Newsletter from Africa – Dec. 2016
Dear Friends of Africa,
I think back now to July of 1945 when Father Michael Heinlein, a Benedictine Missionary Priest, came to our Parochial school of St. Patrick’s in Elmira New York. He showed us movies of life in Africa and invited boys to join him in the work of the East African missions in Tanganyika. He passed out cards to interested boys and promised to come and visit us and talk to our parents. I was rather disheartened when I learned that many of my school friends had a personal visit from Father Michael but not at my home at 1002 Hoffman St. Little did I know then that my intriguing mother was putting him off day by day not giving Fr. Michael the opportunity to meet me saying that I often had to stay after school for extra learning. Father Michael was not to be put off however and eventually we did meet together with him, my father and mother and myself. That meeting culminated with my joining the Benedictine Mission Seminary in Newton, New Jersey in September 1946 for my freshman year of High School. I was a homebody if there ever was one and to this day I ask myself how I ever chose to go away to a seminary and I was only 13 years old. My mother and father were totally against the whole idea but the aura of the paternity and sanctity of Father Michael seemed to tip the scales to the option that I go to the seminary that September 1946.
Now to fast forward to November 1960, I was sent to Tanganyika. I arrived there in November 1960, 14 years after Father Michael’s visit in Elmira, New York. I would like to allude to the direction of my life without this Father Michael encounter but that remains in the realm of speculation and the eternal mind of God. What I can truly say is that much has transpired in my life that for good or for ill has been to keep me close to an African trajectory. My first day in Tanganyika getting off the DC 3 on a dirt runway in Lindi seeing naked children running beside our gleaming blue US made Jeep was like a replay of some other life experience that I had. In a former lifetime I could almost suggest.
My first five years were filled with intense school work teaching English and Latin to little boys beginning with grade five of primary school, daily supervision of construction of storied school classrooms and dormitories, safaris to the bush searching suitable trees for felling and turning them into roof rafters, trusses, windows, doors, school desks and furniture. I learned Swahili and bits of the tribal language of Namupa “Kimwera” which still rings hauntingly in my ears, and the fires in the evenings with children roasting cashews over open fires, the drums throughout the nights celebrating a birth, a wedding or a happy event of one sort or another or the calling of the spirits to take care of the imponderables of living. The nights were unbearably hot and the Aladdin lamps fed by kerosene gave off a bright white light but also a white hot heat. We wrote many letters in those days still with pens with ink and a towel on the page to take up the sweat from our arms.
Village problems were our problems, births, deaths, medical emergencies all were part of the unprogrammed day and night hours. I remember an emergency hospital call when I was called to pick up an ancient Mama with serious abdominal pains. I was driving a VW Kombi and it was just getting dark when we left the mission. The woman had never ridden in a car before and began shrieking saying that the trees were all running behind us. She began gagging and put her head out the window for some air coughing and sighing the whole while. The anxiety and excessive activity of the poor woman caused her lip plug to get dislodged and fell out on the roadside. Now the whole trip had to be aborted for she could not be seen in public without that symbol of her dignified womanly decorum. So we stopped the car and went on the search for the lip plug which was about the size of a small saucer. Fortunately, it was of white wood and quickly found and the stomach pains were almost forgotten with the incident of the lost facial ornament.
I was just going into class one Monday morning and a young man approached me as I was about to give my Latin and English lessons. He grabbed me by the arm and said it was urgent. I told him my classes were very urgent too. He protested and claimed the whole life of their village was at a standstill. When I asked for an explanation he said, “There is a lion in our village”. It was a rather stark rejoinder and I asked what I could do about their lion. Without waiting an answer I ran to my room and took down my well used 30.06 (pre-WWI military) rifle and went with a young Swiss volunteer on his motorcycle to meet the lion. The scene at the village was so pathetic. The lion had been snared in a wire trap. The snare was drawn tight around its hindquarters and was attached to a heavy log about five feet long. The poor beast had dragged the log goodness knows how long, such a cruel agony for such a magnificent beast. I truly felt it had come to the village of its fellow creatures for relief in its pain and torment. Without doubt or hesitation my friend walked up to the lion in the village square and eye to eye put the barrel of the 30.06 on its forehead and said “Goodbye King.” No doubt that 20 year old Swiss boy recalls that moment to this day.
The daily commentary today of the devastation of the African wild life – flora & fauna leaves us dismayed. I recall in the 1960’s waiting on my silent motorcycle of an early Sunday morning going for Sunday Masses while a herd of elephants took their time to cross my trail. Leopard and hyenas were nightly visitors during the dark hours and we did not have to worry about the boys sneaking off to the villages for unlawful visits.
Former student’s son Damian with Damian elder
I thought at the time that the damage done to Catholic principles and education with the nationalization of our schools was irreparable. However, the opposite is true now with catholic schools both secondary and colleges blossoming throughout the country and with stellar academic performance. I also would like to add that Mazinde Juu can be found among the top on this list of these high performers thanks now to all you faithful supporters. In the early 1970’s the government nationalized all mission schools in an effort to bring all educational institutions into conformity with an ideology of African socialism. The socialist experiment was well intentioned and widely preached and praised but in the long run the program went the way of so many other good intentions. I recall attending a political rally setting forth the ideals of communal ownership. The speaker started his speech declaring that from now on if anyone in the village had a tractor or a pick-up it would now be the village tractor and pick up. The shouts of approval were deafening. He went on saying if there were cows or goats owned by individuals they would now be the cows and goats of the village. More shouts and cries of approval. The speaker was now all pumped up and went on to declare that all the ducks, chickens and pigeons would now be village ducks and chickens and pigeons. This statement fell on dumbfounded ears and a dead silent audience. The speaker looked out over the gathered villagers appealing, “How come” he said, “tractors, trucks, cows and goats are all now common property. Now chickens, ducks and pigeons, No Go, how come?” he shouted appealing. “Because we each have our own chickens, ducks and pigeons,” came the reply from one intrepid farmer.
Our great problem today I see is apathy. A recent example of this was a plea by the former Prime Minister Mr. Pinda. He had attended a prestigious catholic boys’ school run by the Irish Holy Ghost Fathers in the pre-independence days. The school fell into decrepitude after being nationalized and Mr. Pinda made a public plea to all the former students called “Pugu Boys” after the place name of the school, to rally round and start a drive to raise funds to restore the school to its former glory. On the designated day for the meeting Mr. Pinda was the sole attendee out of hundreds of Pugu boys who had passed through the school. He was seen standing alone paradoxically in front of the dilapidated school chapel dedicated appropriately to St. Francis of Assisi.
I had envisioned Mazinde Juu as a four-year Secondary school with an enrollment of 500 students. It has now grown into an Advanced level Secondary school with a six year curriculum and an enrollment of over seven hundred. It behooves me now to enlarge the kitchen and the dining room. Christmas is a wonderful time for making room in our hearts for those seeking shelter. We would invite your generosity in helping us making our rooms more welcoming too.
May the peace of our divine Saviour be with you all now and in the New Year and our deepest gratitude for all that you have done for us and are still doing side by side with us.
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