February-March 2006

In East Africa

In February-March this year, one of the brothers spent five weeks travelling in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
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When I left Taizé I was alone, but throughout the entire the journey I was well taken care of. For there were many “guardian angels” watching over me, guiding my steps and making sure that everything went well at each stage of the way. Last Saturday, young people in Tanzania suggested having a small meeting. They organized it with the help of Father Appolinari, chaplain at the University of Dar es Salam, and had chosen a place 70 kms from Dar es Salam; a very beautiful place on the Indian Ocean, where there are many hotels and tourists. It is a very symbolic place, expressing the contradictory context of the encounter between Africa and the rest of the world. A former Arab trading post, there are ruins dating from the thirteenth century, with Arab tombs, remains of mosques, etc. It was an important port and was the arrival point for all the slave caravans of East Africa. Slaves bought inland travelled 1200 kms on foot, taking three to six months to do it. When they arrived at this market, they were put on show, sold, bought, and taken to Arab countries or to plantations in the Reunion or Mauritius. This was also the arrival point for the first missionaries to East Africa, 130 years ago. There is a cross, a church, and a cemetery with around fifty graves of missionaries who died aged twenty, thirty, or thirty-five, decimated by malaria or other sicknesses.

It was a tremendous piece of good fortune, and probably quite unique, to be welcomed throughout the entire five weeks in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda by young adults who had spent some time in Taizé, and had shared our life, prayer, mission, work and effort to welcome young people from all over the world. This simplified many things; you were part of the family right away. They understood and took to heart what the visit was all about: sharing in their reality and the challenges they are facing, and sharing in the light and the hope in what they are living. It was a matter of allowing yourself to be accompanied, guided, letting yourself be taken care of. The first thing is hospitality. Welcoming others is still a very present reality for many Africans. Even those who cannot read or write know that a guest passing through is a benediction. This is expressed in the greetings.

For the first two weeks I was welcomed in a large suburb of Nairobi, in a neighbourhood next to Mathare Valley; it is a mixture of large shanty towns and a few buildings of three of four stories which are not yet completed. I stayed with Italian priests who are living in a shanty town twenty minutes from buses and the nearest tarred road. Each day, the young people prepared a visit to a zone of this neighbourhood of 350,000 inhabitants, and they were eager for me to visit their families, sometimes the sick, and their friends.

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The welcome consists first of all in entering the house, which is often a single room for the whole family, six or eight metres square. A curtain hides the bed and the rest of the space is occupied by sofas, a bed settee, and arm chairs arranged around a low table. With cushions, everything is done with a view to welcoming the guest, there is nothing else to the house. Cooking is done in the yard, on a little charcoal stove. We sit down. The sign of welcoming the guest is the soda. We savour the soda, often under the gaze of the children who are not as fortunate as we are. After some time and all kinds of preparations behind the scenes, with comings and goings, the meal arrives and the neighbours appear. The guest has to remain seated. The choice for this meal was maize pâté, a large compact ball that has to be kneaded with the fingers and mixed with tomatoes and onions. The house fills up, ten to fifteen people squeeze into the small space, for all of one’s friends are invited to take advantage of the visit. A basin of water is passed round to rinse your hands and there is always a prayer before and after the meal.

The next stage in the welcome, if you ask questions and want to find out more, the host disappears behind the curtain and emerges with the photograph album. It is as if you were opening the treasure chest of the heart of the family. Page by page, you can see those who are no longer there, even if it is just the previous generation; you can see the joyful events, the sad ones, the school careers. It is the opportunity to ask questions, one story follows on from another. Those who are there recognise the portraits, the friends; it is easy to be part of the family, and to share everything. It is the memory, the expression of an entire life.

A wonderful discovery was the vitality that exists in the local communities, due especially to the small neighbourhood Christian communities set up around 15 years ago, at the time of the Synod on Africa. Around thirty people gather once a week under an awning, in a courtyard, or in somebody’s home for a time of prayer, Bible sharing, and looking at the questions that crop up in the neighbourhood, especially concerning care for the sick. These communities are “self-led”; and they choose a small committee with a president and delegate one of their members to each “service team”, one of which watches over the sick, another over the preparation of catechumens, another over the preparation of funerals, on catechism…. The delegates also take part in a meeting for the Church in the wider neighbourhood, which brings together thirty or more delegates from the small communities. It is a wonderful way of learning to take on responsibilities, to listen and to work with others.

One of the most moving of these communities is a recycling cooperative at the huge rubbish dump at Nairobi. A thousand people are living off sorting rubbish. Forty of them have come together as a small community and cooperative, assisted by an Italian NGO, which recently provided them with a machine for destroying plastic.

In the North of Tanzania, near Arusha, I met another small Christian community, situated in the steppe where the Masaï live. On the day the meeting is to take place, the mothers arrive with their children; there are few men, although a few, shepherds, listen as they tend their goats. We had the prayer sung in Masaï. The passing guest is welcomed, congratulated and thanked. Then we have to enter the houses made of roughcast earth or cow dung, where a meal of rice and beans has been prepared.

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The existence of these small communities, meeting in a chapel every Sunday and linked to the wider parish, has brought back vitality and a presence of lay people that reflect something of the Church of the Acts of the Apostles. It makes possible a pastoral approach that is very close to the people.

Several times, I accompanied one of the priests and the woman responsible for visiting the sick, to celebrate the Eucharist in the home of someone in the terminal phase of illness. It was very moving to see this for it was the culmination of a whole process of approach by the person delegated by the community. She had helped the family and the sick person’s husband, who had started coming back to church. There was much gratitude for being able to receive communion together and to experience reconciliation. For most people, the terminal phase of an illness takes place at home. There is no doctor, no medication, and yet it is lived in a great trust in God.

In Africa, like elsewhere, there can be observed the effects of the rapid transition to modernity from the age-old traditional rural life: secularised urban society, individualistic, with the possibility for some of rapid social and economic advancement, changes in life styles, and the influence of the media. The urban centres move in unison with the hour of globalisation and the international markets.

“We are ‘dot.coms’. Our parents are still ‘Post Office Boxes’”, was how one of the young people summed up the gulf that separates them from the previous generation. The parents respond to this with, “Our children have to know everything about Bangladesh or the harvests in France but they do not know anything anymore about our age old traditions of fishing! The schools are missing the mark. Much of what they learn there will be of no use to them…”

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The Little Sisters of Jesus confirmed this identity crisis. “The young people in the cities are very exposed. Television is extending its influence. You can find it, run on batteries, even among the Masaï! Little children can watch everything that happens on the Western channels. Society is moving too fast. Young people are trying to find their way. They need a framework within which they can recognise and assimilate reference points. They hear all the time that they are the future but we do not trust them. The responsibilities remain in the hands of adults. Some people discourage the initiatives of the young people in the parish council because they dare to speak out, to say the truth. The upcoming middle classes over-protect their children. They are losing the sense of disinterested service that was natural to them and was part of their traditional life. They have gained in comfort to the detriment of possibilities of self-development on a human level”.

Father Michael, of the Church of Uganda: “We are experiencing a massive exodus from the historic Churches. Liturgies that are stiff and formal exude boredom. The number of vocations to the ministry is falling. In the present liberal context, it is difficult to announce the Beatitudes and the Gospel of poverty. The Pentecostalists attract people by their dynamism, by their warm atmosphere, and their personal prayers… They are closer to traditional religiosity; they are more on the wavelength of the longings the media arouse; there is also the attraction of novelty.”

“After several years, what do you still experience of your stay in Taizé?” Many of the replies resemble one another. …
“We lived together like one single family, with people from all over the world! We worked hard in a disinterested way and that was beautiful! A simple prayer, with songs and silence helped us to deepen a personal relation with God… At home, we would like to maintain what we discovered, and share it with others.”

Last updated: 24 April 2006