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...
that time of the year...
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
ON THE HOME FRONT
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
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
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!
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.
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.
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"!!
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
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
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