, Bessie I am your Uncle Jack from Africa”. And she then came back with the snappy little question,“Then why aren‘t you black?” This caught me a little off balance and I told her that this takes a long time and that I was doing my best and starting on the inside first. This sort of coincides with the remarks of some of my parishioners who say of me that Father Damian is white on the outside but he is black on the inside especially his heart. So there are two conflicting opinions which time will sort out.
I went to Africa when it was still known as Tanganyika in 1960, a year before independence which came in December 1961. To tell the truth I was a rather reluctant missionary. After 7 years of seminary training and the novitiate in a Benedictine Abbey I had come to love the monastic life and saw myself settling down to a life of Ora et Labora, meaning prayer and work in a monastery. It was a bit of a dilemma for me to become a member of a monastic community which also was engaged in foreign mission work in Asia and Africa. So I resorted to a mental accommodation to this dilemma by leaving it up to the Lord and my vow of obedience. If I were sent by the superiors then I would of course go to the missions, but I resolved that I would not ask or volunteer for that kind of work. In July of 1959 while I was studying in Wurzburg, Germany I received a letter from my Abbot of St Paul’s Abbey in Newton, New Jersey, that I would report to my assignment at the mission station of Namupa in November of 1960. So my vow of obedience put me on the list of missionaries going that year to Africa. Now after 54 years in Africa I see what the Lord had in store for me and also what He wanted of me.
My first assignment and the first five years of my mission career were spent in a boarding school for catholic boys who were being trained for the priesthood. Few would ever get that far but it was one of the best ways for a village boy to get a good education and the priests in charge were under no illusions about this. It was a very busy place with about 300 boys from the 5th to the 8th grades and we were putting up the buildings which would become the new high school. I had charge of the discipline, food and general good order along with the building program, a good introduction for my future life in Africa.
On one of the first days of my supervision duties, which entailed eating with the students during the noonday meal, a little boy came to my table with his spoon and began to skim off little black specks from my bowl of lintels which was the side dish that day. I assumed that these specks were bits of black pepper and I told him that I liked pepper and he needn’t remove it. Then an older boy who could speak a bit of English came over and enlightened me that we always remove the weevils from our beans when they float to the top of the bowl before eating them, so I dutifully consented to the removal.
When I did the night check I could often hear the growls of leopards and the grunts of lions on the other side of the walls and was far more concerned and frightened than the boys. When one of these night prowlers happened to climb over the wall and parade about the courtyard I was even more perturbed and would hurry to get the tracks brushed away before the boys got up to find their parade ground so invaded. The same head boy who had alerted me about getting rid of the weevils in the beans also informed me that they all knew that the animals sometimes took shortcuts through our compound but they were usually gone by morning and that I needn’t bother with the tracks anymore. These boys all came from very basic and simple village backgrounds and knew the habits and ways of the forest wildlife far better than a stranger like me.
In the 1970’s and 80’s all our mission schools were nationalized and the missionary sisters, brothers and priests were all sent on our separate ways. Many found other types of social work to continue to give a boost to the development of the country, others went home disillusioned with the dismal course of events. My own conviction was always that it was through education that we could make any kind of change and improvement for the good of the country and better the lives of the people. So with the permission of my superiors I applied to the Ministry of education as an education officer and was given the job to teach in government schools basically in the same schools which once were our own. I held this position for 14 years. As I look back on this period of my life I see it as a preparation for the task that lay before me when the new government opened the door for the missionaries to restart our own schools again.
Then in the mid-1980’s the government of Tanzania allowed mission schools to operate as they had done so for decades. Today mission schools of many denominations are operating in the country, graduating thousands of boys and girls at the secondary level. Our own schools at Mazinde Juu and Kongei are among these schools and we are not to brag but we are at the very top in our yearly academic performance. At our first graduation in 1992 fourty girls graduated and one of those girls, Sister Eveta, is now the principal of Mazinde Juu. The people of Rochester have played a great role in the success of our mission of education in Tanzania. Sister Eveta herself earned her Masters in Education at Nazareth along with 11 other Tanzanian Sisters, all sponsored by scholarships from Nazareth College and the generosity and dedication of the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester. Today Sister Eveta watches over two hundred graduates a year come on stage for their diplomas and continue their march right up to College and University. At present we have over 2000 graduates Catholic, Protestant and Muslim girls each one well equipped and motivated, we hope, to make the world a better place. Our first school event each day is our prayer together at 6 in the morning. It made me feel good one day when a Muslim girl wrote me a letter saying “I will always be thankful to Mazinde Juu for there I learned how to pray”. Today in our schools we are empowering the African women who have been degraded and pushed aside for centuries to take over the vital task of bringing the light of education to their own brothers and sisters to see a new way forward on the road to dignity, prosperity and excellence. I have high esteem for our African Sisters and also their levelheaded handling of the daily happenings in boarding school life. Last Sunday the class that led the singing and the liturgy for the day really outdid themselves with their song and drumming and the overall vitality and verve in their participation at Mass. When I commented on how pleased I was with their participation I told Sister Eveta that the Holy Spirit was well represented at the Liturgy that morning. Sister readily agreed and she added too that her promise of giving them fresh doughnuts for breakfast that day if they did well at Mass might also have had something to do with it.
At the close of every morning prayer and before the final blessing the girls all bow and meditate for a few minutes on what they have heard that morning, listen to what the Lord is saying to them and think of what they are going to take away with them for the day. I get spontaneous responses from some students and often they share with me in the form of little notes that they will leave for me in my office. Here is one of the recent ones for your own appreciation and edification.
In October of 2012 we began a crash building program to put up a dormitory and classroom-library building to cater to the flood of new applications to the school. Requests for the ordinary high school and the Advanced High School 2 year program are in excess of one thousand applicants at each level yearly. Often times we rely on angelic guidance when we sift through the entrance exam papers to make the right choices. Top performers, especially when they are orphans or children of a single mom, will always get a green light though we know the payment of school fees will be hard for them to come by or not at all. Divine intervention is then involved but for me it’s perpetual thin ice skating. Our intake standard should be 100 for each level but we rarely keep to that standard. The principal, Sister Eveta, will come with slips of paper with a girl’s name, her marks according to our exam, the family particulars, and then a big question mark. The question mark usually means we are already over booked or no prospect of payment of school fees. When I ask, “ Where will she sleep?”, the reply comes back, “We’ll find a way.” When I ask about how we’ll pay the bills, the reply comes back,”You’ll find a way, Father. Faith moves mountains”.
So to get back to October 2012. We had moved a good portion of one of the Lord’s mountains and put a lovely 2 story building on the site. The purpose: to house 100 extra students and with two new classrooms and a spacious, lofty library. I envisioned a school with an enrollment of 560 and we now house and educate 720. Late last year we were racing with the weather to put the roof on the building before the rains. That we accomplished but I had not completed the fixing of the rain gutters and down pipes. But I was not unduly concerned at this early stage of our building. The inside would be dry and we could continue our finishing jobs. Then one night as I was closing my office one of the watchmen approached me and announced that a stone wall had moved. The man relayed the message but to me this was unbelievable, just preposterous, so I remarked that he must be seeing things and I went on home. It was 10:30PM and I lay in bed, but sleepless, and could not close my eyes. “Walls can’t walk”, I kept telling myself, but sleep had fled that bedroom. I got out of bed, dressed and went back to school. I had my flashlight ready and was now prepared to inspect any walking walls. And truly it was a scene of disaster. Two days of soaking rain, and an enormous cascade of water from the roof had built up pressure behind my retaining wall and pushed it 3 to 5 feet in places and it was now snug up against the foundation and the structural wall of my new building. Now I know the meaning of heartsick – a 75 feet of retaining wall, 10 feet high, detached itself from the embankment it was supposed to retain and walked away from its job.
When the workers reported on the job the following morning I merely said, “We have a big job ahead of us.” They preceded me to the building site and stood speechless at the devastation of 75 feet of rock wall 10 feet high to tear down and replace. With a will and without a word, they set to the job and in two days they had removed the entire retaining wall and cleared away the cave in of the embankment. By day number 3 our mood had greatly improved. The masons were now reenergized and commented that the Lord had wanted to teach them a lesson in moving mountains. They said they would put the wall all back together and it would not take them the six creation days either – they did it in four. The women stone bearers were also in high spirits and I even saw one sturdy Mama bending slightly while two strapping boys struggled to place a 50pound stone on her head while she chatted away gaily on her little black Nokia cell phone.
Thank you all for your loyal support in helping us not to put stones on women’s heads, but wisdom and knowledge into girls heads so that their lives will rest on the solid rocks of patience, courage and faith.
Your’s truly, Father Damian