|A journey of discovery: the Jesuits' international presence in East Africa|
Six Americans, one a Jesuit priest, watch two men, ankle-deep in muck, stuff gray clay into wooden forms and set the wet brick shapes in the sun to dry. In a week, workers will stack them in a 20-foot tower, build fires in openings at the bottom, and bake the pile for 72 hours.
Once cooled, the bricks are destined for a nearby south Uganda hilltop where Sisters of the Sacred Heart hope to build a new school. Until the earth yields enough bricks, the sisters will concentrate their efforts at the Kalungu Girls' Centre, a boarding school with about 350 students. The priest, Fr. Jim Strzok, SJ, and two other Americans, Ruth and Tim Leacock, Ignatian Associates from Omaha, have come here to set up a computer lab.
Fr. Strzok's bond to the school dates back to the early 1990s, when he was an African missionary and taught two of the sisters. He and the Leacocks helped coordinate an effort to recondition dozens of donated computers and ship them to the school and other Eastern Africa locales.
The Spirit works through such human relationships, such bonds, some of them very far-reaching, to generate hope for the future. Without the bond between Fr. Strzok and the sisters, there would have been no computers for Kalungu, and the Leacocks would be in Omaha.
Instead, the Leacocks are staying in Kalungu for ten days to work on the computer lab while Fr. Strzok travels to northern Uganda; Kampala, the country's capital; Nairobi; and other parts of Kenya and Tanzania to reconnect with Jesuits there and explore a possible return as a missionary. My plan is to tag along and gain glimpses of how Jesuits and their collaborators connect with the African people, evangelize, and work to improve conditions in this corner of the continent.
The cluttered streets of Kampala are in sharp contrast to village lanes in Kalungu. Wending our way through urban chaos and congestion, we turn off a washboard city street and up a rutted dirt road to an area of the city called Nsambya Hill. We arrive on a Thursday afternoon at Xavier House, a Jesuit residence Fr. Strzok helped design and build while assigned to the Eastern Africa Province from '87 to '93.
"We've begun to establish a real Jesuit presence here," explains Fr. Tony Wach, SJ, community superior and, like Fr. Strzok, a Wisconsin Province Jesuit. "The house has changed over the years, becoming first increasingly international and then increasingly African."
With no other Jesuit institution nearby, the residence is a backbone of support for a variety of activities. Higher up the hill is a new alcohol treatment center to help priests and other religious cope with the pressures of serving a country afflicted by disease, poverty, and the decades-long aftereffects of oppression and civil war. Br. Fred Mercy, SJ, from the Oregon Province, heads the project and receives support from Fr. Jim Egan, SJ, of the Wisconsin Province. Fr. Egan's primary responsibility is to St. Augustine's Institute, a renewal center for diocesan priests just across the dirt road outside Xavier House.
"They built it there because we're here, and they were hoping we would get involved," Fr. Wach says. Br. Mercy participates in programs at St. Augustine's, as does Fr. Wach. "Dovetailing with each other's projects like that helps build our sense of community," Fr. Wach adds.
A number of Jesuits at the house have a keen interest and advisory involvement in the work of Fr. Stephen Msele, SJ, of the Eastern Africa Province, and his Undugu youth ministry project. Undugu, the Swahili word for brotherhood, sisterhood, or familyhood, brings together children and families of different ethnic, tribal, and religious origins for cultural and athletic events. Healing the scars of historical divisiveness forms Undugu's philosophical and spiritual foundation.
Inspired in part by the tribal conflicts and mass killings in Rwanda, Fr. Msele spreads a simple yet powerful message: "We are all brothers and sisters because God is our common parent. Nothing that divides us is stronger than our spiritual lineage."
On a busy Friday afternoon, Fr. Msele brings his message to a section of Kampala where Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants live close together. He poses for a photograph with about a dozen smiling children. The image of their joy is tempered by the statistical likelihood that about half the children pictured will die before adulthood.
Saturday we arrive in Nairobi, Kenya, and Sunday make our way to St. Joseph the Worker parish in the Kangemi slum. We attend a First Communion mass-a dance, drum, and song-filled high-energy affair, all in Swahili; language fails to be a barrier.
Fr. Gerry Whelan, an Irish Jesuit, is the new pastor. The church is only about twelve years old; the parish also operates a school, a job training center, and a dispensary. His challenges will be many, but he is excited to take on the new assignment.
Shortly after midnight Monday, stumbling in the dark to find the malaria medication, I realize that my mind short-circuited the link between the people at mass and the teeming throngs in the Kangemi slum. I recall the walk through the alley-like neighborhood streets. Though we were not invited into the residential compounds behind the storefronts, we gained glimpses inside. Quarters are tight. No plumbing. Garbage and open ditches with human waste are common.
We walk past the home of the Jesuits' Eastern Africa provincial, Fr. Fratern Masawe, who insists on living amid the parish flock. A woman opposite the house washes clothes in two tiny plastic basins. Water is scarce yet seems to multiply like fishes and loaves to satisfy the laundry.
Children play. I wonder at what age does their laughter begin to ebb and their faces begin to reflect the challenging tides of adulthood? What do parents hope for their children? What do children dream to be? If this is a place from which to escape, where is it they wish to go? The roads, it seems, are not well marked.
Monday afternoon we stop at the Nyumbani hospice for HIV-positive orphans, founded by Fr. Angelo D'Agostino, SJ, of the Maryland Province. Staff tends to two very sick infants in the medical area where we enter the facility. Further into the complex is the residential compound, where group homes house the 70 kids. The extended community for which Nyumbani provides some form of care numbers about 200.
"If we had more money, we could easily take care of 500," Fr. D'Agostino says.
When the children spot him, they run to this grandfatherly priest, who at 75, round of stature and with a white bearded chin, looks more like an off-duty Macy's Santa than a doctor-priest. Despite his best efforts, he can provide full medication, which costs $500 per month, to only 5 of the 70 children at the residence.
"That's why we have one death a month," he says softly, reaching into his pockets for pieces of candy as the children clamor around him.
Tuesday, on our way to the airport, we stop in downtown Nairobi and experience another class of children-street children-and their relentless wave of begging. Some are orphans or runaways, others have parents who send them into the streets because there is money to be made. There are many reasons for young East African kids to turn to the streets, and many, many street children.
We meet up with some outside a marketplace near the basilica. Forewarned of their presence, we hope they won't target us. But we are whites (bazungas) standing out in a sea of blacks, and easy marks.
"Please share with me," says the street child. Not "Give me," or "I want." "Please share with me" is the common plea. So Christian! It is not a question of how to say no. How do you say no to a double amputee walking like a four-legged spider on two arms and the stumps of two thighs? The question is how to say yes in a way that won't draw attention, blow the dyke, and unleash a wave of beggars in your direction.
By late Tuesday, a week since arriving in Kalungu, we are in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Africa's east coast. We are met by Fr. Louis Plamondon, SJ, of the French Canada Province, who founded Loyola High School, and Ryan Daly, a 25-year-old member of Jesuit Volunteers International (JVI). The school is secured by a gated wall and overlooks the community of Mabibo. My wife and I live for two days outside the walls at Ryan's residence. He works at the school and has lived alone for most of seven months since his housemate unexpectedly returned to the United States. Ryan appears comfortable and undaunted by life alone under relatively austere conditions.
"I was attracted to JVI because I wanted to live in community, live simply, live religiously, and commit to doing justice. The community element didn't work out. But the Jesuits here have been great. They kind of adopted me into their community. They're very generous in terms of extending their hospitality and making me feel welcome. Plam has been great to me."
Plam (what most people call Fr. Plamondon, Father Plam in more-formal settings) has learned much about relationships and Africa. Reaching out is his way. On Wednesday he introduces us to Alphoncina Mtui, a widowed mother of three, two of whom attend the school. A plaque on a wall in her home reads "Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as you can."
The relationship between her and the school is inspiringly symbiotic. She has taken in Patrick Noya, a 20-year-old student/orphan with no extended family nearby. She lives on what amounts to an urban farm with seven cows and a yard full of chickens. The home is small, but larger than many in Mabibo. One tiny closet is a makeshift incubator for about 40 chicks. The yard and farm total an area about the size of a three-car garage. She sells milk and eggs from her home for cash or barter.
Loyola gives her tuition assistance. She also cuts the grass at the school athletic fields and uses it as hay. In return, the school gets manure for the fields. Patrick is at home here. "The love I feel is like that I felt from my own mother. Even more," he says.
Alphoncina Mtui, known simply as Mama, explains her motivation this way. "If I can do a kind deed for somebody, maybe he will pray for me."
Loyola High School sits on a hill overlooking Mabibo like a polished diamond atop a bed of unmined stones. Its mission, Plam says, is to serve the children of the poor as well as the wealthy. No student is rejected for lack of funds. "We give them what they need." God, grants, and fund-raising take care of the rest. Opened in 1995, the school is about 80 percent completed. When finished it will serve 1,000 students.
The final stop before hooking up again with the Leacocks is Thursday at the Jesuit novitiate on the far outskirts of Arusha, not far from Mt. Kilimanjaro and in the shadow of Mt. Meru. First-year novices are to arrive Friday. Shortly before they do, novice director Fr. Leo Amani, another Eastern Africa Province Jesuit, takes a brief trip to Martha House several kilometers nearer the heart of the city. Jesuit novices started the house as an extension of their Friday apostolate work. It is home for about ten young women, ages 12 to 17, trying to escape from early careers in prostitution and almost-certain HIV infection.
"The name is inspired by St. Ignatius, who founded the first Martha Homes in Rome for prostitutes seeking a way to live normal lives," says Fr. Amani. Similar homes were founded elsewhere in Italy where Jesuits were working at the time.
In this current-day version, young African girls are provided sewing machines and taught tailoring skills in the hope that they will be able to earn livings as tailors. Two matrons operate the house. Fr. Amani is hopeful that once long-term funding and other details are ironed out the Passionist Sisters will take over the project.
We leave Arusha as the novices arrive. In their years of formation ahead they no doubt will develop hundreds of relationships, many of which will serve them well as they help the Church in Africa mature and continue a growing Jesuit tradition here.
Our final stop is back in Kalungu, where the Leacocks have overcome the electrical vagaries of hardwiring a computer lab in rural Uganda and are leaving their mark on a tiny school nine time zones from home.
Since we arrived at this place ten days ago, the mud we saw drawn from the earth has become impermeable brick. In the same span, what we have seen and those whom we have met have had the opposite effect on our hearts, softening them, opening them wide in ways we do not quite comprehend to create a bond with people and places we've just begun to know.
As our flight home soars skyward, Africa tugs from below and we begin to understand the power of the relationships, however embryonic, formed with those we leave behind.
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