Maryknoll Vocation Ministries is a service to the Maryknoll Society.
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September 3, 2012

Summer on Mission in Africa



One of the best aspects of the Maryknoll Formation program is the ability to visit Maryknoll missions throughout the world during one’s years of academic study. This past summer I was given the opportunity to visit the Maryknoll missions in East Africa, working with and visiting the missioners that are working throughout the region. Having never visited the African continent, I naturally had very little idea of what to expect; the languages, the culture, and the environment that the African region presents seemed very, very foreign to me.

Some of the missions in Kenya and Tanzania are located in the remotest corners of the globe; places virtually untapped by Western society and modern technology. I knew I would be in for an adventure, but I still found myself unprepared for all of the experiences I encountered during my summer visit. One can read about Africa all they want, but the work that Maryknoll is doing in some of these remotest of places is something that truly must be experienced for one’s self.

I began my summer by traveling to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya and the location of the center house for Maryknoll’s Africa Region. I was immediately struck by the cold weather; despite being located only a few degrees shy of the equator, the city is nearly 5,500 feet above sea level, and so during the winter months (which includes, I had forgotten, July and August, being in the southern hemisphere!) the temperature can reach as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit. While in Nairobi, most of my time was occupied by taking a course at the Maryknoll Institute of African Studies (“MIAS”), a graduate-level institute located at Tangaza College in the city of Nairobi. This program, directed by Maryknoll Father Michael Kirwen, is accredited by St. Mary’s University in Minnesota and grants graduate credit which can be transferred back home to count towards an academic degree. This worked out perfectly for me; I was able to see so much of Kenya and have all these new experiences, all while earning credit towards my Master of Divinity degree back home in Chicago! The course I took at the Institute, titled “African Traditional Religion in a Contemporary Context”, explored the idea of traditional African beliefs and their place in today’s world. The unique aspect of the MIAS courses is that fieldwork is a necessary part of the studies; during the three weeks of the course, half of the time is spent in the classroom while the other half is actually spent out in the field, observing and interviewing Africans in their native context. This unique approach allowed me to do everything from interviewing an African faith healer in Kisumu (after an extremely bumpy 8 hour bus ride from Nairobi) to attending an African Initiated Church service in Kibera, the second largest urban slum in Africa and the location of some of the most abject poverty anywhere in the world. 

I learned that traditional African faith practices – such as faith healing, witch doctors, and native medicinal practices – are still very much alive in Africa even today. I also was amazed to hear, from every person I talked to, just how important God is to the people of East Africa. To be an African, as it was explained to me, is to believe in God; the fact that God is present in nearly every aspect of the African life was new, exciting, and helped me to reflect on my own life and see where, in fact, God is working and acting in my own day-to-day being.

After my studies and spending about a month accompanying several Maryknoll priests to their ministries in Kenya (which includes parish work, chaplaincy work, and mission promotion work), I travelled south to Tanzania, where I continued to experience the work Maryknoll is doing throughout the region. The highlight of this visit was undoubtedly my time spent in Ndoleleji, a rural area just outside of Shinyanga, Tanzania, and even further into the African wilderness. After traveling 2 hours by plane from Nairobi to Mwanza (Tanzania) and then 5 hours by car from Mwanza to Shinyanga, I traveled another six hours by truck into the African bush with Maryknoll priest Fr. Daniel Ohmann. Here, I accompanied Fr. Dan who has been working for decades among the peoples of the Wataturu tribe of Tanzania. This was undoubtedly the greatest test of wills for me, certainly in Africa and quite possibly in my entire life. For five days I slept in a tent in one of the most remote places in the world, a place with no running water, no electricity, and inhabited only by members of this remote African tribe. Things really started to get difficult for me when a herd of cows stampeded through my rudimentary campsite and shredded my only source of comfort, my tent, to pieces; I thus had to spend the next four nights sleeping in the back of Fr. Dan’s old pickup truck, protected only by a thin mosquito net and little else. To say this experience was a challenge is a very big understatement!

Yet despite the heat, the insects, and the incredibly rudimentary conditions of this rural area, I found myself strangely at peace with myself and with the people I encountered there. Indeed, it was the people who made my experience so memorable and, strangely enough given the difficult circumstances of the environment, enjoyable. I didn’t speak the Wataturu language and had very little in common, culturally, with the people I met; yet, through laughter, smiles, and my willingness to sit and spend time among them, I found myself welcomed by the people and wanting to learn more about them. My time here was short, but I could see just how my presence was appreciated by the people and just how much God is present in their lives. That, indeed, is the mission of Maryknoll – show the people how God is present among them and make the Gospel message explicit in all that we do. By being present and interacting with the Wataturu people, teaching them and showing them stories about the life of Jesus Christ, and just helping out in any way I could in the day-to-day life of the village, I hope and feel that I was serving as an instrument of God’s hand among the people.

There is still so much work to be done among the people of Tanzania, of Kenya, and of all of the rest of Africa…and Maryknoll is doing an incredible job of being a visible presence of the Church among these people. The things I experienced and the people I encountered will remain with me forever, and I cannot wait to hopefully return to them one day and continue my work of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ to, quite literally, the farthest and most remote places in the world.

by Seminarian Peter Latouf

1 comment:

Mark Zachar said...

Great post Peter. Sounds like you had a awesome experience and you've reflected on it extensively. I have another year left in Ghana, but then we can swap Africa stories over a beer. Until then keep up the good work. Godspeed. -Zachar