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An African Sojourn

Solomon’s Mines it was not. Born Free it was not. There was no Meryl Streep and no Robert Redford; Out of Africa it was not. The enchantment, however, was just as spectacular, and the thrill and excitement could not be more memorable. After a 21-hour flight, Newark to London, London to Harare, I finally had arrived at my much anticipated destination. I was in Zimbabwe, Africa.

My great fantasy, of course, was to imagine scenes from the very popular Broadway production, The Lion King, with giraffes, zebras and gazelles leaping across the spacious African plains. While Zimbabwe is very much known for its African safaris and great nature reserves, the animal kingdom is far from Harare’s commercial center. All was not lost, however. Stepping down the jet way, one’s eyes are treated to a magnificent golden sun brightening the day, the bluest of blue sky, the most beautiful, purple, flowering trees I have ever seen and the good feeling of a warm, dry breeze. Occasionally, one sees a herd of about 25 to 30 monkeys, but even they are moving further and further into the African bush.

It was little over a year ago when Russell Becker invited Robert Sandoz and me to consider teaching a seven-week course in liturgy at Holy Trinity College in Zimbabwe. Holy Trinity College is a collaborative school of theology founded by four religious communities, the Franciscans, Carmelites, Redemptorists and Holy Spirit Missionaries. Since neither of us was able to be away for such an extended length of time, we put our imaginations to work and decided that we would all accept this invitation by dividing the course into three segments: Bob and I teaching two-week segments and Russell teaching a three-week segment. Just after the October feast of St. Francis, I was the first to make the trek.

When I finally located my luggage and passed through customs, I once again learned the joy of being part of a world-wide family of brothers. I was greeted and welcomed by one of our missionary brothers, Brother Stephen. After his initial formation in the Irish Province, Stephen decided he wanted to spend his young years as a Franciscan brother serving the people of this newly founded African mission sponsored by the Irish Franciscan friars. Almost 20 years have now passed since he first decided to serve the African mission. Stephen’s dedication and personal sacrifice are just another example of that Franciscan spirit we have come to know as “love in action.”

The ride from the airport to the Franciscan house of studies was almost an hour. It was early Sunday morning and the roads were crowded with people. I soon learned that “hoofing it” is the transportation most Zimbabweans must now use. At over five dollars a liter, gasoline has now become a very precious commodity that few can afford. Most earn under $2,500 a year! Yet even if people were able to afford the gasoline, the problem would remain. There simply is no gasoline being permitted into the country. Station after station remains closed, week after week, waiting for supplies. Unfortunately, with each passing day, the situation does not look like it is going to get any better. And to think that just over five years ago, this was a prosperous country that was able to export some of its agricultural products.

Praying evening prayer with the friars that first night was a very moving and delightful moment. When I walked into the chapel, the first thing I noticed was that there are no musical instruments except for drums. But they were nothing like the drums we have here. These were African drums that looked as if they were the drums played by primitive tribesmen. It was the sound of these small, wooded drums that has made such a lasting impression on me.

Drums are the sound of the African soul. Everywhere I went, these drums were part of landscape of peoples’ lives and faith. During the day, these were the drums that led us in prayer and praise. During our evenings, the beat of these drums could be heard in the distances as the moon rose in the sky. During the night, the magical and distant sound of these drums could be heard as I took a walk or sat outside looking up at the vast array of stars across the heavens. Drums are not simply played in Africa for entertainment or even enjoyment. Drums are used to communicate feelings and energies, longings and hopes. Once one hears these sounds, Africa becomes more than a place. It becomes a people, a culture that is rich and alive with so much energy and potential waiting to be born.

Unfortunately, this energy and potential are very much in jeopardy. I learned this sad truth during my first weekend in Zimbabwe when I traveled across the African plains to an “out of the way place” called Mutemwa, near the town of Mutoko, some 50 miles from the border of Mozambique. Mutemwa is the 1,000-foot rock formation. It is home to a small leper colony and an orphanage for children with AIDS. The word “mutewa” is a shona word, the language spoken by most of the people in Zimbabwe. It means “you are cut off.” Since leprosy was once thought to be a very contagious disease, the great 1,000-foot rock formation served as a great wall separating the lepers from others. Stories abound about how unconscionable people would invade this leper colony, stealing their bread and the little food they had as well as their meager medical supplies. Out of all my experiences during my two-week African sojourn, my time at Mutemwa is one I will cherish most.

Lepers hold a very sacred place within the hearts and conscience of Franciscans. They are not just people with a terrible disease, but Christ among us “in a most terrible disguise.” Without his encounter with the leper, I, personally, do not believe we would still be talking about the person we know as Francis of Assisi. When Francis life kissed the leper he was reborn. That which was bitter and ugly to him became beautiful. So powerful was this movement in Francis’ journey that one could argue it was this leper, not Francis, who was the founder of the Franciscan Order.

Touching, embracing and praying with lepers at Mutemwa was an emotional day for me.

It was the first time I had ever seen a leper and, more importantly, “kissed” a leper. When we arrived at the colony, an elderly woman greeted us. Her hands were but stumps. Her face was partially hidden behind a mask. Yet, despite all her loss she opened what was left of her arms, began a clapping gesture that Zimbabweans do when they are happy and gave us a beaming smile of love and hospitality. That day, I was ripped away from my comfort zone. I had to face the many fears I heard about this disease in particular and sickness in general. I had to look beyond the ravages of this disease and see the beauty of these people whose sores and wounds challenged my compassion. Leprosy will soon be eradicated from Africa. No longer will people be sent there to be exiled and cut off.

AIDS, however, is a whole other story. I was told that within 10 to 50-years, up to a third of the sub-Saharan Africa will be dead. AIDS is ravaging the people of Africa. I saw this first hand when I visited Mother of Peace Orphanage, an oasis of hope for the children of Zimbabwe. It is home to hundreds of orphans whose parents have died of AIDS. With my nerves still on edge, I visited this orphanage soon after visiting the leper colony.

Though these children have known a great loss at very tender ages, Mother of Peace is a place of great joy and love. As soon as the gates opened leading us on the grounds of the orphanage, a throng of little children came running up to our jeep, smiling, clapping, absolutely thrilled that someone had come to visit them. Starving for love and attention, many of them smother you with hugs, hoping that they would be picked up and given a hug. And that is precisely what our ministry was that day. We simply spent time holding the young children, bouncing them on our laps and playing some simple games with them. Even the blind could not help but see the face of God at Mother of Peace. The only sorrow there is the fact that these children, like their parents, suffer with AIDS. Their futures are very much challenged.

Teaching has always been one of my great loves. How exciting it was to share my experience and learning with the students preparing for ordination to the priesthood! Their excitement and hope-filled faith for the future couldn’t help but re-energize the feelings I had when I was at their stage of formation.

As with every step of my African experience, teaching African seminarians had a number of challenges. At the top of the list were the many, many issues that have to do with culture. Like any people, Africans have a great love for their culture. Culture is that set of behaviors, customs, understandings, viewpoints that make them who they are as a people. In other words, culture is the blueprint for living for a group of people.

As one of the great pillars of culture, religion also has a very important role to play. But the only way religion can do this, the only way it can influence and shape a culture, is for to become what we call “enculturated.” Enculturation is a fancy word meaning “the creative and dynamic relationship between the Christian message and a culture.” Unless a religion can adapt to the customs and ways of a particular people, it will not take root and thus it will eventually die.

Let me give you a simple example of enculturation in action from my Zimbabwe experience by comparing one of our simple customs with theirs. In our culture, we stand up when someone important walks into a room or when we want to show them respect. We stand for dignitaries. We stand for the flag or when we sing our national anthem. This idea of standing as a sign of respect is why we stand for the gospel when it is proclaimed at Mass.

In Africa, however, their custom in regards to standing is very different. When they want to show respect for the chiefs they make sure they are never above him. Respect for the chief as well as respect for the words of the chief is expressed by sitting down when the chief is speaking. Thus, in Zimbabwe, we sit for the gospel. Africans believe that when the priest is presiding at Mass, he is carrying the authority of an African chieftain. When the chief speaks, one does not stand but sits and attentively listens to what the chief has to say. No one would ever have his or her head above that of the chief. This is just one example of the many differences that I had to face between our two cultures.

It is my sincere hope that this will not be my first and only visit to Africa, a land of so much promise, and yet so much doubt at the same time. Africa has many challenges ahead of itself. Anselm Moons, OFM, a friar from Holland who is now deceased, once describe Africa as a “dying continent.” He made this pronouncement 20 years ago, and I have never forgotten his dire prophesy. The severe droughts, the constant wars, the numerous famines, the ever increasing expansion of the Sahara desert, the depletion of land resources and ethnic conflicts have made Africa a continent at risk. Anselm’s prediction for this wonderful land of intrigue and mystery must not come to pass. Africa is simply too beautiful and ripe with an abundant mix of faith, hope and love to allow this to happen. Right now, its future is in the hands of the world community and the mercy of God.

May God give the world the courage and heart to lovingly embrace this so-called “dark continent” that is so filled with light and bright possibility.