Dear Friends of Africa, January, 2016
Our students have a penchant and an ability to go with it, to draft little memoranda and they leave them on my desk for my edification. When I find them particularly good I’ll read them during the meditation time at morning mass. A recent one goes like this. “The miracles of Jesus were unique. In biology he was born without a biological father. In chemistry he changed water into the sweetest of wines. In physics he walked on water. In medicine he cured without medications and in economics he fed 5000 people on just five loaves and two fish.” The author of this little prayer parodied the major science subjects we stress in the advanced level secondary school. i.e. junior college.
Yesterday I went to the Lushoto market to do a bit of shopping for my meager grocery needs at home. I was looking for some honey and brown bread. I was directed to a tiny shop and there found the desired items. The young sales girl was a tall attractive woman with an equally attractive manner. She provided me with my desired items and mentioned numerous things to boost the sales. To be honest it was not just the natural beauty of this lady that was attracting but it was the human nicety she had to point out other things that might fit my needs. Did she want to talk or was she that good of a sales person I don’t know but it was rather delightful being in her company and I was in no great a hurry to leave. As we all know there are people just like that nice to be with. At the close of our transaction I noticed reddish white scars on her hands. When I expressed concern about the scars she told me they were from being scalded with boiling water. There are also cases in my parish with similar signs and I gently asked. ”Was it from “falling down?” This is the expression for the condition of epilepsy. And she replied with a side long look and lifted the long garment generally worn here by women and revealed scared tissue from her foot to above the knee like ropes of darkened contorted skin and knowing that I knew what it was all about she said ‘yes I fell down’. There are many cases of epilepsy here and most suffer scars of burns mostly from seizures in the African open fire kitchens. A young member of our church choir was missing for a couple of Sundays. Then during my visit to the village bringing Holy Communion I met the missing singer Christina. She came into the home where I was already engaged with some elderly people wanting the sacraments. She was limping with a homemade crutch. Again a falling down case and her leg was charred black from foot to knee. I could tell from the looks and the odor that here there had been little or no treatment. My mind flashed back some 25 years ago when I had been doctoring for large wounds on my back due to melanoma surgery. The gifted surgeon Dr. Marshall of Elmira New York told me that the best treatment was water therapy just stand in the shower and let the tap water flow over the sores . It worked beautifully and we have introduced the procedure here in our villages especially for the frequent burn cases among epilepsy sufferers. It is now two weeks since our recent burnt leg started on the water cure, twice a day tepid water dripped from a tea kettle and in days new fresh skin seems to come alive. Christina, by name, now walks without a crutch and can even wear a slipper on her damaged foot. Long suffering is a unique African virtue. Even common place conversational expressions tie God to everyday life. Take a simple farewell like ‘See you soon”, would merit the reply, ‘If God wills it’. And meeting someone enduring a painful bereavement the expression, ‘With God there are no mistakes its’ all in His plan’, people will find it comforting. The following story I may have already written about but in the present context it can bear repeating. It is about an elderly man named Alois who also has epilepsy. He had fallen into the kitchen fire and was left with a badly burned foot. He was totally neglected at the local public hospital so we brought him home for our own water therapy. After three months time he could limp around with a cane and an over sized soft leather shoe. Some years later as I returned from home leave l was informed that my friend Alois had fallen into the fire again. However the good news was that it was the bad foot again not the good foot that suffered the fire. The bad news however was that both hands were burned, the left one badly the right one less so. I had been gone for about three months so there was a big backlog of work to catch up on. I would daily promise myself that I would go to see my ailing friend. His patience shamed my procrastination and then he appeared in my doorway one mid morning. A bale of rags were bound around the damaged foot. His left hand was a charcoal black vestige of a human hand. His right hand was spotted with seeping sores. My first impulse was to rush him to the village dispensary. But he deterred me and said he wanted to go to confession first and to receive Holy Communion. He then made the painful climb up the stairway to the convent chapel and composed himself to receive the Sacraments. It must have been weeks since he had a decent wash and was in a sorry state altogether. One of our Sisters belonging to his tribe later snapped off all the charred fingers like five burnt twigs leaving a paw like palm at the end of his fore arm. But in spite of his wretched physical state his devotion was impeccable. I wondered at the magnitude of the faith that found space to reside in the wreckage of that human body. The odor of festering and decay was so overpowering I was forced to open the chapel windows. He sat in the pew in a reverie of grace assured, his eyes closed and his shattered arms in his lap. As he opened his eyes he said softly. “I’m so very sorry to have troubled you so much but I really haven’t told about my real problem.” As he said this he fumbled to open his shirt front with his few remaining fingers. This I did for him and he then pulled out a grimy plastic rosary. He held up the broken plastic cross of the rosary and said, ”Now this is my real problem and can you please help me with a new rosary?”
As sad as the funeral was there was a time of mirth when the body was to be laid to rest. It was not just an ordinary dug grave but an actual vault with bricked up walls and a laid floor. It is only the second time in my life when I have seen such an arrangement. With all due ceremony, the coffin was taken from the home and carried to the burial place with hymns and lamentations. But when it came time to place the coffin into the vault it was discovered that the discrepancy between the width of the vault and the width of the coffin was about six inches. There were some heated recriminations between the pallbearers and the masons who built the vault and at one point it became rather unseemly considering the mother and the wife of the deceased and the other mourners standing helplessly by. Many of these then departed in a reverent silence, while the arguments continued over the coffin on how to rectify the impasse.I recently attended a funeral in Moshi some four hours drive from our home here in Lushoto. The people from the Moshi area are quite affluent compared with our people here in the Usambara Mountains. When I enquired from one of the local clergy who was also going to the funeral whether we would wear Roman collars, he replied, ”Oh heavens never, they’ll take us all for Lutheran pastors.” And truly they were there in force all impeccably done up in smart black suits and Roman collars.
Later that afternoon one of our parents from the Moshi area came to greet me and lamented the row at the burial ceremony. She also related to me the recent burial of her own grandfather also of the Chagga tribe of the Moshi people. The grandfather was a rather wealthy man with a fine herd of cattle. On his deathbed he insisted that the relatives pick out the finest of all his cows and at his death that cow should be slaughtered and prepared for the funeral feast. To this they are readily agreed. But then he stipulated that his body should then be wrapped up in that same skin and that would be his burial shroud. He was delighted with this idea wrapped up in one of his own cows and being an unforgettable part of the feast on the day of the burial. As the days past, his departure became imminent and the cow was selected, one to his satisfaction. However with the old man now gone the offspring began debating the propriety of wrapping grandfather up in the cow skin. The real issue being, what would the neighbors say. So they got the fancy coffin and all of the frills and flowers that go with it. On the day of the burial as they were carrying the coffin to the family plot and lowered grandfather into the grave the heavens opened with a cloudburst orchestrated with thunder and lightning that dispersed everybody and the coffin left alone in the newly dug grave. On their return to the site the coffin was gently floating above ground in the grave full of water. The brother of the grandfather reproached the family for disregarding the expressed wishes of the deceased and told them all to go and find rocks which he piled on top of the coffin and to the horror of the family members he poked a hole in the side of the coffin with pickax and down it went with copious gurgling and bubbling. His final word to the family was that this is what they deserved for disregarding the expressed wishes of the deceased. The grand old man had never worn a suit or a tie in his life and instead of being wrapped up in the watertight skin of one of his beloved animals which sustained him and his clan for generations, his final resting was in a soggy black suit and tie which he had never worn in his lifetime. But for sure that funeral was never forgotten in that community and they now listen very carefully to their elders.
Last week was truly one of mourning for many in our diocesan communities. Our own Sisters lost one of their Community very unexpectedly. The last foreign missionary of the Rossminian Congregation, and a not so old one at that, lost their Father Tony Mitchel an ever cheerful Irishman who was only found because he did not show up for Mass in the morning and there he was asleep in the Lord in his favorite chair in the mission sitting room.
Our new President of Tanzania, Mr. John Mugufuli is making a lot of waves very early in his administration. On his first day in office he walked down from the State House to the Ministry of Finance and found just six higher officials at their desks. There was a lot of scurrying around after that visit. The following day he visited the Main City Hospital and found dozens of patients lying on the floors, many of them having been there for weeks without medical attention of any kind. The top hospital officials were banished on the spot. Today the heads of the Internal Revenue got the ax for allowing tax evaders to get off scot free with hundreds of cargo containers getting into the country without any Duty being paid. The saga carries on with daily revelations in the news. The most recent is the cancelation of the usual gala Garden Party for the official opening of Parliament costing millions of shillings being replaced with a tea and cookie party in the afternoon and the money saved being diverted to buy 300 beds and bedding to go with them for the Dar es Salaam city hospital. For the men and woman Tanzanian in the streets these are dramatic changes. The cartoon artists for the daily papers are having a heyday. One delightful one was the depiction of a computer screen with a note stuck to it declaring. ”Your Honor President Mr. Magufuli, I’ve just made a quick dash to the toilet, but I’ll be right back, I promise”. His latest as of today is the cancelation for all public celebrations for the National holiday for Independence on Dec.9th and for the local communities to spend the day in cleaning up their town and city streets. Foreign travel and junkets for Government officials are also out. The curtailment of the opulent lifestyle of the government officials is certainly justified when we consider the abject living conditions of so many Tanzanians, scratching away on tiny plots to eke out the basics for survival. All of these presidential efforts sound good to these people who live in the countryside in dire poverty for generations not knowing literally where the next meal is coming from. No doubt Mr. John Magufuli will incur the ire of the former elite and that will make his life difficult. But that is the lot of Prophets and Reformers and let us hope he is a man up to his job, better styled, his “Mission”.
And very close to home here at Mazinde Juu we lost one of our top teachers, Joseph Macha at the age of 42, succumbing to liver cancer after four months of great pain and discomfort. His devotion to his vocation as a teacher left all of us in awe and admiration. Time after time I would see him trudging up to school with his corrected home works under his arm. He was preparing the fourth year students for their big national exam last month. I’d tell him ”Joseph, take it easy we have lots of help for the students and you don’t need to be doing all of this.” To which he always replied, ”These are my students from their first year and I am going to see them through to the last and I’ll finish the syllabus with them even if it kills me” And it did, but he died on the job doing it. God love him. Joseph’s wife Catherine kept us in touch with his progress till the last day and in fact the last hour. In his last message to Sister Evetha the Headmistress of our school here at Mazinde Juu, he asked Sister to forgive him for not having collected all the Mathematics books from the students before he left. To me his message was to forgive him if he had not really done his best in giving them what he should have as a teacher. His life example was a lifetime lesson for each and every one of us I can tell you. My gratitude to all of you who are so generous and selfless in reaching across the continents to make sure that our children have the classrooms to go into and the dedicated teachers like Joseph to inspire them. The Peace and Joy of Christmas be with you.