July 2020

Dear Friends of Africa                                                                                                 

            The Tanzanian government declared a back to school order for the end of June and we received our final batch of students today. This has been a trying time for all of us, teachers, parents and students together. Our Headmistress Sister Evetha told me this morning that seven of our parents are among those who have succumbed to the Corona virus. There have been no cases among our students however. We had a special blessing at Mass on Sunday June 28th for the Form VI students who began their final examinations on the following day. As I gave each student her blessing I tried to recall in those young ladies the face of the little twelve year old girl who joined our school 6 years  ago.

              I entered the Benedictine monastery in 1953 in Newton, New Jersey and according our tradition, work was a part of the daily routine. One of the mainstays of our non monastic personal was Mathew Felsheim, a master carpenter and all around handyman. Mr. Felsheim was brought to America in 1924 by Fr. Michael Heinlein who was the founder of the monastery. I was always happy to be assigned to this congenial craftsman and his skills and dedication to perfection has kept me in good stead in my building career here in Africa. I was always amused when at the close of our work day and Mathew would religiously take out his ring of keys and lock all the doors and windows with multiple locks and take other security measures in the shop.. It amused me no end to watch this little ceremony for there was absolutely nothing of value in that workplace while all our tools and equipment were safeguarded elsewhere. So out of curiosity I asked him, why all the security measures when there was practically nothing that could be stolen. He then patiently explained that he locked up so securely everyday so as to prevent people from putting their stuff in, especially broken furniture with notes attached saying that repairs were most urgent. His caution then sounded reasonable.

          I recently had an unannounced visitor. I share a house with a teacher and his family near the entrance to the school property. There are security people there on a 24 hour a day basis. Now with the Corona epidemic the screening of visitors is quite strict. Unlike Mr. Felsheim at the Abbey in Newton I never lock my outside door. I have an aversion to being locked in and metal doors and windows can be barriers as well as access to the outside. So three weeks ago I was awakened in the dead of night. Someone was at my bedside gently tugging at my forearm. I turned on the night light and found a little girl staring at me very intently.  How she got there passing through the school fence and gate is a mystery. She simply said “father I want to study at your school, I do not want to go to a government school.” Where this little 12 years old person got the gumption to leave her village in the dead of night is beyond me. It also took a lot of courage and determination to take such steps to get into a school. And yes I did put Zaituni  in my second school at Kongei much to the joy and surprise of her parents who were astonished that their child would merit such a windfall. I never revealed to them my encounter with my night visitor.

                Kongei Secondary school for girls has had a checkered beginning and recently more hard times mostly in the financing of so many students of destitute families. It so happened that the people of Kongei and the neighboring villages approached our Bishop, Telesphore Mkude at that time and asked him to provide them with a school like the one at Mazinde Juu. The bishop replied that they had a school that was nationalized by the government in the 1970s and if that school were restored to the Diocese then he would consider their request for a girls secondary school at Kongei. Eventually a restoration of sorts was achieved and the school opened in 1995. At the initial meeting with the villagers to discuss the opening of Kongei Secondary School I was introduced by the village chairman as the School Manager appointed by the Bishop himself. At this juncture the leader of the Muslim community stood up and said that if a Catholic Priest was to be the Manager then the Muslim community would have no part in the project. And they left but our Muslim representation in the school over the years has ever been high and the disgruntled leader of old had to relent and let his people speak for themselves. Your efforts are key factors in keeping Kongei alive and many children like our little Zaituni, are having dreams come true through your generosity.

Sincerely, Father Damian