Newsletter from Africa – May 2015

Dear Friends of Africa,

May, 2015

Throughout my years in Africa beginning with teaching in boys’ schools and various pastoral assignments there was also a lot of building going on. This was always a hands on program: hauling sand out of nearby rivers and breaking stone by hand with hammers to make gravel were givens. In most of our building projects our most sophisticated construction machine was a wheel barrow. Mixing concrete was all done by hand and carried in metal pans usually on the head often up two and three stories on rickety scaffolding. I have seen women climb a wooden ladder up two stories with a pan of concrete on their heads without touching the pan or the ladder. Today with the onslaught of the mobile phone we can find our women carrying the same loads all the while chatting away merrily on their cell phones.

All of our building activities are based heavily on human endeavor as I have already indicated. Excavation on the hillsides to prepare the building site is all done with pick and shovel. When wheel barrows fall apart we could still move if not mountains certainly parts of them by piling earth on cow skins and dragging them to the dumping site.

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Building materials could be varied from burnt bricks made from the excavated clay, compacted earth blocks and when a storied building was needed, handmade cement blocks. All the timber and wood work of windows and door frames, roofing trusses and furniture come from our own forest plantations. Each year at the beginning of the rainy season we plant hundreds of trees so we are self providers of our lumber needs.

I still depend on my two men pit sawyers to cut our logs into the boards the size we need. People tell me to get modern and get the job done by machine in half the time. But chain saws are noisy, expensive and wasteful. Besides, every two man saw we have in operation means with our three 8 foot saws that we have 6 men employed, supporting their families with a weekly wage. These men have been on our building team for many years and are now harvesting trees they helped plant 25 and 30 years ago.

On using our home sawn timber my dear friend, Brother Fortunatus of whom I’ve already written,  used to warn me of the failure of using uncured timber and said that the rule was for every inch of thickness it requires one year of air drying time. I’d sometimes shorten the time and learned to my dismay to find doors warping and table tops splitting. In time we learned to shorten curing time for timber to 10 days by drying the lumber in a homemade kiln, heated with scrap wood from our lumbering activities.

Years ago during my first appointment while building a three story building in Southern Tanzania, we came to an impasse. We had added a third story in the form of a little observatory tower for astronomy classes. During the final plastering and rendering of the overhang on the roof of this observatory our head mason complained and said he could not do the job. I was called to mediate and he reiterated his refusal and said he would not be able to do that upside down kind of a job. Granted our scaffolding was rather skimpy, but not really extraordinarily so. I even demonstrated by lying down on the platform myself and learning over the open space. I showed that with someone to hold my legs I could do the job myself. Then came the real crux of the issue, “Yes” he declared, “You are a priest and the Lord takes care of your kind of people. But look at me, a simple catholic and I haven’t been to confession in over a year. I can’t take this kind of a chance”. So we resolved the issue and got a mason who had been to confession the Saturday before and the plastering job was done post haste.

I also recall during those early days after the Declaration of Independence on December 9th , 1961. There was a lot of hope and yearning for a better life. It took the new leader Julius Nyerere and his compatriots time to find their feet and plot the way forward into the future with many ups and downs.  We are now there after 54 years of Independence. We have had four peaceful elections with Presidents serving each two consecutive five year terms, stepping down and passing on the baton to the new comer at the end of their mandate. There was never a qualm or a quibble over extending beyond the constitutional limit of two five year terms. Tanzania has been a haven throughout its history as a land of refuge for the oppressed of every country on our borders. There was and still is civil war in Mozambique and there was unrest in Malawi for years. The Congo is still up in flames. Children are born, live and die in a constant fear and flight for refuge and safety without respite, Rwanda and its killing fields where 800.000 men, women and children lost their lives. Burundi is again a country in discord where the incumbent president intends to extend his time in office to another full five year term contrary to the constitution and to the dismay and anger of much of the populace. Refugees from Burundi are pouring across the border into Tanzania at this moment with scores of people dying of cholera in makeshift camps. Dar es Salaam means “The haven of peace”, in Arabic and Tanzania has heroically fulfilled this task for the survival of thousands of desperate people fleeing for their lives.

When we hear of the abductions and massacre of school children in Nigeria and recently in Eastern Kenya, we ask ourselves how girls’ schools have become the battlefields, the front lines and the trenches against fanaticism. And this gives us all the more reason and determination to increase and better our schools to make sure that we are up to the task of confronting the ideologies which would deny them their God given birthright to learning.

I always remind our students when they come to Mazinde Juu that the first rule in our school is to be happy, meant in a kind of lighthearted way but I mean it. It seems almost ludicrous to have such a rule now seeing what is happening all around us. But now it is like a clarion call when so much today would wipe out happiness and security altogether.

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Some time ago I wrote of the horror taking place in our own country of Tanzania with the killing and maiming of Albinos, especially children. Their body parts were being used by witchdoctors as charms to achieve wealth or success for their petitioners.  There was a public outcry and the advocates for the safety and welfare of Albinos from Canada came to Tanzania to show the International concern for this human outrage and support for the families of the victims. Yesterday I read an article in our leading English newspaper. I want to quote a paragraph from this article which reveals another facet to this abominable practice. From The Guardian  May 27, 2015. “The police must work to arrest “buyers” of body parts of persons with Albinism and not only the suppliers, the Tanzanian Albino Society has urged. We have witnessed the arrest of Witchdoctors and the killers. The society now also wants to see the agents and the buyers of the Albino organs being arrested. The Society decried the fact that the killings of albinos have increased this year and noted that the increase is associated with the upcoming General Elections slated for October of this year.”

What a sad commentary this is on the corruption of a laudable democratic process. Our thanks to all of you who help us to keep our girls smiling and safe.

Our day in Mazinde Juu begins at 6 AM sharp with the entire school body assembled in the school hall for Holy Mass. In our joining instructions for entrance to the school it is indicated that every student is expected to attend this function. It is never intended that we would proselytize or persuade a student to become a Catholic and even if a child asked to change her religion, we tell her wait until she gets home and confers there with her parents on this issue. I once had to terminate a teacher who was taking students for what he called were private lessons in Physics and when I went one day to check on the progress of the science study I found him preaching heatedly, shaking the Holy Bible held aloft. He had told the students that if they accepted his brand of Christianity they would surely get the highest grades and there were some who in desperation fell for his line. He left the next day. But for good order we want the whole school body together as a school family, to thank God for the gift of life and ask for the blessings and grace to make the most of the coming day. The students bring their Bibles and Korans and lesson notes to the hall and when I arrive to have 730 of them in silence with a dozen Sisters in attendance I feel a special presence and it is a joy to be a part of it all. Since our hall was only designed accommodate 600 students the double class of first year girls sit on benches on stage. I feel like a hen with 6 dozen chicks, surrounded by all those vibrant children. It is also quite special to be there when these very young people come into the pulpit at 12 and 13 years of age and do a reading to the assembled 750 in English or Swahili. I also have my evening duties checking the study halls at night. If the girls suspect my coming they will be extra quiet. But when I come and catch them unawares and they are in an uproar, we have words. I then remind them of their first lesson from me when they came to Mazinde Juu when they were all told to write, Rule Number ONE of Mazinde Juu .”Father is always right” and rule number TWO, “If Father is wrong, go back to number ONE”. I go from desk to desk to check on their performance and progress. There is always the unpredictable and the unexpected. Last week for example, I came into the first year study hall and surveyed the orderliness of the study room. I casually sat on a desk and checked visually attendance and class concentration. As I glanced about the room a girl came up to me and told me, “I need my books” and I replied somewhat sternly “Why are you looking for your books and study time is already ten minutes underway”? She replied “I can’t get my books” and when I saw that she was about to cry I  softened my tone and said, “Now tell me dear why can’t you get your books?” and she replied, “Because you are sitting on them”. That same night I came into the 3rd year high study hall. I went from desk to desk. The girls always turn their heads so I can put a hand on them to give a blessing. I noticed that one girl had a little teddy bear on her desk and there I paused. As I stood there next to her I thought that I would be a little smart and said quietly.”Look at that bear, he’s got no claws and he’s got no teeth, what good is he?” And she looked up at me beatifically and said “He smiles.” I had no further comment.

We are a very mixed group of people here at Mazinde Juu, from the point of view of tribe and religion. There are more than 120 tribes living in Tanzania, although today the tribal affiliation is gradually morphing into a national affiliation. In a way it is sad to see even in my life span in Tanzania children who cannot speak their tribal language and it also happens that there are children coming to school with English as their first language and learning Swahili here with us. When I first came to Tanganyika in 1960 as the country was called before Independence, we used to have Tribal Day, a great festival where the students would fashion tribal dress and perform songs and dances accompanied with drums and the traditional instruments. It is now sad to see a parting from ancestral ways which cannot now be recovered. It is plainly the environmental decay of a culture, similar to the way we are wiping out so many living species and other vital elements of our land and waters.

We  thank you for your generosity to Mazinde Juu where books will always be available and bears will always smile, helping us to prepare these young women mentally and morally  for the arduous tasks that life will put to them.

God bless you all,

Fr. Damian

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