An American Missionary in Africa Speaks, Part II

Saturday, July 1, 2006

(continued) An American Missionary in Africa Speaks, July 1, 2006

As you look back now, what were the biggest challenges you had to meet as a young religious in another culture ?

The most obvious challenge of course has been learning to live with sisters and people of another culture -- different values, ways of thinking and doing things, speaking, communicating. It requires a lot of patience and an ability to relativize and let go of a lot of secondary things. But you quickly learn that you are richer for this exchange and I can see very clearly now how my quick, impetuous and task-oriented nature has been favorably modified by the slower, ponderous and more respectful-of-others nature of Africans.

I think the biggest challenge I've had though was finding my own place in the apostolate. In Tanzania I wanted to go to the more poor by living and working in an Ujamaa Village (communal farming village then being set up according to the model of Tanzanian socialism taught by President Julius Nyerere). We were a group of young sisters -- Africans and Europeans -- who were pushing for something closer to the people and outside an institutionalised structure. Not all the sisters saw things the same way and the moment wasn't ripe for that sort of foundation. When instead I was sent to Kenya to be principal of our school there and even though it was in a very poor rural setting - I felt pretty frustrated. But it wasn't until after a 6 month experience -- on arriving in West Africa in one of our poorer rural communities doing pastoral and social work, that I came to understand - and accept - that the service where I had more to offer was in the field of education, and more especially the education of youth. So I found myself back in schools and have been very happy ever since because I'm convinced that this is where I have something to offer in what is one of the biggest priorities for the African Church and our Assumption Provinces. The Africans themselves believe that true and permanent development can only happen when its youth acquire a sense of initiative and creativity as well as a sense of responsibility in order to dedicate themselves to the transformation of inhuman and unjust situations with and for others. Catholic education, which aims at an integral development, hopes to form responsible, dynamic and honest citizens who will be apt and motivated to contribute to the development of their region while also working effectively to earn their own living.

What helped you meet those challenges ?

What helped me? Only God. The missionary spirit of the Congregation is a grace and gift of the Holy Spirit who inspires all the communities, making them aware of the immensity and universality of the love of the Father.

"Their being sent in obedience confirms this call. Their response to it can only be made at the invitation of and with the strength of the Holy Spirit who is the source of unshakable hope in the heart of the apostle. They share in the proclamation and growth of the Kingdom and in the communication between the Local Churches, through which the universality of the Church is manifested." (Rule of Life N 86)

I understand that you are in charge of a large technical high school. Are the students you deal with very different from our teenagers in the US ?

My answer here is both yes and no. Our students are kids -- teenagers with hopes, dreams and problems like those of all over the world. The other day I went to a Graduation with the sisters of West Philadelphia. The girls among other things did a dance to some kind of modern music and I felt that I was back at Sokode. Youth Culture in today's world is very much the same all over -- even all the way out in a small town in a very small and remote country in West Africa. But of course they're very different. The situation in which they have been brought up, with its culture, history, geography, economy is very different, most of our kids come from polygamist families which has its own set of problems for young people, and then there is the problem of poverty and growing up in a country suffering the effects of a military dictatorship for almost 40 years. The issues are not the same, the future opening out before them is not the same.

What appeals to you about these young people ?

I don't really know, I just know that I love them and appreciate them a lot. They're very open and frank, loving and affectionate.

Are you happy in your mission ?

Yes, very happy and fulfilled.

Now that you've been here in the U.S. for these three months, what strikes you in a positive sense? In a negative sense?

That's a question that's hard to answer as I feel like an outsider looking in. What always strikes me positively whenever I come back is the easy-going friendliness of most Americans I meet, just walking around even in downtown Philadelphia. Most people say hi and often stop to talk, when in need you'll always find a friendly person to help you. This may seem surprising but it's true, remarkable even. Another thing I've seen this time especially is that Americans have a capacity, a need even to play and have fun -- I think that's very important. For the negative, it's obvious what my politics are so I won't go into that, suffice to say that although everything in America is so efficient, neat and clean, comfortable, etc. etc. -- and that's a good thing -- there's just too much overwhelming abundance !

Do you have some advice for young adults today ?

Following on what I said above I'd say to them just to keep up the good job for the positive things, but watch out for the traps of the consumer society which enslaves. Try to be more observant, critical and discerning about what is at the basis of America's economic wellbeing -- it's not just our hard work ethic and American ingenuity. Be able to share of that abundance too -- ask yourselves often when making purchases: "do I really need this?"

Is there something else you'd like to add ?

Yes, for those who'd like to share, think of contributing in one way or another to the task of education in Third World countries: it's the key to development and democracy.


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To return to Part I of Interview