Dear Friends of Africa.
When I first came to Africa in 1960 as a novice missionary I was informed by a veteran of some decades in the missions that things were not like they used to be and the tried and true ways of doing things were showing the strains of novelty and modernity. Tops of the list of degradation were the tendency of the young men spending their nights listening to their short wave radios on BBC no less instead of concentrating on language study like Swahili and the tribal languages. Furthermore they had even persuaded the superiors to grant home leave after a tour of only seven years instead of ten which was already a relaxation of the norm which was I believe once in a life time. Motorcycles were replacing bicycles and some more audacious men were even suggesting that a jeep would be the ideal vehicle for getting around to all our out stations. A mission with 40 to 50 out stations, meaning a bush school of four grades, teaching reading, writing and arithmetic and a little mud and wattle chapel for religious services might well be 40 to 60 miles distant from the home parish and getting there would be on a mud track in the rainy season and a dust trail in the dry season. The old timers would leave the main station on a Sunday with his provisions tied to the carrier of a bike and be gone for a months; teaching catechism, visiting and healing the sick and providing the Christians with the sacraments. When I arrived I qualified for a motorcycle so already I was considered one of the young Turks.
Nowadays however we foreign missionaries are soon to become an extinct species. There are no new missionaries coming out. There are more than 28 African Bishops heading the dioceses of Tanzania all with abundant African clergy & multitudes of Sisters. When I came out there were only a half a dozen dioceses and each had a foreign missionary as the ecclesiastical superior.
When I am home on leave and offering Mass in one of our parishes I am often reminded of how I almost evolved into a foreign missionary in my own homeland. The last time I attended Mass in my own parish of St. Patrick’s in Elmira, New York, a member of the congregation came up to me after the service and enquired “Are you new around here?” I got a bit possessive about my own roots in my home parish and told him that my grandfather was there on the scaffolds as the church was built, my mother & father were baptized and married here, all my family, 14 brother and sisters, were born here and baptized here in this very church. I was ordained here and was sent to Africa from here in 1960. “Africa” somehow sparked an extra bit of interest and he then asked how long I’d been in Africa. When I replied, “50 years”, his next question just tripped off his tongue. ‘Do you like it?” Being a bit peaked by now with this pushy parishioner I replied, “Really it’s the money!!” I thought that he’d see the irony of the remark but to my surprise he gave me enthusiastic thumbs up and added an eager “There you go Father, keep right at it if the money is right.”
Some of the old guard parishioners are really grand friends and family, but as the years roll on they are fewer and far frailer. One pillar of our parish was a retired spinster high school teacher. Her name was Rose Kingston and whenever I got home, she would be there in the sacristy after Mass with an envelopeand a generous check for the missions. One day she invited me to coffee at her home after the morning mass. She said that she had something special that she wanted to share with me. As we sat in her sunny little kitchen on Walnut Street she said that what she was about to relate pertained to me and my family and she had never mentioned this to another soul. Rose began her narrative with a cheery smile on her cherubic Irish face and a mischievous twinkle in her eye. She told me that for many years she had been a teacher in our local high school and used to drive her little Dodge coupe to school each day with her fellow teacher Ms. Wixson. On this particular day as she approached our big three story house on the corner of Hoffman Street and Roe Avenue she slowed down to make her turn. To her astonishment she saw a little boy of about two years of age playing in the middle of the road. She later confirmed that the little boy was myself. She stopped on the spot and glancing around saw one of my older sisters hanging out the laundry on the acres of clothes lines that covered our back yard. She called to my sister that she should get right over and get me out of the street before I got run over by a car. I can well imagine the commanding ring of that school teacher voice rolling out of that little black car window. Without dropping a clothes pin my sister Neena called back over her shoulder. “It’s not my turn to watch him!” However I survived the encounter with the black Dodge coupe I did not hear for Rose’s telephone rang and our conversation took other turns but there is sufficient evidence that I did escape being run over by cars in Elmira NY and went on to Africa where I have also managed to survive floods and droughts, avoided the charges of rogue elephants, angry lions and leopards and snakes in my closet.
Remotely related to the above account of Rose Kingston, was my visit to the ear doctor in town on my last home visit. I was seated in a giant pea pod of a contraption and was supposed to nod my head when I was able to hear various sounds at different degrees of volume. After about thirty minutes of nodding at sounds that I could or couldn’t hear my hearing specialist told me that there was something unique about my hearing loss. He called his father who is also a specialist in the art and the two of them pondered over the squiggles on the green sheets of graph paper. Eventually when they had concluded their evaluation of the tests they told me that I had in one particular decibel range a 70% hearing loss. When I enquired further about this particular decibel range they explained that it was in the range of women’s voices. I sat there in that pink pea pod and wondered silently whether growing up in a family of nine sisters and our mother and running girls schools over the past thirty years here in Africa some evolutionary mechanism might have been activated to contrive for my survival to this day.
A few years ago Hilary Clinton wrote a book with the title, if I’m not mistaken, something like. “It takes a village to raise a child.” I don’t know what village Mrs. Clinton had mind but my experience has given me a rather negative view, namely of how village life, as I see it in our part of Africa, can deform children rather than form them.
To give you an idea of what the children face growing up here in one of our little villages please bear with me with a few candid observations. Our villages here cannot be described as hot beds of anything noteworthy with the exception of ignorance and indigence. I am not assigning blame or criticism mind you. I have lived here now for 52 years and have seen great changes but also widespread corruption and neglect from the top levels of government down to the village level. Poverty abounds and is written large in almost every aspect of our lives. Sickness strikes down children in a matter of hours; malaria, pneumonia and typhoid in combination erupt randomly and put a family having awakened with anticipation of a new day into a state of mourning by nightfall.
Ignorance is all pervasive and a deadly catalyst in the mixture of the ills that befall and bedevil us. When I spoke of my hope and desire to a start a girls’ high school in this area, the teachers of the local primary school ridiculed the whole idea and styled my school as a dumping ground for waste basket children. The elders complained about who would fetch the water and the firewood and look after the goats if the girls were allowed to go to school.
Now our school at Mazinde Juu is a paragon school taking those so called “waste basket’ children integrating them into an atmosphere of academic and moral challenges and we can watch a most remarkable transformation of a village fetcher of water and fire wood into a self aware and motivated young woman ready to delve into the wonders of knowledge even at the University level.
I hope that my description of our life here is not too grim. As I indicated there are examples in abundance of progress of sorts. What encourages me most is to see simple little village girls come alive in the classroom and wrestle with the intricacies of Physics, Math and Chemistry as though this were the fighting ring where they were made to perform.
In secondary schools here in Tanzania we have 3 sets of examinations which are set and marked nationally. There are some 4000 secondary schools in Tanzania where the exam years are after the 2nd, 4thand 6th year of secondary education. The 2nd year exam is a streaming sort of exam which will separate the vocational school clientele from the college entrance types. Our school ranked 3rd out of 560 schools is our zone. Of our 89 candidates doing this exam the second highest grade was one of our village girls who had never seen an electric light bulb before she came to our school. Now she out-performs the scores of other students who have had the benefit of high class primary education in English medium schools in the bigger towns like Dar es Salaam and Arusha. Now believe it or not we are criticized for catering only to the elite. Formerly we were a school for waste basket children, now when we perform so well we are accused of caring only for the elite. My reply is that we take the waste basket cast offs and make the elite out of them. I hope I have not bored you with my random remarks. May the good Lord bless you for your love and care for these little ones.
Fr. Damian J. Milliken
Fr. Damian is a Benedictine missionary and an educator. He has been proclaiming the gospel and teaching in Tanzania for since 1960.