Newsletter from Africa – June 2012

JUNE  2012

Dear Friends of Tanzania,

             When I recollect the events of this day what comes to my mind are the words of the Gospel of St.Luke beginning “The angel of the Lord came”… and here begins our Tanzania, Lushoto version. Last Monday I was to attend a meeting of the Pastors of our deanery at our center in Lushoto Town. As meetings go it was not a boring affair at all but a nice amicable meeting with our African counterparts. There were fourteen of us attending, twelve Africans and two foreign missionaries, myself and a German Father. I won’t go into the details of all that was discussed but I repeat, it was stimulating to hear how other pastors were dealing with the same issues as myself.

             After the meeting I had to do some shopping for stationary for the school. The items we needed were not available in the shops that I was familiar with but I was directed to one where I was assured I could get what I was looking for. My problem was that I did not know where the shop was located. The shopkeeper did not hesitate a moment and leaving his store wide open told me that he would show me the way. Though I have lived here in the Lushoto area for thirty-one years and the little lane heading down was only a stone’s throw from where we had just been, it was for me like going down Alice’s rabbit hole. The din of the market and the traffic were gone and the atmosphere was so serene that it was filled with grass, trees and a brook you could readily call it a sanctuary.

             The shopkeepers there were two young fellows just out of high school and trying to make a go in life on their own. With the enthusiastic welcome they gave me I was more than likely their first customer of the day. There were the few odd items, envelopes and pads and pens, and the usual paraphernalia of stationary on rough hewn board shelves and all delicately dusted with Lushoto light brown dust. But there to my surprise and delight was the very item I was looking for: an HP ink cartridge of the right number and an unexpired date. While I made my purchase my guide was chatting with a woman who came out from behind the shop loaded down with towels and drapes and fabrics or every size and color. When I thanked him for guiding me to the shop he told me that the woman actually had been looking for me and wanted to have a word with me. She was a rather tall person and had a special grace about her when she spoke and all the garments with which she was draped swayed about her in accompaniment to her story. In short she told me that her daughter had finished fourth year high in our school at Kongei and had been selected to join Mazinde Juu to go on to Advanced high school for preparation for college entrance where she was at this very moment. The woman went on to say that she had paid every cent of her school fees for four years at Kongei and every towel and drape she sold went into her education and for her other daughter who was still in grade school. It seems that the husband had disappeared with the arrival of the second daughter. The woman went on with her story of how she brought her daughter Monika to our school at the very closing of reporting day and made her deposit of $50 registration fee and then left before the secretaries could begin asking about tuition and other payments. Then the flood of tears began and the poor woman’s whole life story came tumbling out amid sobs and tears and wailing, of what she could do to keep her daughter in school at Mazinde Juu and her other little girl in school as well and food on the table and all the other dreads and botherations that assail a single unemployed mother.

             I began to ask myself what was it that brought me to this out of the way parkland in Lushoto town and to meet this poor woman in such distress. She described her daily toiling the streets and lanes of Lushoto looking for customers for her sad, cast off clothes from Europe. She said that she would not be able to meet the school fees bearing down on her and the tears flowed torrentially. The young shopkeepers looked on open mouthed. I was convinced that I had been called there not only to hear what this poor mother had to say but to so something about it. I let instinct guide me and put my hand on her head and said that her daughter would study at Mazinde Juu and that her fees had already been paid. I did not feel any satisfaction that I had done something special or generous seeing what this mother was already doing for her children. I was rather in awe of her motherly determination to care for her children and to give them a life.

           When I got back to school I sent the first girl I met to find Monika for me. Within three minutes there was Monika at my office door. She had the alarmed look on her face as though she had seen a ghost. As I pondered on how to relate what I had just experienced and what to tell her without being paternalistic and patronizing she broke out in a gush of tears and trembling that frightened me. I told her to sit down and listen to what I had to say. She refused to sit down and said that she already knew what I had to say and through the tears said that I was going to send her home for she could not afford to pay the school fees. She said that she had been waiting day after day to hear this and could not bear it any longer and that she would get her things and be off before supper. I put out my hand and asked her to look at it. Her curiosity got the better of her and she examined my hand through her tears and looked at me quizzically to ascertain what she should be seeing. I told her that hardly half an hour ago that hand had held her mother’s hand and furthermore was laid on her mother’s head in a blessing and a promise that you, Monika, would remain here at Mazinde Juu and that your school fees were paid up for this year and the next. Monika went down on her knees in heartfelt gratitude. With tears unabated she managed to blurt out, “I am so grateful, how can I repay this?” She crouched on the floor for minutes just shaking her head and repeating over and over again “Thank you thank you.” When she regained her composure after a little I asked her what she had in her pocket money account and she replied that there was nothing and that she had come with nothing. So I gave her five dollars and told her that she could go back to her class and settle down for the preparation for the mid-term exams.

            I sat at my desk for a few moments to absorb all the emotions of the past hour and a half and a quiet calm came over me like I had been a mere witness of something that was totally of the Lord’s doing. Slowly coming out of my reverie I noticed a letter on my table from the United States. I always enjoy the mail from home with news of family and friends and the comments on the current events and wondered what good was coming out of Nebraska. The letter was a rather brief one and with the information that a donation of $2080 had been deposited in our school account of Mazinde Juu for the further education of young African women. Did the Angel of the Lord have a little look into my mail that day and arrange for the tuition for Monika? That sum was just what it would cost to keep Monika in our boarding school for these two years and to top up her pocket money as well. My sincere thanks for all of you in your wonderful generosity toward this very worthy cause.

       The following story highlights how education with compassion coupled with commitment can dispel the superstition borne of ignorance and sheds light even in the remotest corners of Africa.

           Not long after my arrival on November 21, 1960 in Tanganika, as it was then called, I was appointed as prefect at a Middle school for young boys. The school was called Namupa, the name of the place where it was located and was positioned on a broad plateau-like ledge with a steep hill at its back going up the massive Rondo Plateau. It overlooked the the vaste plain of the Lukuledi Valley which stretched across some 60 miles or so to the Makonde Plateau, the broad footstool of Tanganika demarcated by the Ruvuma River and Mozambique to the South. Since I was the proverbial greenhorn I had to rely on the older schoolboys for guidance and suggestions on how to keep order and discipline among some 250 boarders. Our school was officially designated as a seminary but quite obviously only a small percentage of the boys would eventually pursue theological studies for the priesthood. However, they were generally good Catholic boys and keeping order among them was not an arduous chore.

        The rector of the Seminary at the time was an American priest from St. Paul’s Abbey, Newton, New Jersey by name of Fr. Anthony Ashcroft. Paradoxically, this same Fr. Anthony happened to be the prefect of our seminary when I joined St. Paul’s in 1946. Father Anthony was to die in a tragic accident in 1964. But in early 1960’s we were vigorous and eager missionaries learning to walk step by step and not too boldly and not too rashly in our new African environment. Part of our efforts to identify with our students was for Fr. Anthony and myself to alternate eating our evening meal with the students. At that time the staple food was cooked whole corn flour called dona and some kind of beans to go with it. It would not, not at all, qualify as “haut cuisine” but it was nourishing food and that which could be found in the ordinary African home.

       I can vividly recall my first meal with the Namupa boys. I was struggling mightily to learn Swahili and could only intone the blessing which the assembled boys would finish on their own. As I sat down at my solitary little table at the head of the refectory, a little fifth grader came forward to uncover the two cooked dishes of the dona and the beans. The beans on that particular day were green lentils. There was a thin covering of black flakes on the lentils which I assumed was pepper. But quite efficiently the little boy “Paulo” by name, was scooping the surface of my bean bowl and throwing it on the floor. As I surveyed the dining hall I found that all the boys were occupied with the same exercise. Being somewhat surprised, I asked Paulo what they were doing and he could only reply in Swahili which cast no light on the current activity. The head boy came immediately to my table, (with a frown from Paulo) and told me that they were clearing off the weevils.

        Of course, the weevil alert light went on and we were able to put into play a weevil block to our bean storage area. However, the story is more about little Paulo than about weevils. The manner of food distribution was a simple and a practical one to assure that the dona and beans were equally shared. Each week, one boy in turn was designated to dish up equal portions to each of his eight table mates. During one of my dinner table watches I noticed my friend Paulo was doing the serving. There was no animation whatever as Paulo served the food, as was usually the case. The table was silent and none of the boys touched the bowls which were served up with dona and beans. I watched as the eight boys sat silently with heads bowed but furtive glances from side to side waiting for some signal to begin eating but none came.

           At the end of the meal I called the head boy and asked about what was transpiring at the table where Paulo sat and why no boy touched his bowl when served by Paulo. The head boy told me that it would be better if I talked with Paulo myself. That evening before the boys went to their dormitories I called Paulo and the head boy to my office. I asked Paulo what was going on with his fellows at the dining room table. He stood silently in the gloom of the lantern lit room and looked to the head boy for support. The older boy came closer to Paulo and put an arm around his shoulder. “Shall I tell Father?” he asked Paulo, and Paulo nodded consent that he should do so. The head boy then told me that the other boys at his table refused to eat the food when served by him because they claimed that Paulo was a leper. In those years leprosy was common and those afflicted with the disease were often shunned and avoided although they frequently came to us to beg for food and clothing.

         With this revelation Paulo’s little frame shook with convulsive sobs. The head boy tried to comfort the little fellow and said, ”Let’s show Father.” Paulo sadly began to undo his heavy drill shirt and turned his back to me. There in the middle of his little shoulders was a perfect white circle the size of a silver dollar. The head boy picked up a pin from my desk and pricked the little fellow on the back with Paulo flinching with every touch of the sharp point. But, when he pricked the white spot there was no reaction whatever. This, by the way, was part of the regular procedure in our house medical exam before admitting boys to the seminary. Poor Paulo sobbed bitterly as I told him to put his shirt back on. I assured him that we would go the very next day to see Sister Lia who ran the Leprasarium at our main mission station some fifty miles distant from Namupa. I told the head boy to put Paulo’s bed next to his that night and have him ready for our safari to the hospital at first light the following day. I put a bit of chocolate in Paulo’s pocket which brought a brief smile to his face in spite of the tears. The next morning Paulo was the envy of the school with all the boys standing on their desks to watch the two of us driving off in our battered green jeep.

            The little boy was tense the entire trip of some three hours to Ndanda hospital. Visions of the grossest cases of leprosy kept floating before my mind – with mangled faces without noses or ears; hands and feet without fingers or toes. I’d look at the little boy next to me, maybe ten or twelve years old, and wondered whether he also pondered what his future would be for leprosy was a grim and regular reality in every village. The “walking dead” was not fiction for them at all. As we pulled into the hospital compound my little companion began to cry again uncontrollably as he saw lines of men, women and children lining up at the clinic to receive their medications. Every conceivable human malformation dragged itself up to those medication portals inching forward on sticks and stumps of legs or carried by caring relatives. With the noisy rattles and coughing of our jeep announcing our arrival, Sister Lia stood at the door of her office to receive us. She was the able administrator and founding mother of the Ndanda Leper Hospital and recipient of the OBE (order of the British Empire) from Prince Charles himself for her devoted care of her beloved lepers. Her friendly greeting and her motherly arm around little Paulo stopped his sobbing and brought a bit of calm to his face.

          In a matter of minutes I explained to Sister the reason for our visit. She immediately had Paulo remove his shirt for her scrutiny. Sister Lia literally radiated a comforting and professional competence that put Paulo at ease. She inquired at length about his school work and life at Namupa. She put a tall glass of juice in front of him and after he had his first sip, she tasted it herself from his glass and then said, “Oh, we’d better put a bit more sugar in here, don’t you think?” Paulo was wide-eyed. This wonderful European Sister was drinking out of his own glass! At that moment I could see that Paulo was mentally on the way to recovery. Sister Lia then went to her medicine cabinet and took down two large brown bottles of pills. She told Paulo that this was the medicine that that would take away the white spot and in a year he would be completely free of the disease. She cautioned him, however, to be a big boy and a brave one for the medicine was bitter and he should never miss a day. Then turning to me she said that I would be responsible for seeing that our young friend would take his pills every day – morning and night.

             As we left Sister Lia’s office Paulo made his way slowly to the jeep surveying that long line of human misery. What thoughts he had I cannot imagine. I told him that his “line up” was back at Namupa and at school. We followed Sister Lia’s instructions and, as she predicted, the white spot on Paulo’s back receded and gradually disappeared altogether. I spoke to the boys at Paulo’s table and told them how Sister had even drunk from his glass. I also told them that I would also be a member of their table and wanted to be served daily by each and every one of them including Paulo.

           But Paulo’s story went way beyond Namupa and serving dona and beans. He finished first in his class of thirty-five boys at Namupa. He went on to High School taking honors in all his Science subjects on the Cambridge exams and got a scholarship to study medicine in Germany. After serving as a medical doctor in our Mission hospital he went back to Germany and specialized in bone surgery. On his return to Tanzania, Dr. Paulo became legendary as a wonder worker repairing and reconstructing bones, even creating bones where they were missing or lost. Dr. Paulo departed this world five years ago in his mid sixties but his legacy lives on. His son Henry carries on the wonder working, under a watchful gaze from the portrait of his dear departed father gracing the reception room of the hospital Dr. Paulo left behind.

            So we reflect – no deep and darkest Africa when we have the “light” from souls like Sister Lia to show us the way. And she still guides us with wisdom, kindness and love that radiates from her room in the hospital of Ndanda at age 100.

           With kind regards, gratitude and prayers,

 Father Damian Milliken,
Mazinde Juu, Lushoto, Tanzania

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