Newsletter from Africa – March 2013

March 2013

             Dear Friends of Africa,

             In the early 1980s I was recruited by the Ministry of Education to teach English in the government secondary schools. The mission schools had all been nationalized and I felt I could keep my hand in the field of education with a hope that mission schools would once again have their day in the sun. After some 14 years as a government education officer, that day seemed to dawn in 1989. The ban was lifted on mission schools. I had the support of a dynamic African Sisters Congregation, but who were totally bereft of education beyond the secondary stage. I managed to send 4 Tanzanian Sisters to Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A. for college degrees. This was the beginning of a 25-year program which produced 14 college degrees for the Tanzanian Sisters. All are now actively engaged in schools here in Africa. Sister Kathleen Milliken of the Sisters of Mercy and Sister Maura Wilson of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester were the heart and soul of this great endeavor. Their quiet unrelenting determination kept the program financed and alive for a generation and the work of our African sisters here in Africa is but an extension of their dream coming into reality.

            Here in Magamba, in the Usambara Mountains of Tanga region, we had hopes of starting a secondary school for African girls, but the barriers to the idea of educating girls were mighty. Our local Bishop expelled me from the diocese on two occasions, but for some unexplained reason the hand-carried letters never arrived. A new Bishop arrived on the scene, but the opposition from the ultra conservative tribal leaders outdid the former nay-saying Bishop. The by-law for being a girl meant tending sheep and goats, tending gardens, minding children, and getting ready to have your own babies.

Our local chief was my nemesis. At every attempt to get a school going for girls, I was thwarted by the machinations of the unholy tribal politician named angelically, Rafael. The trials to get a school started were endless and wearisome, but in the end the school, St. Mary’s Mazinde Juu, was opened in February 1989. The school opened to the joy of parents and their daughters who had been admitted. My not-so-dear friend was resigned, but not repentant. Last year I was called to the bedside of Rafael to administer the sacrament of the dying. I looked for a tear as a gesture of reconciliation – not a drop. Rafael died two days later. A shelter was set up for a Mass to be said for his burial. I presided as the resident parish priest. I did all that was required with the exception of a eulogy.

It was a relentlessly rainy afternoon. My un-dear friend had requested to be buried next to his grandmother. The hill to his grandmother’s grave was now a steep slope of slick mud. In full vestments I was now required to ascend the height, all the time pondering the perversity of Rafael with this last defiant demand. Two stalwart young men were at my right and left to assure that I would ascend the hill safely and preside at the burial of Rafael. In spite of their solicitude, I did slip and with that came all of the indignity that accompanies a fall in the mud. But, muddy and annoyed, I did arrive at the graveside and performed all the burial rites of Holy Mother the Church.

The final jab of the day from Rafael came just as I was given the shovel with which to dispatch the deceased with “dust thou art and unto dust thou shall return” prayer; there was an audible remark from one of the mourners, “Rafael got Father in the end – he fell in the mud on the way to his grave!” I briefly paused before depositing the last of the dust, now a clod of mud, and declared unceremoniously, “Yes, Rafael put Father down on his way to the burial, but Father got up again. And now Rafael goes down and we can be quite sure that he won’t be up again soon.” A rather unpriestly prayer, but I could not repress it and it got whistles and cheers of approval from our congregation.

So dear friends, the work we do is that of the Lord and the schools we build are for the good of the people and the uplifting of the young women of Africa. This work should not be put down. Thank you for your unstinting support and we do pray that you keep it up.

            Here’s a story I tell the students once a year, about my Dad. It was in the 1940’s just after the war and our Sister Kathie was a young Sister of Mercy at the time. She was stationed at St. Mary’s in Corning, NY. Visiting Sunday was the first Sunday of the month and visits were allowed for a few hours on that Sunday only. Since we were a rather large family, 14 to be exact, my Mom and Dad would select one of us by turn to accompany them on the visit to see Kathie. This time it was my turn. They had no car, as was not uncommon then, so we were on the bus to Corning to see Kathie. I was delighted. Seating being as it was on buses in those days, some rows were facing front, others along the sides of the bus with passengers facing one another. As it so happened I was sitting with my Dad facing forward. Mom was ahead of us facing the opposite side. I was on the aisle side and was a regular window-gazer, looking past my Dad at the passing scene outside. I noticed my Dad looking rather fixedly forward and with my curiosity aroused as to what he was looking at, he said to me quite calmly, “Did you ever see a woman as beautiful as your mother?” I have never forgotten that special encounter and imagine a mother of 14 children would hardly be in the Vogue magazines, but she was someone far more esteemed as his wife and the mother of his children. As you can tell I’ve never forgotten that Sunday morning on the bus to Corning and as I also told you, I retell that story to our girls at least once a year. I then tell them at the end of the story to bow their heads and put themselves in the presence of God. This all takes place at our daily morning Mass. After they have dwelt a few minutes on this particular story, I then give them all a blessing and pray that each and every one of them will experience that when they become mothers their husbands and fathers of their children will also find them more beautiful and esteemed than when they started out life together. Many of the girls are in tears when they lift up their heads – those who are orphans, those who never knew a father, those who have an abusive father – the gamut of our failures as parents weighs heavily upon these children.

          Today I received an email from a former student by the name of Anna. It was in the early days of the school 1989-1990 thereabouts…I had to go to Dar es Salaam and on my way I passed by the house of Anna who had taken our entrance exam and was on the waiting list to join our school. Just to be on the waiting list was a delayed action of joy. There was however a candidate in Dar es Salaam, the daughter of a professor who had been selected with very high marks, but no word from the parents as to whether the daughter would be coming or not. Imagine a 14-hour drive for shopping and to get a final reply as to whether or not this candidate would be coming. I got to the house the next morning, a Saturday, and with difficulty managed to rouse the late-sleeping Professor. He called out the bedroom window that they were sending their daughter to a better rated school than Mazinde Juu – thanks a lot! Back now to school and another 14-hour drive, but no stopover this time even to inform the parents of Anna that she was now on the selected list. Time for that another day, I told myself. I arrived at school at 10 o’clock at night and I was informed that I had visitors. At this hour and after such a safari! I was dejected to say the least. Going to see our midnight visitors, whom do I meet, but the girl Anna herself, her father, and their local parish priest. So Anna came to school at Mazinde Juu. She did well at school and was devastated when her father died suddenly when she was in third year. She was in dread of being sent home for lack of fees after the death of her father until I assured her that I was now the father she could turn to. Anna’s mother was turned out of the company house in which they lived where the father was a plantation supervisor. After 6 months the family was now homeless. So we found a roof for the family and Anna struggled along through secondary school. She then went on to college and a Master’s degree in law. She went into the police force, and is now in Sudan with peace-keeping police from Tanzania. Anna was one of our first graduates to go on to finish University. Anna’s younger sister, Devota, followed in her footsteps. It is such a privilege to have played a role in the lives of so many needy children.

I recall a conversation many years ago with a nun who had been active for over 50 years in the African Missions. We were sitting outside the mission compound enjoying the relief from the afternoon sun. Sister was still active in the care of pre-school children. Our conversation broke off with an explosion of shrieks and shouts from the boys and girls piling out of the school building. Sister was bemused with the bedlam that had erupted and fielded the calls of farewell and the forest of little arms that were outstretched her way for a final touch-and-go as the children raced on home down the dusty village pathways.

When the final greeting was over, Sister said to me, “I wish my arms were longer.” From the quizzical look I gave her she went on to clarify. She then said, “What I mean is that I wish I could put my arms around them all so that they would know how much I love them and want to protect them.” I now know myself what Sister was talking about. When I look out over my congregation of some 620 students during our morning prayer and during our meditation, I look out over those hundreds of bowed heads and I forget about long arms, but I do think of wings that I could spread over them all to protect them from the “slings and snares of outrageous fortune” that await them in one way or another. I take comfort that the school we provide for them and the education, with its integration of mutual respect, prayer, and spiritual values, will be the armor to bring them safely through life.

In mid-February of this year the Ministry of Education released the results of the last year’s Fourth-Year Secondary School examinations. These examinations spell out the future or the failure of the girls and boys who took the exams. The exams are a rigorous trial of what the students have done over the past four years and will open the doors to their future in the technical, practical, or academic world.

            To put it painfully brief, the results were as shocking as they were dismal. Over 60% of the children scored 0%. Others placed in a Division 4, as it is called, which means that they accumulated a few points, but which will lead them nowhere and in all practicality is also a failure. In over 4000 secondary schools, which produced more than 500,000 fourth-year graduates, less than a quarter will go anywhere. Parents and their children are blasted face-on with the frigid cold fact that they now have spent four full years of their lives, day in and day out, trudging to school with not a single iota of achievement.

            Now the recriminations come flooding across the TV and the newspapers of the scandalous show of ministerial ineptitude on a national scale. The Prime Minister himself has been called upon to look into the educational collapse and he has set up the typical titled high powered committee to look into the matter, identify the shortcomings and put forward the right solutions to rectify this national tragedy. Oddly enough, this was the same procedure that was gone through three years ago when nearly half of the candidates failed in the national examinations.

In the meantime my little parishioners swarm about me after the Sunday Masses asking what they should do, where they are to go. Amid all of the gloom however, there are rays of hope. Of the top 20 schools out of 4000 registered secondary schools in ranks of performance, 18 were Catholic schools and our school, Mazinde Juu, was number 8 out of these. Every one of our graduates will qualify for a place in a school of higher education.

            Your loyal support of Mazinde Juu and the education program for our African Sisters show brightly and clearly what can happen when the right people with the right motivation are given the tools of the trade to do the job at hand. Our thanks and prayers go out to you for reaching out to our children with a light of hope.

There is an old Chinese saying (why such wise sayings always seem to be Chinese ones is a bit of a wonder to me), however this one goes, “The best time to plant a tree is 30 years ago, but if you have not done so then the best time is today.” As a matter of fact, we are now harvesting trees that we planted ourselves that proverbial 30 years ago. We have three teams of sawyers manning 10 foot pit saw blades and we are turning out on a daily average of sixty, one inch planks for flooring and furniture and two by sixes for the rafters and trusses for the roof of our new building.

            Our present building project is a two storey dormitory and classroom structure with a spacious library on the second floor. There are over 100 local men and women working on the building site and it never ceases to make me wonder when I see the results of human endeavor…moving earth all by hand and hauling the rock for the foundations and mixing the cement and laying the bricks, and then a building grows right out of the spot of ground like a potter’s creation. However out of our potter’s wheel  the creation comes  with the coordination of hundreds of hands  and the common will to see it all grow into a vibrant living edifice. It will become a place where our children will live and learn and grow from being little schoolgirls of 11 or 12 to young women of 18 or 19 with the expectations that by now they are mature enough to meet the challenges of college and later life.

            Every worker at Mazinde Juu is a local person and we have been here long enough to have the children of our former workers as the carpenters and masons doing the jobs at which their parents labored 25 and 30 years ago. Many of the workers make their salaries payable to the school straight away to cover the school fees for their daughters for the coming year.

We started in 1989 with 40 young Tanzanian women and now accept almost 100 per year with a total enrolment today of over 6oo. Our policy is still as it was in the beginning to cater especially to the local children.  As a matter of fact the Principal of Mazinde Juu today is one of that 1989 class of 40. After getting her degrees from Nazareth College in Rochester, NY some five years ago, she has brought the school to become one of the top ten performing schools in the country which boasts of some 4000 Secondary Schools today. Your contributions are keeping us operational and in the forefront of quality education for the Tanzanian women of today. May the Good Lord richly reward you.

 Sincerely

Father Damian

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