Edition 16: October 2004 Holy Spirit Province

Getting better and better...

If we might be so bold: these letters from Br Tony Shanahan in East Africa just keep getting better and better. The world seems to be re-discovering the art of letter-writing through the advent of the internet. This is probably a good thing as sitting down to write something brings more deliberation into our thinking than face-to-face conversation. There are so many subtle insights in his observations that are well worth mulling over...

It's that time of the year...

ES, IT'S THAT TIME OF THE YEAR, when time seems to accelerate as the end of the working year rushes up. At the end of this month our candidates come to the "crunch time" of deciding if they will apply to go to the novitiate, and we have to decide if we will accept those who apply. In November we will be making visits to the families of the candidates who are going to the novitiate next year, so this will mean we all decamp to Kenya for about 10 days. All the candidates are Kenyan, and all but one come from the west of Kenya, so there will be a fair bit of travelling involved in this. After that things will move quickly towards Christmas (don't they always?).

   ON THE HOME FRONT          

Things continue to go well in our work here with the candidates. All eight are still here and apparently keen and committed. One of the features of the last few months has been some exploration with them of how they relate to us on the formation team. African culture tends to inculcate deference and respect for older people. Our position as the people who will adjudicate on their applications for novitiate reinforces the desire to make a good impression. Their experiences of education produce fear of making mistakes and expectations of punishment. So there are many forces tending to generate fear and a need to hide weaknesses and failures, but we have managed to open this up for some good discussion, and this has contributed to a freer atmosphere.

Another breakthrough in this area came after I had been working with one of the guys on his reactions to a minor "run-in" with one of us on the team a few months back. At the time he had "seized up" with anxiety and confusion — all stemming from a sense that he was being "accused" and was in big trouble.

A number of sessions allowed us to untangle most of this and dispel much of the fear. To finish it all off, he agreed to me facilitating a meeting between himself and my colleague to clear the air. It went well, and the candidate was struck by the openness with which his teacher listened to his experience and didn't "pull rank" by blaming or criticising him. As we concluded the meeting, he said that the experience had helped him understand in a new way what the congregation was on about in regard to being "brothers". I thought it was a great comment. It was one of those moments when you realise that you might be on the right track after all!

   LEARNING SLOWLY          

This incident is not that unusual but for some reason it stayed with me. It was the afternoon of a busy day - I had taught a class all morning, had an appointment with one of the candidates after lunch, had been shopping, and was then trying to get some jobs done at the computer. Someone came to tell me that there was a boy at the gate asking for me. I went up to the gate, swearing to myself, resentful and annoyed about the interruption and the way Africans just turned up and expected you to be available (as if they could phone ahead for an appointment!!), and how did people expect me to get all these important things done, etc.

It was a Masai boy called Humphrey, and his little brother Israeli, both of whom I had met before. We pay for Humphrey's school fees through a little fund we have here for assisting the education of poor children, and have assisted them in other ways a number of times over the year. They live with a sister and an uncle and are quite poor. I don't know what happened to their parents. On previous visits they have asked for money for food as the uncle was away for a week or two and they had run out of food in the house. To get to our place they walk for between one and two hours. This time they needed not just something for food, but 1,000/= (c. $US1) for medicine for Israeli's knee, which had been hurt in an accident of some sort. So I fixed them up with a total of 6,000/= ($US6), gave them biscuits and cordial, and sent them on their way back home (another one to two hours).

All my impatience and resentment of the "interruption" had evaporated in a few moments once I was face-to-face with the two boys. After they left and I went back to my "urgent jobs", I was much calmer. What came into my head was the thought that my life is not my own - and with that came not a sense of resentment or being caught, but a sense of peace and "rightness". Yes, I know, I am a slow learner!.


In September I went to Nairobi for two weeks, mainly for a retreat. However, the visit enabled me to catch up with my cousin Michael and his wife Christine, a doctor and nurse respectively, who have been working in Darfur in the Sudan for three months with Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF). They had been to Zanzibar for two weeks for R&R, and were on their way back to the Sudan for one more month with MSF. I was delighted to meet them as I am very fond of them and have enjoyed their hospitality often when in Sydney. I am also full of admiration for what they are doing (this is their second stint with MSF). There can't be many places in the world worse than Darfur at the moment, and it was terrific to see them looking as well as they were - though the two weeks in Zanzibar had been a big help in giving them a healthy glow.

Michael and Christine Shanahan are mentioned on the Sixty Minutes website and you can read the full transcript of their story there.

They have been working mostly with severely malnourished children in a feeding camp near the capital of south Darfur. I can barely begin to appreciate the stresses and strains of this sort of work. Watching many of the children die must be overwhelming. The security situation around the area had to be monitored constantly. The work was endless, and they basically went flat out from sunup to sundown. The diet and accommodation there was "basic", to put it nicely. Transport, communications and other infrastructure in the Sudan in general, and in Darfur in particular, is primitive. It left me with a determination to be more grateful for Arusha!

Talking to them left me with questions about how well NGOs like MSF attend to the emotional support of volunteers in such places. Fortunately Michael and Christine have great maturity and balance (I know I am biased, but it's true), and having each other to talk to would be invaluable in such a tough situation, but many volunteers come alone, not with a spouse or soul-mate.

One other "stress" they had to cope with was a visit from the current affairs show "60 Minutes". It was interesting to hear that even Richard Carleton, who many would see as the epitome of cynicism, was reduced to tears by the dreadful life and death situations he saw being played out in the camp. Some of you in Australia might have seen Michael and Chris figuring prominently in the item on Darfur on "60 Minutes" at the end of September.

The retreat was a good break physically, emotionally and spiritually. The Jesuit retreat centre is in leafy, spacious grounds, on part of what used to be Karen Blixen's coffee farm on the western fringes of Nairobi, within sight of the Ngong hills (cf. the opening sentence of "Out of Africa"). The rooms were comfortable, the food was very good, the garden was colourful and there was lots of peace and quiet. It was a good chance to "process" some of what this first year has been for me and to re-focus myself.

On a horticultural note, there was in the garden a large shrub with purple and white flowers and a scent very like jasmine. I was told it is called Brunfelsia, but I am not aware of having come across it before (any of you gardeners know it?). As I love the perfume of jasmine, it was one of the small delights of the retreat.

Less delightful was the selection of music they played during mealtimes. Instead of the classical music that is common during silent retreats, we had (inter alia) Jim Reeves singing Gospel favourites and popular hymn tunes played on what sounded like a cross between a Jew's Harp and a vibraphone.


I have referred in previous letters to the pervasive use of corporal punishment ("beatings") in the education system in east Africa (and maybe more widely for all I know). In other ways education is still very "traditional" in comparison to western countries. The authority and behaviour of teachers is almost unquestionable, so they get away with a lot: being regularly late for classes or just not turning up to lessons; sitting at their desks reading newspapers while a student writes on the blackboard the notes for the class to transcribe; one teacher having her primary class spend one afternoon a week making rope (from local sisal) for her to take away (and presumably sell); etc. In their defence, it has to be said that teachers are very poorly paid. For example, no teacher could afford to own and run a car in Tanzania.

Absorbing and regurgitating facts is still the basis of schooling. Frequent exams and tests, including national exams at various stages through schooling, are integral. Of course, this leads to all sorts of ingenious efforts to cheat or get a hold of the paper in advance. I heard recently of one school in Kenya where someone had got a hold of the test paper, and arranged for a man herding cattle next to the school to SING the answers aloud in the local language outside the classroom during the exam (presumably the teachers didn't speak the local language).

In Tanzania, all students do nine subjects for the first four years of secondary schooling, including Physics and Chemistry - and all in English, which is the second or third language for most students. In one of the world's poorest countries, with a heavy reliance on agriculture, and with only a minority of students staying at school beyond primary, the Ministry of Education has recently abolished from the secondary curriculum Agriculture, Bookkeeping and Accounting!

However, while the systems might differ, human beings don't change that much. Recently, Br. Frank O'Shea, the Principal of our school in Arusha, was doing something on sexuality with his Form Four students. He had the girls compile a list of qualities for their ideal husband, and the boys did the same for their ideal wife. For the girls, the top four qualities were: loving; respectful; healthy; educated. As Frank said, a fairly good, holistic perspective. Then came the boys' top four: hard-working; doesn't eat too much; good at traditional dances; beautiful. At this point I feel like inviting you, in the best traditions of examinations, to "compare and contrast"!!

   AROUND TOWN          

I must be settling in — I find that I rarely notice the night time sounds here that used sometimes disturb sleep, dogs barking, mosques cranking up at dawn, loud music from a local bar. One exception is the occasional night when every dog in the neighbourhood simultaneously (or so it seems) erupts in demented and prolonged barking. I presume one barks at a prowler and the rest all lend support, but it sounds like collective canine hysteria.

Since late July, the weather has been warming up (I barely need a blanket at night now). Around May and June, the water in the swimming pool where I go was so cold that swimming in the mornings meant risking death by exposure. With the sun out in the afternoon, it was just bearable. Now, though, the water temperature is again very pleasant.

It is still very dry and very, very dusty. Unfortunately, the dry, dusty weather is also windy so the dust gets spread around. There are reports of water shortages around the district because of the prolonged dry spell. October/November is supposed to be the time of the "short rains", and we are starting to see thundery clouds around the mountain in the afternoons. We have had a couple of very light, brief showers over the last ten days, and as I type this it is raining outside, but ever so lightly. Anything to settle the dust!!

Another feature of the last few months has been the more chaotic traffic in Arusha, so that getting from here into town often becomes a bumper to bumper crawl. It has been the tourist high season, but that doesn't explain the traffic congestion on our side of town, which is NOT a tourist haunt. A lot of the trouble may relate to the minibuses (called kifodis here, because they were originally Ford vans) which are the staple of public transport. They seem to be competing more aggressively for passengers and no longer lining up in orderly ways at stops and intersections, but double-parking, cutting each other off, etc. This leads to things like drivers literally fighting over a passenger, not to mention chaotic scenes on the main street in town.

   BITS AND PIECES          

One of the candidates had everyone laughing while telling us about a conversation he had with a local woman before he left home to come to Arusha. She was sympathising with him about the celibacy aspect of this vocation. Then she had inquired as to whether his "AK 47 was in good working order" (his words, not hers), and was this the reason for his vocational choice?

I learned the other day that whereas good beef, without bones, gristle and fat, costs about $US2.50 a kilo, straight fat cut from the meat sells for $US3 a kilo. The butcher laughed in disbelief when he heard that in Australia you would cut off the fatty bits and give them to the dogs. A reflection of traditional values in cooking and what constitutes the good life.

I recently came across the Deo Gratias (Latin for Thanks be to God) pub in Nairobi.

On a grimmer note, one of the candidates came to me a few weeks back after his Thursday ministry stint at one of the local hospitals. There was a boy there with a broken arm, and he had been left lying in pain for two days because he didn't have the money to pay for the materials (gloves, bandages etc.) for his treatment. Could we give him the $US2 he needed to be treated? That is not unusual. People in hospital have to pay for materials for their treatment, and sometimes have to (in effect) bribe staff to get attended to (again, abysmally low wages are part of the story here). And if you don't have friends or relatives to bring you food in hospital, you go without.

Br Tony Shanahan cfc


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