Sabbatical Journal August – September 2022
Sr. Mary Leanne Hubbard, SND
August 4, 2022 – Arrived in Arusha – Tanzania Itinerary – First Sleepy Impressions
On August 1, the plane left LAX. Montreal. Rome. Doha. Kilimanjaro. I dozed off and on, but the journey was very long, as I arrived in Tanzania at 7:35AM on August 3. My hip was shot by Doha, the last leg of the journey (in more ways than one). There was so much walking at all the airports. I was struck by the youth and beauty of all the workers in Italy, Qatar, and Tanzania, perhaps in contrast to feeling my age. No one is overweight or lame…at least in the airports.
Sr. Pascalia, the novice director, and Sr. Immaculate, the local superior, met me at the airport. The drive to the convent was my first education. How different the landscape from the arid Kilimanjaro airport to the lush foothills of Mount Menu! The tiny hamlets in between were teeming with people and motorcycles and every possible creative iteration of a motorized vehicle. I always find vehicles fascinating, but there is much ingenuity and cannibalization of various parts to make what they need. The paint jobs are even more creative, adding to the spectacle!
Welcome Sr. Leanne – Enjoy your Stay with us
August 3 Arrival at Kilimanjaro Airport
Holy Spirit Delegation Sisters of Notre Dame Novitiate
PO Box 11923, Meru-Branch, Arusha (Njiro)
August 5-17 Ignatian Spirituality for novices
August 8 Nanenane (Agricultural experience)
August 13-14 Trip to Simanjiro
August 18 Community Picnic at Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area
August 21 Maasai Market outing
August 22-30 Retreat for Sisters in Njiro (36)
Aug. 31-Sept 3 Mariology with Temporary Professed Sisters
Sept. 4 Supper with Novices
Sept. 5-6 Decision-Making and Communal Discernment for Novices
Sept. 7 Leave for Kiomboi
Sept. 8 Trip to Shinyanga
Sept. 10 Leave for Arusha
Sept. 11 Free Day
Sept. 12 Leave for Nairobi
Sept. 13-14 Free days
Sept. 15 Day out
Sept. 16-24 Retreat for Sisters in Nairobi (9)
The sisters are very welcoming, a video of which is attached. As you can imagine, the singing, drumming and percussion are heavenly for me. As well as their swaying. Lovely. Of course, I have seen all this on video for years, but it doesn’t catch the life, warmth and jubilation of the experience. I really want them to teach me these rhythms on the drum. We sang a familiar hymn this morning to the tune of “Creator of the Stars of Night” complete what African drums and tambourine! How joyous. It was truly worship.
Sr. Pascalia had me eat and then go to bed, so I was asleep by 11:30AM. I only woke briefly at 9PM when I heard them all getting ready for bed. I slept again until 3AM. I stayed in bed until 4AM and then got up to unpack and settle in a little.
It’s quite cool here. I’m glad I have my winter clothes I may not have brought if I were not going to Europe. Even though I slept, I feel wiped out. Perhaps a little shy about jumping in yet. Sr. Pascalia is having me start my lessons on Ignatian Spirituality tomorrow through next week. There is a typed itinerary of my stay here sitting on my desk.
I have been trying to prepare today but keep dozing off. Luckily the first topic comes naturally to me. thanks for your prayers, support, and community resources! After the musical morning prayer and Mass, then breakfast, the novices were busy with their chores and I have been in my room. The novices have faith sharing on Thursday before lunch. There are so many of them! Everywhere I turn in this large house. Eighteen novices, eight professed, and then quite a few juniors coming and going from their studies. Amazing. Many have asked about all the many sisters from the US by name who have been here before, which are a significant number. The sisters here are so appreciative all they have received from these missionaries.
August 11, 2022 – Novices – Nanenane – Missionaries of Africa – Zinduka Sisters
Today was my first sighting of wildlife. There was a strange cry that sounded like a large goose being choked, in concert with barking dogs. I went outside to find Sr. Christine gazing high up into the tallest trees at a little monkey shouting at the dogs below. I don’t know who started it. I didn’t realize this compound had dogs until I returned from an outing last night after dark. Three dogs, eager for our attention, greeted us as we got out of the car. All are at least part German shepherd. Apparently, they live behind the hen house, but are let loose during the night to roam and protect the property. They certainly do not like monkeys, and presumably they were out during the morning to attend to the unwanted creature. With all the fruits and vegetables being grown here, I can imagine they need some protection from hungry wildlife.
It has been one week since I touched ground in Tanzania. That first four days, I slept a great deal, but awakened for several meaningful experiences. Speaking of awakening, it is pure grace (and time zone acclimation) that I am finding it easy to get up at 5AM to go to chapel to pray and to listen to the beautiful musical worship of my Sisters. Every prayer time we gather in prayer is a huge gift and a boost to my prayer life. Perhaps this is why God brought me here. For those of you who know me, I have not been a morning person since my final vows (the 28-year anniversary was yesterday, August 9)! I am not even drinking coffee, but rather the milky, gingery tea they serve at breakfast.
I began teaching my Ignatian Spirituality class on Friday with introductions mostly. I am scheduled to be with the novices at 9AM to about noon. Then again at about 2:30-4PM though nothing is hard and fast. Sr. Pascalia has encouraged me to work at my own pace and energy, especially after I stood them up in the afternoon that first day. I laid down after lunch and fell into such a deep sleep that the novice’s knocks and Sr. Pascalia’s phone call did nothing to raise me from my stupor. This week, however, I have made all my appointments and have been able to stay awake all day. The novices are so good, easy-going, and genuinely engaged with their thoughtful questions and insights. They have SO much energy! During meals and outside taking care of their chores they are spirited and playful. And yet they sit so quietly and attentively in prayer and instruction. They are very soft-spoken, as have been my Ugandan seminarians, so I have asked them to speak to me as though I am deaf… which I am wondering if I am. Yet when they sing or play they are so full-throated and uninhibited with their whole bodies. I so admire both their utter stillness and their unself-conscious abandon. When they talk about or sing to Jesus, they are literally on fire. I ask them to do a lot of sharing in instructions where they are generous both in sharing and in listening intently. No side-conversations or bored looks.
On Saturday we went to Nanenane (Eight-Eight, that is, August 8th), the equivalent of a county fair, and a national holiday as it is practiced in every region. There were amazing displays of crops that had been planted 6-8 weeks earlier in the ground at this public fair ground: corn, sunflowers, enormous and beautiful cabbages, beans and peppers, tomatoes, etc. I went with Sr. Pascalia and Sr. Kellen, both of whom listened attentively to the salespeople and asked questions about crop care, seeds and seedlings. Because I am relatively unsteady on my feet on these uneven surfaces and fatigued by travel, I asked if there were a walking stick I could use, even something found outside. I did not want to slow them down or have to retreat early. I received the handle of a mop covered in green plastic printed with a repeating pattern of the company, “Nice One” underlined repeatedly with the reminder, “Made in China.” It amused and humbled me even as it did the trick of helping me to last a good four hours, with a seated respite for lunch. While I enjoyed the crops and the animals (cows, goats, rabbits, chickens and catfish), I was fairly overwhelmed with the other booths taunting their wears and miracles with sales people jumping in front of us with the fliers, and competing full-size, rock-concert-worthy amplifiers blaring across the aisles from one another with music and advertisements. It was an assault to the senses, so I did not take full advantage of these booths, but rather navigated the center of the aisles, moved through these areas without lingering, and focused on the families and children who were playing and taking in the excitement, seemingly unperturbed. The colors, unlikely combinations of fashion, and varieties of clothing also caught my attention, a combination of local African textiles and American logo-laden jackets and sweatshirts, for instance. It was a cool morning. I include a couple of photos of the sunflowers and Sisters.
On Sunday, I accompanied Sr. Immaculate and Sr. Nancy to the spirituality center and house of formation of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers because of their traditionally white habits when they initially evangelized this part of the world generations ago). Their house is within walking distance, though walking in this uneven terrain takes a little longer, at least for the likes of me. Their compound is lovely, and we sat on an upper porch for a refreshments and interesting conversation about formation and religious life, the Church and Christianity. One of the priests is from India and the other, who was packing for his new assignment in Paris, is from Congo. An African Sister joined us, a Missionary of Africa as well. What amazed me is what we all have in common as religious in world reality and in this Church. Sr. Immaculate is from Uganda, the house superior, and Sr. Nancy is newly arrived from Papua New Guinea to begin her new life as a Sister of Notre Dame in Africa.
The meals here are important times of connection. The professed sisters eat in a separate dining room, and they linger for at least an hour and a quarter, bantering and telling stories. It reminds me of my long sits at the Sr. Colette’s family home! They genuinely enjoy one another’s company. I only get about half of what goes on, between their soft speech, African English cadence, inside jokes, and general confusion, but I also feel marinated in their goodwill, high spirits and easy laughter. I am impressed with how they tease one another good-naturedly without hurt feelings. I wonder if it is also about summer relaxation. Last night I was asked over the Zinduka Women’s Center convent to have supper with the professed sisters there. They presented me with a lovely royal blue purse and carved zebra that was made by the women who benefit from their programs toward self-sufficiency through skills-training and micro-financing. The Zinduka community will ask me again for a meal with the postulants who also reside there.
In the afternoon I went out for a walk around the property with Sr. Nancy, and we encountered the novices busy about their chores. I took photos of them doing their tasks, and they were very happy to oblige. It is intriguing how much they love to have their photo taken, not so much as an expression of “self” but rather for the novelty of it? A group of them were watering the trees with slurry water from the pigs, dipping buckets into the deep unsavory yet life-supporting trough with great gusto and community spirit, seemingly inured to the odor. They hoed and watered and attended to the animals. Some asked if we wanted to visit the rabbits. I know that Sr. Grace is very proud of the fact that every mother rabbit has surviving bunnies after careful stewardship. Apparently, something was eating the newborns, so Sr. Grace took it upon herself to bring the bunnies in boxes inside each night until they were old enough to survive whatever was preying on them. She proudly picked up the little ones by the ears as I snapped photos. As we were leaving the cages, Sr. Grace asked me if we have rabbits in the US. I answered yes, but mostly as pets. She cocked her head with a curious, enigmatic silent glance, and then moved on to show me the dogs who are penned during the day but released to do their pragmatic, sentinel job by night.
In this practical world of survival, every bit of ground around the property is cultivate with some ornamental, but mostly food sources. The ground is prolific with edible greens and fruit-bearing trees, corn, beans, peas, peppers, tomatoes, etc. No small space is wasted. Even the Mary shrine at the school is surrounded by cabbages as well vibrant magenta bougainvillea. Of course, this means that it is all hands on deck between times for those who live here and the workers. I am edified by their ingenuity and hard work. I also live above the inside-outside laundry that is in frequent use by all: handwashing, scrubbing, hanging, collecting ironing, bantering. When I asked the novices today what they talk about while doing laundry, they said it was often personal stories and lives of the saints, sometimes what they are learning in instructions. The hum of community, recreation, and edification. No machines other than irons, just busy hands, and human chatter.
This is perhaps long enough. I make sense out of my experience through writing. Instead of writing in my journal, I am sharing my perceptions with you, for whatever it is worth. Thank you for taking the time to persevere. I keep you in my heart and prayer as always.
August 20, 2022 – Simanjiro – Ngorongoro Crater
On Saturday, August 14 I accompanied Sr. Pascalia to Simanjiro where the sisters have a foundation that ministers with the Maasai. As I was waiting in the foyer, on this first conscious Saturday (I had largely slept though my first one after arriving), I watched the novices busy about their chores. Tall Sr. Abia was washing down the doors and louvered windows. Sr. Otilia was wiping down the broad leaves of the houseplants in the outside screened-in vestibule between the chapel and the foyer. These four plants are so welcoming, as is the walkway to the convent, lined with bright coleus and begonia, dieffenbachia, and other lovely leafy varieties. I could also see Sr. Annah through the open door to the chapel mopping. I mentioned this to Sr. Pascalia as we were leaving, and the novice directress replied with a wink, “Ah, yes, the joy of young, energetic novices!”
A great joy of this trip was spending quality time with Sr. Pascalia whom I have come to know as very grounded and wise, playful, and quick-witted. She has a lot of responsibility here at the novitiate, not only for the novices, but also for the construction of the new buildings and other such business affairs. While I have been taking the novices for instructions, this has freed her up to attend to other business, and this gives me even greater incentive to be of service. On the three-hour trip to Simanjiro, in between simply taking in the landscape, I could ask her questions about formation and the culture I was encountering. There is so much we have in common as formators, no matter whom we are forming or in what country or culture. The human and spiritual journey is so much the same, it is consoling and edifying.
The landscape from Arusha to Simanjiro is very arid and dusty during the “dry season.” Sr. Pascalia warned me in the morning when I came down to breakfast in a white shirt that it would likely be brown by the time we reached our destination. I said I only had white and black. She encouraged me to at least wear a shawl. I did bring one, though our driver, Frank, was very courteous and rolled up the window whenever there was another truck kicking up dust or when we went through a dusty portion of the road. What I mean by “dusty” is segments of pure dust that makes the car fishtail. Thank God for adept drivers! By the time we arrived, I was still bright and shiny in my white blouse. The sisters don a cloth called a kanga around their waists over the habits like an apron when they are working, or out and about town in dusty areas. The kanga also serves to keep them warm, as they average at least two more layers than I in every weather condition. They are consistently concerned that I may not be warm enough!
The landscape reminds me a lot of the more arid areas of California and Nevada, with familiar plants like acacia and yucca, cacti and low, prickly bushes. The cacti, however, grow as tall or taller than the trees, shaped like trees themselves. Most of the prolific acacia are umbrella-shaped due to the “trimming” offered by roaming animals, domestic and wild. The tallest of them are trimmed high by the giraffes, though I have yet to spot one. The sisters are very concerned that I see a giraffe before my departure. There were many red and yellow flowering trees and shrubs, and prickly yellow flowers that added color and interest to the parched land. Most of the way, the road divided the red and the gray land. I wondered what geographical phenomenon created this quilt-like effect. The colorful cloths of the Maasai also added to the wonder. We passed many bomas, the round, thatched Maasai homes, hundreds of sheep, cattle, and donkeys who carried precious water and maize. My favorite part was the hill country that is home to the baobab trees, otherworldly and eerie, especially against the gray skies. They reminded me of the Whomping Tree from Harry Potter, as though they had a personality to go with their great girth and oddly positioned branch-arms. I also realized why the Little Prince was so concerned with uprooting even the smallest shoot so that his little tree would not be overwhelmed and broken apart by these monster-trees. I often pray with this scene in the Little Prince during my examen, searching out the little ways that I may be nurturing a shoot that could spell disaster if allowed to go unchecked. This image just took on a whole new meaning! Antoine Sainte-Exupery would have been so familiar with this territory as he traversed Africa in his small bi-plane. I am all the more impressed with his wisdom and that of his little friend.
When we arrived at Notre Dame Osotwa Primary School and convent, we were greeted by the gregarious Sr. Phyllis, Sr. Florence, and Sr. Mercy. After taking some refreshment, we were shown around the expansive compound that houses the convent and the Girls’ and Boys’ Schools, and the lovely centerpiece, a boma-inspired great hall. The only students who were on campus were the Fourth and Seventh forms who were studying for upcoming exams before the school term begins. Sr. Phyllis says there are many more boys than girls as the Maasai are reluctant to educate their girls, but that the sisters are making some gains in this area. The few children who were on campus were doing laundry.
Simanjiro is not on Google Earth, as these still-nomadic people do not have “town” but rather gathering of bomas scattered over a vast area. I have no idea how Frank found the “road” to the sisters, let alone the settlement to which we went for the reception of the “third wife” later that day. We travelled for many hours toward the Tarangire National Park and passed only a handful of tiny villages. Instead, for hours, we passed many gatherings of bomas and traveling shepherds on the road, their thin walking sticks always visible to prod and to protect, to rest and to presumably to fight when necessary. The men carry the sticks and watch the flocks and herds. The women carry the children and the burdens of water and grain if they do not have a donkey.
In the afternoon we went to a family celebrating the reception of a “third wife” who looked to be a teenager. When Sr. Phyllis spoke with her, she learned that the girl had never had any schooling. The group of women was so large, I have no idea who belonged to the same family. All were gathered outside the entrance to a painted boma, the men on one side, the women on the other. The men were chanting and jumping enormous vertical leaps, showing their prowess as to whom could jump highest and come down with the loudest thump in their sandals crafted from tire tread. The women stood opposite and sometimes stepped forward to shudder their shoulders in a rapid yet subdued and impressive dance. It was clear that the group was very happy that the sisters had come to the celebration. Sr. Phyllis is a celebrity among them, and she delighted them with trying her hand at the shoulder dance. Sr. Pascalia was good enough to do the same, though neither held a candle to the dexterity of the Maasai women! We were invited into a boma, the mud interior walls cool to the touch, as though we were underground. There they offered us food and drink to go, as I had to be back for a Chapter Zoom meeting. I was grateful for an excuse to pass on eating in front of them, as I was still so new to this world. On our way out of their tiny “gated community,” I noticed that the goat kids were protected inside the thorny fencing they had constructed from the surrounding shrubs. These thorns are nearly two inches in length, no small protection from the wilderness beyond their encampment.
In the evening during supper, Sr. Phyllis entertained us with stories about her “business dealings” with Maasai elders who drive a hard bargain regarding sending their children to school, any “payment,” use of the land, and grazing “rights” even on the sister’s land. Sr. Phyllis is equally as pugnacious, a perfect foil for this delicate dance between cultures. I would not want to come toe to toe with her! Or the stick and knife wielding Maasai. They have not survived this unforgiving land and the encroaching “modern civilization” without a great deal of ingenuity, tenacity, and business acuity. Sr. Phyllis seems to be equally adept at her negotiations with the generous and zealous German volunteers and donors who come frequently to build and add to this remote foundation and mission.
Before we departed the next morning, the sisters presented me with my own kanga, royal blue decorated with zebras. This way I could return the dusty road with my skirt neatly covered. I will treasure this trip. While the sisters where exchanging oil and maize before the next trip to Simanjiro, I was watching the Maasai encamped at the entrance of the compound, loading their donkeys with supplies of ground maize, and water from the adjacent tower, thanks to the grinding machine and the well on the sisters’ property. They will travel many miles to their own homes.
Wednesday, August 17 was the last day of my nine days of instruction with the novices on the history of religious life, Ignatian spirituality’s influence on Notre Dame spirituality, the Spiritual Exercises and discernment of spirits, punctuated each day with an episode of The Chosen in the afternoons. The idea of using The Chosen came to me in my panic the first day when I realized how much time I was going to have with them each day, 9AM-noon, and 2:30-4PM. Since Ignatian spirituality includes imaginative prayer to make Jesus as real as possible, I thought this film series might help them to place themselves in the story. I could not have imagined what a blessing this would be for them and for me. Each episode tracked perfectly with the lesson of the day, and I wasn’t even trying! They have benefitted so much from these afternoon immersions in the Gospel. Only the Spirit could have orchestrated such synchronicity. They have dived into a review of the previous day’s material each morning with examples they saw played out in these memorable and very human characters, and ALL eighteen of them want to weigh daily. On this last day, I asked them to create an image, a drawing, a poem, or song that would help them to remember what God wanted each of them to remember from this study. Their contributions were heavenly. Some drew simple images, but all of them sang songs they composed or that they all know, and all jump in with voices and drums. God is teaching me a lot about myself and God and faith and Ignatian discernment through these novices.
On Thursday, August 18 fifteen of us climbed into a small bus at 6AM to make our way to Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area for the day, a four-hour journey, five hours with stops for breakfast and at the entrance of the park for officials to look at our passports at great length. At a village outside the crater, we stopped to transfer from our comfortable, stuffed little bus into two Land Cruisers that looked a lot like those at Disneyland’s Indian Jones Adventure, but much less well-kept and, shall I say, solid? The interiors were well-worn, and one could see a great deal of the infrastructure, from the fiber-glass interior to the screws holding the wooden dashboard in place. I was given the privilege of the front seat initially, until they opened the top of the vehicle along the high ridge of the crater so that we could stand up and take photos and view the wildlife. Then I was transferred to the next seat back for my viewing pleasure. There were eight of us in our vehicle plus the guide. The Land Cruisers are very loud and rickety, as I am sure they have made this journey thousands of times, and are rattled, reinforced, and ratchetted on a regular schedule. The driver successfully maneuvered the steep inclines and hairpin turns to deposit us on the plane below where he stopped frequently for us to ogle the thousands of animals that reside there. There were so many other Land Cruisers making the same din, that I worried we were disturbing the inhabitants, but they all seemed rather tame, except for the skittish wildebeests who inevitably hurried across the road in front of us when we came near, and the shy lion who could only be seen from quite a distance by better eyes than mine. The only way I could really tell that lions were present is by the stillness and perked ears of the zebras on the other side of the road. For those of you interested in the animal inventory, I saw the following other than those mentioned: elephant, ostrich, wild boar, Grant and Thompson gazelles, flamingoes, water buffalos, hippos, secretary birds, and baboons. The latter were not visible in the crater, but a troop entertained themselves back at the entrance in the largely empty parking lot in the evening. They sat idly ogling the few remaining humans and then sauntered off, the youngest baby skillfully clinging onto its mother’s back, the juveniles hanging back for one last look.
While I took several photos of the wildlife, I was equally charmed by my mostly young junior-professed sisters who were so excited to be there. Sr. Nancy, recently transplanted here from Papua New Guinea, was the most entertaining as she was the most vocal and awestruck by the animals. In fact, she made so many sounds, and begged the animals to come closer, we had to ask her to tone it down so that she would not scare them away! Other European tourists also seemed to be smitten by the sight of this troop of blue-clad African religious. While were we taking lunch at a “safe” spot for mere humans to alight in this wild land, there were dozens of tourists from all over the world doing the same. Some politely asked if they could take a photo of us or with us. One man from Barcelona asked Sr. Therese if she would hold his Lego man whom he photographs in different placed all over the world like the Travelocity gnome. It was a joy to speak Spanish with him and several others from Spain that day.
I found it interesting that our picnic area was deemed “safe” since it was next to reedy water that included quite a few hippos though largely submerged. I only saw ears and noses, and one big yawn. While we were eating, an enormous bird that looked somewhere between a pelican, a stork and a vulture with its rather bald head and lengthy waddle, stood at only a slight distance eying our chicken-rice-chapatti meals. We were seated on the prickly grass in a tight circle, veils blowing the wind, protecting one another’s food from the swooping birds and the stately, though a little-unnerving visitor, far taller than any of us seated. I looked him up when I got home (isn’t the Internet a wonderful thing?!) and realized he was a marabou stork. When he flew away his wingspan was at least 10 feet if not more. He was much more handsome in flight than in his at-rest countenance. Perhaps it was the food that made him so serious and even rather ominous, but I think it was the featherless head that made him look like an oversized vulture.
Both on the way to the crater and on the way home, we watched entertaining music videos of African choirs singing religious songs, most of which the sisters knew and joined in humming or singing. What a wonderful soundtrack to this adventure. Everywhere I go there is music in many harmonies and rhythms. The last half hour on this 14-hour journey, the sisters prayed and sang the rosary, and then sang some lovely prayerful songs to Mary in thanksgiving for the blessings of the day. The Swahili syllables were beyond me, except for the “mama” refrain, but I heard the heart of their song, and it was the perfect end to this remarkable day.
This weekend I am completely free to work on the retreat that starts Monday, August 22 – 30, and the Mariology instructions for the Junior Professed on August 31 – September 3. I am grateful so many are praying for me, as I am out of my Ignatian Spirituality comfort zone! But so far, God has been generous in inspiration and calming my usually overwrought default of performance pressure. I feel quite relaxed and in the capable arms of God through my generous African Notre Dame family. Thank you, Sr. Kristin!
September 1, 2022 – Daily Life, “Discerning Jesus” Retreat, and Ongoing Construction
After Ngorongoro I had a quiet day of rest and the weekend to prepare for the eight-day retreat. This gave me an opportunity to take in the daily routine and walk the property. A novice rings a relatively small bell in the echoing concrete hallway at 4:50AM most days for 5:30AM meditation, 6AM Morning Prayer, and 6:30AM Mass, then breakfast. On days there is 6PM Mass I do not hear that wake-up bell until 5:50AM. Because there is so much music with all the verses, and several prayers outside the Liturgy of the Hours, Morning and Evening Prayer are often 20-25 minutes long, very different than our North American precision of 15-minutes, followed by 30-minute Masses. Most weekday Masses are at least 35-40 minutes. I love that we sing all the verses, as they often tell a story, reflect the nuances of our theology, or just give the heart time for devotion. The priest will stand there as long as it takes, joining in the singing or clapping along patiently. Their joy in just singing and drumming still hasn’t gotten old, and it doesn’t matter if it is all in Kiswahili.
On Saturday, we left morning prayer to walk over to a large 10-foot-deep hole in the ground on the other side of the construction of the three-story building only yards from the Njiro house where I have been residing. The hole was the square footage of a chapel that will accommodate the growing number of East African Sisters. The priest blessed the land as we responded in song. Then I said my own prayers, read the LA Times headlines and cartoons, and did my laundry by hand, inspired by the busy hands below my window. It was difficult to find real estate on the roughly 400-square-foot slab of clothesline. I am extremely fortunate to have a novice guardian angel, Sr. Annah, who asks to do my laundry. I have given in to her except for my underclothes. She does a lovely job ironing my blouses on a concrete countertop covered in towels, cleans my room, and supplies me with a flash of potable hot water each night. When I am not looking, she swipes my shoes to polish them, or washes my Birkenstock sandals in water! Shoes are very dusty here at the end of everyday day. Waterproof sandals would be better, but my Birks seem to be handling their unconventional bath. I keep forgetting to hide them from her. By the end of this sojourn I will need to report to my Birkenstock storeowner in Ventura how well her wares wear!
Lunch is at 1PM, Exposition at 6PM, and at 6:30PM: song, Evening Prayer, prayers, reading the next day’s Gospel, silence, and another song. Supper lasts from 7PM at least 8PM, if not later. This old lady then hobbles up to her room wiped out as the chatter in the room rises with dishes.
On Saturday, I learned that the novices spend a good deal of the day attending to the livestock, feeding, watering, and mucking out the chicken coop, rabbit cages, pigsty, etc. In the morning they do their inside chores, and then they head outside. Sr. Abias stopped me mid-morning to invite me to the pig-slaughter that day. I was touched that they wanted me to join them, especially as it seemed to be such a cause for celebration. I hummed and hawed, and declined as politely as I could, but she seemed quietly crestfallen. All eighteen novices participated, and I was genuinely curious how these young women, some of them quite diminutive, would manage to slaughter a rather large pig whom I had been visiting for weeks. I acknowledged to them my pang of hypocrisy as I do like to eat pork very much. In the afternoon, from my bedroom window I heard the poor pig’s distress for quite a while; though not far away from my window, the carefully washed concrete slab of sacrifice is mercifully obscured by quite a few trees.
On Sunday we attended the local Kiswahili parish Mass, 75 minutes, and another 25 minutes of announcements. No one seemed in a hurry, but rather engaged and responsive with sounds of approval during the lengthy homily and announcements. No one left early as I could tell. The choir featured strong male voices in call and response with women’s voices. The organ played with synthesized rhythms. I missed the drums and acapella sound, but the organ had its own unique was beauty. There were many verses, and full and active participation from the congregation as well as the choir that looked to be at least two dozen, half of whom were young men. Two flatscreens projected songs and prayers on either side of the sanctuary. The offertory procession was more than the Presentation of the Gifts of the altar. The people processed to the front of the chapel to deposit their offerings in two coffers before the altar. The Communion procession is one of my favorite parts of the Mass as I love to think about the entire worlds represented by each person who approaches. Of course, I cannot even imagine the stories of these people, but I noted how young this congregation was, and I was not even at the youth Mass. This is a young country, a young Church, and a young delegation of the Congregation! The third procession was for a second collection, as the parish is building a larger church with two imposing towers that is taking shape next to the large hall where we were celebrating. As at Nanenane I was impressed by the variety of clothing and hairstyles, and the number of women religious scattered throughout church, though none as numerous as our own. Even the local clergy are impressed with the number of vocations in Notre Dame.
On Sunday afternoon, Sr. Pascalia took me for an outing. First for a haircut! She needed to ask around to see who could or would be willing to cut hair such as mine. I am in a part of town in which I have only spotted two or three Caucasians. Many hairstylists advertise along the main road, but Sr. Pascalia took me to one a block from our convent. She sat there eagle-eyed, like a worried mother that I would not turn out bald or lopsided. No one at the shop seemed to know much or any English, so I was glad to have her there. The gentleman used only an electric razor, much as he would with anyone else who walked through the door. My hair is relatively forgiving so I was not too concerned, and if worse came to worse, I could don a veil like the rest of this community. I now have a very short haircut. When the novices commented on the change, I told them that I wanted to look more like them, and they squealed in delight. All I have to say is that it is much easier to wash, especially as warm water is scarce.
Our next stop was a Maasai market that caters to tourists. It felt quite surreal to be around presumably Americans and Northern Europeans. I was so glad to have Sr. Pascalia’s protection and prowess at bargaining. In Kiswahili she bantered and bartered expertly with the shopkeepers with her humor. I would love to have been able to understand her, as she seemed to enjoy the game, and they seemed to take it all in good stride. The people here are consistently kind, warm, and friendly, even in a tourist trap. After we had walked away with several souvenirs and beautiful Tanzanian cloths, she told me that they assumed by my white skin that I had money and they wanted more than the fair price. Stall after stall, Sr. Pascalia showed them her cross that matched my own and noted that I was a religious like herself.
The neighborhood of the Maasai market was very posh compared to where the novitiate is, even though I thought we were in quite a nice neighborhood compared to the surrounding villages. We passed some very swanky hotels built by Chinese, Korean and other foreign investors. The roads were well-paved and the houses large and gated, the Beverly Hills of Arusha. Sr. Pascalia took me to Gran Melia Hotel, a very luxurious, manicured site with fountains and glass atria and a never-ending organic swimming pool. We went to the roof to take in the beautiful Mt. Meru. The contrast was a little guilt-producing as a Westerner and a religious, but I was grateful for the reality check as I continue to take in the breadth of the Tanzanian and East African reality.
Thirty-six Professed Sisters from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania attended this first retreat which began on the evening of Monday, August 22. The days leading up to the retreat more and more sisters arrived so that we outgrew our small dining room and moved over to the big hall at the Primary School where 13 of the Sisters would stay in the student dorms above the school. Each day I tried to memorize more names and faces. The din produced by so many young, enthusiastic Sisters in the reverberation of a beautifully tiled, concrete-floor hall made it very difficult to distinguished names and faces let alone conversations. Each day I sat at different tables and tried to take in their features and memorize their names. It has taken me all week, especially for those who came from Uganda only the last evening. Fortunately, I have had a meaningful conversation with almost all of the sisters by the end of the retreat, and so I have stories to accompany these faces. I put a sign-up for four slots a day (28), thinking that this would be sufficient, but the slots were filled in the first evening, so I added more. On this last day of the retreat I have seen a total of 34 sisters! It was my wish to get to know the reality of the Sisters of Notre Dame outside of the USA during my sabbatical. As usually, God and the community have provided more than I could imagine! May shared the stories of their vocational calls and their family circumstances, so helpful in getting more familiar with the culture and the spirituality.
One of the highlights of the retreat Masses is the presence of professed, juniors, novices, candidates, probably a total of about 75 jubilant and earnest voices, loud in song, louder than our most special Masses on a weekday, and on a feastday like St. Bartholomew or the Passion of St. John the Baptist I’m sure the heavenly Jerusalem is descending in real time! They are all moving as one with the music, except this still white immobile obelisk feeling self-conscious even as I appreciate the dance and heartfelt worship with every part of me.
Every day I have been here, there has been something new to take in…. and to prepare. Preparing for this retreat has felt like daily gathering of manna, which gives new meaning to the Lord’s Prayer: give us this day our daily bread! The retreat title is “Discerning Jesus” and I am truly discerning day by day the content. Every day I have plenty to work with, so I am truly living the topic moment by moment. I set myself to use only the readings from the daily liturgy to find the discerning Jesus and modeling a discerning life. God has more than provided.
During the retreat, as we were passing back and forth between the convent and the school several times a day, I was taken with all the building happening on this compound. The three-story convent next to the novitiate has been in full swing since my arrival, but now there is also a huge open pit for the chapel. There is no evidence of heavy machinery, rather many workers arriving every day with their hands and hand-tools. This week of retreat other projects included the re-sodding of the soccer field, the digging and building of the concrete storm drain the length of the field, the demolition and reconstruction of a sizeable length of retaining wall separating the neighborhood from the school and a freestanding lavatory and garage. The retaining wall had been crumbling, and when the workers began demolishing it, they found that one of the neighbors had build his house from said wall. All in a day’s work! Oh, and the students arrive back on campus on Sunday for Monday’s beginning of the term.
Construction of a free-standing lavatory and garage building has been the most interesting to me, as it is located at the end of the u-shaped school building where we passed often to get to prayers, meals, and retreat sessions. Trucks and motorbikes fixed with flatbeds delivered cinder blocks, sand, gravel, rebar, raw timber, and roughly cut 2x4s. These materials were consistently unloaded by hand. The only tools were hammers, nails, handsaws, rebar (cut by hand), sledgehammers, and chisels. No electricity or gas-powered machinery. There was no scaffolding. Ladders were constructed when needed by nailing crossbars of 2X4s to two longer pieces of timber, as were saw-horses, or timber was laid across window-openings to provide height. The construction workers walked along the top of the cinderblock walls and chipped away at the old walls to demolish the parts that were not needed. In an afternoon an entire cinderblock wall was demolished by hand! Then each new cinderblock was carried up to the rising height by hand. In one afternoon, the timber framing for the roof was erected. I watched a man walk up a roof pitch of a single 2×4. No ropes. There were strings with a piece of plastic used as weights for a plumb line to measure the roof line. Once the walls and roof were erected, I was fascinated by the ingenuity and deftness of those who worked on carving away the concrete cinderblocks to make grooves and holes to run electrical and plumbing. They chipped away all day and then laid conduits. Others mixed concrete and stucco by hand, and expertly threw the mixture on the walls with a trowel to create a smooth surface inside and outside, covering the plastic conduits as well. I kept thinking about my father and how much he would appreciate how much these people accomplished with what they had. He never threw anything away because he knew that it would come in handy one day. My father disliked parting with money at the hardware store when he could just as easily figure out a way to reuse what he already had on hand…which was a great deal in that small garage shop!
At the end of September 1, I am halfway through my debut experience of teaching Mariology to 28 of the 37 junior-professed sisters of East Africa. I had a couple of sleepless nights before I started, but with a little help from Dr. Paul Ford and Sr. Regina, my two former teachers on this subject, I have cobbled something together that I feel good about. They are so eager to witness to their own relationship with Mary in our discussions, and their grasp of the theology is quite natural and articulate. It is the air that they breathe. I am learning much, as I have every day on this journey. The classroom full of young sisters in full-time ministry or their own schooling are here for four days before their terms begin again on Monday in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. God love them!
September 20, 2022 – Last days in Arusha – Kiomboi – Shinyanga – Road to Kenya – Nairobi School and Convent – Nairobi National Park – Sheldrick Wilderness Trust Elephant Orphanage – Giraffe Center
On Sunday, September 4, Sr. Pascalia wanted me to experience the only English Mass at the local parish. There were only about a third the number of people from the Kiswahili Mass I had previously attended, but there were fifty children who were dismissed for catechesis. Then I counted seventy who came up to the altar after the homily, facing the congregation to showed off their catechetical knowledge for a good fifteen minutes. The English speakers are mainly those to are not originally from Tanzania. Many English-speaking Rwandans settled here during the genocide and this English Mass was originally to accommodate them, but many have since returned to their homeland. At all the Sunday Masses, there is such financial transparency during announcements. The amounts of each collection (sometimes two or three), how much is being spent, and how much is needed for the construction of the new church is announced weekly. During these enthusiastic announcements, handsome renderings of the new church are flashing on the screens! I was glad to hear these details in my own language, but I much prefer the crowded, joyful, dancing Kiswahili Masses! The English Mass was staid in comparison. Of course, I need to go back to my “old” crowd (yes, I am among that description) at my own parish church eventually, even though the music itself is alive. In the meantime I am soaking in the vibrant worship of the Africans.
The novices invited me for a farewell supper that night. It was a rip-roaring farewell with a beautiful prayer service much too focused on thanking God for my contribution but very sweet, beautiful, and music-filled. We started the prayer in their conference room where I had been teaching. The ambience was beautiful. This prayer then morphed into a program with grass skirts and leg-shakers and fabulous drumming! Then they escorted me up to the rooftop of the garage for a barbeque of my favorite meal here, roasted pig, yes, the second one who met his demise during my six weeks! They also know I love rice and beans, chapatti, and fresh tomatoes for salad. Sr. Pascalia, Sr. Margaret, and Sr. Immaculate also participated in the whole evening, Novice Directress, Junior Directress and Local Coordinator. I was blown away by three hours of celebration!
Monday and Tuesday were my last days with the novices, teaching Ignatian decision making and communal discernment, but I could tell they were depleted. They remained gracious albeit sleepy. I was sad to let them go. These were also the last days for the second-year novices, as they were departing for their various three-month mission experiences in the other communities of Tanzania. They insisted on photos one after the other. How they love to have their photos taken so my camera is full of portraits and group photos. Since the novices do not have cell phones or cameras, I projected the photos for them each time I went on an outing or took photos of them.
The last day the novices insisted that I show them a photo of my mother, so I projected the photo from her 80th birthday. They all responded with a sweet sigh of appreciation. What I have learned from this culture is that everyone wants to share and wants me to share about their family. Are your parents alive? What of your brothers and sisters? What number are you in the family? Are they well? There are few if any personal questions or curiosity, so different than the white American culture. I am important in terms of my family context. I love this aspect of the African culture. My mother and two sisters will be happy to know that they are known and prayed for through my encounter with my sisters and others I have met here in Africa.
The construction of the three-story Njiro convent and adjacent chapel is still underway next door to the novitiate where I am residing. The last Sunday I got a tour from Sr. Pascalia who oversees this project. The days before our tour there were dozens more workers on the site, including women, who carried buckets of heavy sand and gravel to a cement mixer, and then transferred to wheelbarrows that traversed rickety scaffolding on narrow, uneven boards, to dump wet cement into the molds below. I was amazed at the expanse of wet cement that represented the foundations of the new chapel. The masons continue to impress me with their ability to throw just enough cement in just the right places as they smooth out the interior walls. Sr. Pascalia picked up a chisel that had been handmade from a piece of thick rebar, honed flat and sharp on one end and flattened on the other by repeated blows. Even in this large structure, I saw no power tools except for the small cement mixer outside.
On September 7th we departed for Kiomboi with three second-year novices headed to their new communities. Sr. Grace we would leave in Kiomboi, and Sr. Abias and Sr. Agripina would stay in Shinyanga. What was supposed to be six-hour journey ended up taking us eight hours, partly because of jack-knifed big rig on the two-lane highway not too far from Arusha. Our driver, Frank, expertly navigated our low riding van off road through a ravine with the rest of the multitudinous vehicles. What surprised me were the thousands of children on their way to school that Wednesday morning, all in uniform, many girls wearing lovely white hijabs framing their beautiful dark faces. I had looked up the population and median age of Tanzania before I left the US, but it is a very different thing seeing children everywhere we go!
The trip did not seem that long because of the newness of the landscape and the people along the road. There are always people even if it looks like we are miles from any kind of human settlement. Many of these are the Maasai shepherds with their livestock, but also many others walking, bicycling, and motorbiking. The latter were often taxiing one to three people to their destination. I saw up to four adults on one motorcycle. Intermittent public buses passed us, many of which the sisters know intimately as this is their way to and from these distant missions. Most of the traffic was made up of trucks transporting food and building materials. Speed bumps and roundabouts kept the vehicles from barreling through towns and over bridges. There were very few private cars, and they did not rule the road the way they do in the US but rather were kept in check. Literally. There were random police checkpoints as well as those who watch for speeding. We were stopped several times on this trip for a quick chat with an officer. Once for speeding but we were let go.
As we approached Kiomboi, the rock formations were the points of interest. Enormous boulders looked as though they have been purposely placed for maximum sculptural interest. There were new scenes such as beefier cattle with handsome horns, as well as roughly hewn carts being conveyed by yoked oxen. Closer to Shingyaga, the preferred conveyer for the same carts were donkeys.
When we arrived in Koimboi, the Sisters took us to Aloysia Home where 26 beautiful little girls sang and danced a welcome program for us after presenting us with ribbon leis. Sr. Christine and Sr. Pascalia were enamored with the littlest, Maria, who had come to the home when she was barely out of infancy, apparently quite despondent. But she was certainly the life of the party. Bored by staying in line, she wandered off to stand with her back to us and facing the children to better conduct their program. This is truly Sr. Aloysia’s work. While not all may be orphaned, they all need support and love that family cannot provide. They were such a happy lot! Though Sr. Esther supervises the home, there are quite a few women who work there to provide care and guidance. Sr. Grace would be helping there.
We also received a tour of the Notre Dame School grounds, though the children were not present, except the two girls from Aloysia Home. These two ministries are on a huge expanse of property given to the Sisters of Notre Dame from the Diocese, the trust in our work is so great. There is livestock and lots of land to cultivate for food. They are looking to building a green house, and the school will likely expand. Everywhere we traveled there is a great deal of construction underway for a fast-growing population.
Upon my departure my visit was celebrated with a song and the presentation from the Kiomboi sisters of a lovely Maasai red and black checkered shawl (shuka), a very memorable gift as it such a common sight along this long road.
On September 8 we travelled another several hours further west to Shinyanga near the town of Didia. The landscape flattened considerably, the weather became drier and hotter with less vegetation. The Sisters assured me that when the rains come, they come hard and long on this land that transforms into fields upon fields of rice paddies. It was obvious that thousands of acres were prepared with segmented berms of mud to hold the water and the rice plants. Still, it was hard to imagine given its desiccated, lifeless appearance. There was evidence everywhere, however, that this was the land of rice as the trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, donkeys, and oxen were laden with the familiar 200-pound bulging white sacks.
When we arrived at the convent outside of the rural town, Didia, we were on a compound housing the girl boarders at Notre Dame Hostel for the large Salesian Don Bosco Secondary School across the very busy and very dusty road: walkers, bicycles, motorbikes and trucks kicked up the fine dust as though it were a main thoroughfare. The boy boarders were housed on the school compound at Don Bosco Hostel run by the Salesian priests. Though only three, the Sisters who work there are hardy, jovial, and very hard workers. We laughed a lot since Sr. Pascalia and Sr. Christine are close friends with Sr. Magdalene, as well as former teachers at the school. This ministry is our farthest SND outpost in Tanzania. They had many stories to share about their days in formation, the hardships of the early years in this mission, and their youthful naivete and vigor. Not that any of them are even close to my age!
The first evening we joined the boarders at their prayers and rosary in the hall. The cacophony was astounding after a long day on the road. I perhaps am too far away from my spirit-days in resonant gyms with hundreds of teenage girls! I was impressed after our two long days of travel that Sr. Christine, the delegation superior, greeted many young women as they exited the hall. She had obviously cultivated a relationship with quite a few of them, and they were elated to see her. Both she and Sr. Pascalia came back to the convent late for supper because, as Sr. Christine said, they were busy drumming up religious vocations, asking the girls about their intentions and their studies.
The next day we went over for the morning assembly. Wow! The assembly was held in an open space covered by a corrugated metal roof from corner to corner of the quadrangle of classroom buildings. Nearly 1000 high school-aged students were dressed in smart, color-coordinated uniforms according to level. They stood in military-style attention for a 35-minute assembly which takes place thrice a week. There was a drill-sergeant-like young man shouting “Attention!” and “At ease!” again and again until they were in perfect rows and evenly spread out. A head boy gave a spiritual reflection on moral behavior. The Head Teacher (Principal) made announcements about being on time (familiar), and the consequences of these infractions, which included manual labor after school. I wish we could do that at our American schools. The campus was spotless in this very dusty world. The Head Teacher then introduced Sr. Magdalene who introduced the second-year novices, Srs. Abias and Agripina, who would be with them for three months. There were also three very young Salesian volunteers from Germany and Slovakia who would stay for six or nine months.
Walking around the campus, I noticed the Salesian messaging everywhere. Quotes from St. John Bosco were painted along every building and low wall housing beautiful plants and trees. I was struck by the cashew tree in this plaza area that apparently never gets harvested because students eat the nuts off the tree. There were also little signposts like those found at Disneyland quaintly sticking out of the foliage reminding the students to mind their manners and to work hard, etc. “Act today in such a way that you need not blush tomorrow.” A shortened version of this quote in Kiswahili is prominently painted along the administration building facing the quadrangle: “Run, jump, have all the fun you want at the right time, but, for heaven’s sake, do not commit sin!” The Salesians always impress me with their consistent messaging across the country, and now I see, across the world, though one of my dear sisters quips they seem short on Jesus and long on Don Bosco. Still, the consistency of the message seems to have a lifelong effect on the Salesian student.
Sr. Pascalia and Sr. Christine were rock stars at the secondary school. We barely moved a few feet without a joyful greeting from former students or staff so beloved are they. Many of the teachers were also former students or colleagues. Both Sisters remarked that the assignment was hard. The conditions were and are difficult, but the experience was so rewarding. It is difficult melding the charisms of Notre Dame and Salesians, but the priests let the sisters run their own show at the girls’ hostel. We are definitely making our mark on the lives of these students.
At the Shinayanga compound there was a lot of building going on at the expense of generous donors. This project seemed a little farfetched, however, given my experience of the preciousness of water everywhere I had been, this place being the driest and hottest. This donor is building a large bathroom facility with more than a dozen toilets and sinks and shower stalls. Pristine white walls and white-tiled floors stand next to the current stands of corrugated metal where the girls now wash. The sisters (and I) wonder how there will be enough water for such a facility. There are trenches between the hostel and the school awaiting water infrastructure from Lake Victoria, but that will be costly. The two “dams” on campus that are really run-off capture are currently nearly empty, and yet the students who are meant to stay away from them still descend to fill a bucket now and then. They are not used to so many spigots, and I wonder at both the cost and the monitoring of wasting water. I will be interested to hear from Sr. Magdalene how this unfolds. It is so hard to grasp the day-to-day reality until one live it. None of this would make sense to me if I had not just spent the last seven weeks carefully washing from a precious bucket of warm water, brushing my teeth with a glass of potable water, and washing my hands before meals from a bucket with a small spigot and a dab of soap. Coming from California, I thought we were conserving, but if every Californian and Southwesterner used water as the precious commodity it is – as these East Africans grasp – we might still have a Colorado River in the future. It is impressive what they can grow by hand watering their gardens in this dry season.
Regarding gardens and livestock, this school had the largest number of cattle and pigs I had seen, the better to feed over one thousand people who study and work on campus. I took photos of the long-horned cattle and goats. I will miss this world of being so close to the land and livestock every day.
On the second day we made a social visit to the nearby hospital and school run by religious who have been longtime friends of the Sisters of Notre Dame. The Sisters asked about our SND missionaries who have since returned to their native lands, and Sr. Christine and Sr. Pascalia had some catching up to do with their sisters as well. Afterward, we went into the small town of Didia to pick up our own supply of rice which is much less expensive than closer to the city. Now that our van had unloaded the three novices, their luggage, and the supplies we had brought to Kiomboi and Shinyanga, we started packing on again in what would be a very long shopping excursion on our way back to Arusha. I worried about the suspension on these uneven roads. The main road, however, was paved, and we only needed to contend with the myriad speed bumps, slow trucks, and occasional livestock that meandered across the road.
I was impressed by the life and color of Didia with its dirt roads, so I took a lot of photos. The town will likely not be small for too much longer. There is a lot of demolition going on along the railway to make room for a larger rail station that can accommodate the rice trade and growing population. With the new water infrastructure also coming, this will probably add to this little hamlet’s appeal. While Frank was loading the rice up top of the van, I went across the street to watch the demolition of what had previously been a small hotel. It was a family affair, everyone with a hammer and pulling out the valuables which included odd pieces of wood furniture, but more importantly, the corrugated metal and the timber. I watched a young man for a half hour pounding away at a cinderblock wall with a regular-sized hammer. Others had small sledgehammers but not many. Some used ropes through window openings and manpower to pull down walls. The owner greeted me and Sr. Magdalene as she asked if I could take a photo. She recognized him from the church as a catechist. He had sold his property at a very good price, but they were also trying to salvage all they could for additional income. Once the new construction comes in, they will have money to rebuild, so that made me feel better. These Tanzanians are ever resilient and resourceful. Everything is a family affair, which I also find inspiring. There were blocks upon town blocks of people doing the same work as the rubble grew around them. Little is wasted.
September 10 was our 5:30AM departure for Arusha as the estimated time for travel was approximately nine hours. On the road again, I found that fan palms which we value in California were considered weeds to these farmers because of the myriad suckers that make it hard to cultivate the land. There were multitudes of mango trees, perfectly coifed, hardly a leaf out of place in their dark leafy spheres. Unfortunately, it was not mango season, or I probably would have made myself sick on the way home from overindulgence. As it was, I felt like we were always eating. A Sister of Notre Dame, worldwide it seems, never leaves the house for any length of time without a picnic pick-me-up. All along the way home, we continued our roadside shopping for sunflower oil, onions, sugar cane, clay pots, coal, Irish potatoes, all heavy purchases!
As we neared Kiomboi, we also picked up a precious package in Sr. Stella who made her vows only in May of this year. She had been serving in Aloysia Home but is to become a pioneer of a new foundation in Kenya, so she was headed our direction along with her belongings which were so few! Most of the East African foundations are in Tanzania, but there is only one in Kenya located in the outskirts of Nairobi. The East African Delegation had been looking for an opportunity to open another foundation in Kenya for many years. They are very excited about taking over the withering school in Timau, about a five-hour journey from our Kenya house. Three sisters begin this ministry in October, but much must be prepared. Sr. Stella’s youth, energy, and awe at being sent were inspiring to me.
We stopped in the town of Singida that has paved roads, a much different experience. Sr. Christine had arranged with the Diocesan Pastoral Center to take brunch there, since we left the house at 5:30AM. We sat on a lovely veranda. What a beautiful complex! Its outside worship space is about the size of the Los Angeles Cathedral Plaza, but the covered stage is perhaps three times that of our cathedral stage. The Singida diocese jubilee celebration was so well attended, the Sisters felt quite crushed and pushed along. The compound also has a number of houses for guests who come from afar. The Sisters who started the foundation in Kiomboi initially stayed at one of these at the invitation of the Bishop. The bishops have continued to be very supportive of the Sisters of Notre Dame. I do note that the Sisters make an effort of connecting, attending events, however far from home, stopping by to greet those they know. One of our side journeys in Singida was the house of an elderly priest who was sitting in a chair in the shade of the garage working on his homily. He welcomed us warmly and insisted we stay for a drink and something to eat though we had just come from our meal. The conversation was largely in Kiswahili, though he politely asked me a few questions about my stay in Tanzania. I watched the lively and obviously warm interaction while taking in the scenery. On the ground behind me thinly spread on three large empty rice bags were sorghum seeds drying in the sun. The priest asked me if I had ever tried it. No. It is good for one’s health. I thought I should look try it when I get home. I had been eating millet porridge with the novices most days for 10AM lunch. So many new tastes, mostly homegrown here.
Before leaving Singida, Sr. Christine wanted to stop to buy grilled goat meat for the road. We stepped onto the concrete sidewalk filled with fragrant smoke and waited quite a while for our chosen goat legs to be served in tin foil and brown paper bags supplied with a single toothpick. No fast food here. My package was carefully cut into bite-sized pieces for my toothpick. Sr. Stella and Sr. Pascalia delightedly gnawed on the leg bones. The meat was both perfectly done and well-smoked on the wood charcoals. While waiting, I took the opportunity to look around and take more photos of the colorful sights. One woman walked by with a bucket of oranges, she herself looking lovely in her multicolored cloths, bright as the fruit. Fortunately, she sat not far away to rest on a bench, so I approached her to ask for a photo. There is little English spoken in Tanzania in the places we have visited, though it is required for secondary school. She graciously agreed and smiled, so poised and proud, that I know this will be a lasting memory for me.
Scenes along the way home included my beloved baobab trees and the red brick houses constructed from the red earth on which they sat, so different from the grey cinderblock homes closer to the city. The roofs were either hay thatch or corrugated metal that shone in the sun unless they were old and rusted. Some were bright blue or red or colorfully striped. The new construction is obvious because of the shinier roofs. Many brick structures were either under construction or cannibalized for materials to build other structures. Whatever the case, the population is growing, and the houses are popping up all over even as there are long stretches of wide-open space.
Another perennial is the sight and smell of smoke. Along the side of the roads, next to houses and businesses, people burned their trash and the debris carefully swept from the red earth around their residences. The air in Arusha is often acrid with smoke from the sheer number of people living in the city and taking care of their refuse. The convents have incinerators that are at work at least daily. Every residence also has an outside kitchen with woodburning stoves to boil water for cooking and washing, which adds to the smoky aroma. As a Californian used to wildfires, it was often disconcerting to see and smell smoke along the side of the road in this arid territory that looks so much like my own desert landscape. When I asked about this, none of the sisters had heard of a wildfire in this region. Curious.
The morning after our 12-hour return home, on Sunday, September 11, Sr. Pascalia took me to the 6:30AM Kiswahili parish Mass which most of the Sisters attend. It is the most populated and lively of the Sunday Masses. Can you imagine? 6:30AM! It was quite a contrast to the previous English Mass, as it was full to overflowing with a call and response dancing choir. At breakfast, I had a conversation with Sr. Christine about her experience of the largely empty church in Germany, and her observation of the advanced age of the parishioners with no young people. Coming from this place, I can see how surreal the European reality must be to our African Sisters.
Later that day, Sr. Pascalia took me through the poorer section of Arusha on our way to the African Art Gallery. This neighborhood is not far from the convent. The houses are like those I have seen in Tijuana, patched together with whatever materials might be available to keep one safe and relatively dry, mud walls, scraps of timber and corrugated metals. That said, it was a relatively tidy place, and the children seemed as ingenious as they are anywhere in finding toys from scraps. Wherever I have been in Tanzania, no matter how limited the resources, people seem to present a sense of dignity and deep connection. Of course, I cannot speak Kiswahili. I cannot know their reality as I drive by in a car, but my perception is that the communal culture itself offers the shelter of relationships that sustain people, regardless of their physical circumstances. Perhaps I am naïve, but if my Sisters here are any indication, I believe I am not totally deceived.
The African Art Gallery was wonderous! I did not take photos of individual works, as I did not know if that was acceptable since all the works were for sale. The building itself, however, is a work of art, clearly shaped as a drum made of glass, shield and spear offering depth and interest. The drum truly is the heartbeat of the lives of the Sisters and in the worship of the people. I took a photo of the explanation of these three items as archetypal for the people of Africa. Even in 1994 when I was in Rome preparing for my final vows, I have vivid memories of St. Peter’s piazza filled with bright-colored African worshippers waving bright-colored scarves and singing in rhythm to the resounding drums during the African Synod. Being at this gallery also reminded me of my parents’ two visits to Africa. We have had African wood carvings and beaded work in our family home since I was little, living in Greece. I kept wondering how they got all that stuff home in the 1970s, especially the Maasai spear! It was a different, simpler time. I know my mother would love to have seen all the beautiful artwork of Maasai and elephants in particular; she was very much with me that day.
We ended this outing with a trip to downtown Arusha which reminded me a lot of the Los Angeles garment district with rows of narrow shops spilling out onto the sidewalk with colorful fabrics and other goods. I wanted to look for a couple more cloths that reminded me of the beautiful ones donned by the Tanzanian women, something made in Tanzania rather than China or India or even Nigeria. There is such eye-candy in the everyday dress of the women in this area. Of course, now I have the problem of fitting everything into my luggage for the trip to Germany, Rome, and then home!
On our last night I celebrated another farewell from the Njiro Community, this time from the professed sisters and the remaining first-year novices. It started with a lovely prayer service followed by the famous “cutting of the cake” for every celebration since I had been there. The Sisters danced into the room singing a thank-you song, then handed me a knife and unveiled a heart-shaped unfrosted cake. Once cut into a few small pieces I was handed a toothpick with a bite-sized piece of cake to feed the sister representing the group. Usually, it was the superior but that night it was dear Sr. Mary Gladness, always true to her name. This ritual was repeated for birthdays, name days, graduations, any excuse to celebrate an individual. The dance also included the presentation of farewell gifts. I received a colorful, quilted bag, probably made by the Zinduka women and another fabulous African cloth. I am racking up quite a collection. Sr. Colette warned me that I should not overpack so that I have plenty of room for gifts on my return. I did not take her seriously enough and so I am trying to figure out how to get to Germany with two carry-ons and checked suitcase and guitar! But I do love all the cloths!
On September 12 we were on the road to Kenya. The road north from Arusha seems dry like the Nevada desert though they say it completely changes when it rains. The roadside acacias were so thin and light they looked like delicate ferns. It was amusing to watch goats climbing thickets and standing in the tips of their hoofs at 90-degree angles reaching for the last morsels. On their hind legs they reminded me of characters from Lewis’ Narnia or Beatrix Potter. I did note that on this main road from the border to Nairobi, the foraging livestock was confined to a rather narrow shoulder on either side of the road all the way to the city. The land was fenced on both sides for miles, something I had not noticed in my travels in Tanzania. Part of the slow going on the road to Nairobi was due to the number of cattle, sheep, goats, and donkeys moseying back and forth between this narrow corridor of land. Of course, there were the ever-present speed bumps every so often.
Other notable scenes along the road included motorcycles laden with hay bushels extending taller and wider than the driver. Another motorcycle passed with a milk carton bungeed to the back nestling a content sheep. This picture expanded my repertoire of the image of the good shepherd! I also saw a roadside car wash sporting a “patio” of flat stones laid out on the red earth and a stack of plastic, yellow jerry cans on the roadside.
On our first stop on the other side of the border, I noted the weavers’ nests hanging delicately on the ends of the acacia branches. They literally looked like perfectly woven beehives. On the ground were the superb starling (yes, this is their actual name) with their impressive iridescent blue head and backs contrasted with a blush red belly. I first saw these birds in Simanjiro. Their bright blue is further set off against the startling red earth. Our first stop, of course, was for chapatti, more to eat. It was warm and delicious!
As we approached Nairobi there were more and more private cars which I had not experienced in Arusha or on our long drives. The roads were more crowded with both cars and people, truly city traffic. There were more buildings, taller and busier. Syokimau, our SND neighborhood, is a suburb not far from the town of Mavoko. When we turned off the main road, the community sported the same bumpy roads on which I had encountered all our convents, though Sr. Christine said this was the worst. Indeed, it was, surprisingly. Though the housing and businesses demonstrated a significantly higher standard of living than what I had seen previously, the dirt roads are just as subject to the hard rains. This phenomenon, however, is not noticeable on Google Maps satellite images.
Our SND Nairobi compound houses a pre-school and primary school as well as a convent where twenty sisters reside. The convent is very large with tiled floors and smooth walls. I barely noticed anything when I arrived because I was so tired, though when we entered the dining room, I was delighted to see the flock of sacred ibis in the back garden. I knew them immediately as I remember writing a report about them when I was in grade school. Apparently, they like to forage on the chicken feed.
After a day of complete rest, on September 14, I was invited to our Notre Dame Primary School
assembly at the which I was greeted with the most remarkable scene. Seated knee-to-cross-legged knee, from wall to wall in a large hall, were one thousand children aged 2-10 years old. I have never encountered such a sea of cuteness. A group of the older children were on stage, and they sang a welcome song as I was presented with a colorful beaded necklace. Sr. Mary Elizabeth, the Head Teacher, introduced me and asked me to say a few encouraging words. Eek! I had watched Sr. Christine at each of our visits offer a ferverino to the students of Kiomboi and Shinyanga. I prayed hurriedly to the Holy Spirit, and something arose, thankfully. I will never forget, however, that multitude of beautiful, smiling and curious faces. We walked around some of the classrooms, but the highlight was the preschool where we found Sr. Mary Sunday and Sr. Mary Monica playing with the littlest ones. This facility is so lovely, decorated with bright colors and scenes from the life of Jesus painted directly on the walls. This was also true of the primary school. It was not great art, but it was cheery, meaningful, and homey. I noted that the signage on this building was “Play School,” so I snapped a photo for our own pre-school teachers, Sr. Carol and Sr. Rosaria, to enjoy. They always boast that they are going off the “play” while the rest of us go off to work.
September 15 was an outing, what the sisters here call a “picnic.” An Associate of Notre Dame has a tour company. One of her touring LandCruisers with driver arrived to take seven of us out at 6:30AM to Nairobi National Park which is adjacent to the city and less than 30 minutes from the convent. It was an overcast morning, but we managed to see giraffes, rhinos, hartebeests, a lioness, antelope, ostriches, crocodiles, and many water buffalo. I was thrilled to see my first kingfisher that hovered in front of us just before diving for his morning catch. From afar I also caught sight of a fish eagle resting on an island in the middle of the lagoon. A particularly moving moment was a visit to ivory monument. Piles of ash from ivory burning is meant to raise consciousness about poaching and illegal trading that puts the elephants and rhinos at risk. The elephant population in this area was devastated by poachers in the past, so there are no elephants at the park. I was impressed by the rhinos’ long curved horns, as most of the rhinos in captivity that I have seen have stubby horns, either to protect them or their caretakers, I presume.
Sr. Christine stood most of the time and directed the driver to places where she saw cars gathered or groups of animals. Her eagerness to point out the sights reminded me that I often describe spiritual direction as the art of being a safari leader who watches the interior landscape and points out the places where the seeming absent or hidden God can be found in their own experience. Now I have a strong mental image.
After a couple hours wandering the National Park, we went to the Sheldrick Wilderness Trust elephant and rhino orphanage. This facility is only open for an hour to the public. During this hour the elephants were fed in a corral that helped mostly white, foreign visitors to see them, touch them, and to listen to the caretaker explain the program. He introduced each elephant by name, usually the place from where they were rescued, and the reasons they needed rescuing. Some of them were the victims of poaching and others of dehydration and starvation. There were twenty-six elephants from six-months to four years old. The aim is to introduce all of them back into the wild with elephant families. For many months now Sr. Mary Amy has been forwarding to me the Sheldrick e-newsletter that includes wonderful photos of the elephants, so I was familiar with the program. It is, however, very different being so close to the animals. I knew my mother would have swooned with love, since she has always loved elephants, having been to Africa twice. The Sheldrick Wilderness Trust encourages people to adopt elephants by name during their recuperation and captivity.
Our last stop was the Giraffe Center built in such a way that visitors can feed them. Unlike the rather expensive and exclusive Sheldrick experience, the Giraffe Center was clearly more accessible, and there were scads of school groups, some of them preschool age. Thus, their teacher held up the little green and brown pellets, no bigger than the end of their little pinkies, and told them that if they did not wanted to become giraffes, they were not to eat the giraffe food. It was only for the giraffes. He was only going to give them one each. They were so wide-eyed and friendly as we walked by.
The evening of September 16 began the annual eight-day retreat for nine sisters, until September 24. Every day is full of my own preparation and meeting individuals, just the rhythm of prayer and meals. I do not know where the time goes, but as of this writing I only have a week before I leave Africa and head to Germany for our General Chapter. I am already counting my blessings and feeling nostalgic about leaving this sacred space.
December 30, 2022 – Last Week in Nairobi – St. Veronica Church – Nairobi Farewells – Reflection on East African Experience
For Christmas I wrote WhatsApp greetings to several of my East African sisters. They have been much on my heart as I have counted my blessings these waning days of 2022. Several of them have texted me over these months to ask about health of my sister. Then Sr. Christine Syombua sent a video of a large group of sisters gathered in Arusha singing Angels We Have Heard on High with characteristic drums and rhythmic moves. Every familiar face warmed my heart on this overcast SoCal December day following Christmas heat.
This digital encounter has renewed my commitment to write about my last week in Nairobi up to September 27 when I left East Africa, my communities, my Sisters. In these last days of my semester-long sabbatical, I also want to reflect on the overall experience in the light of my initial hopes and expectations. I landed in Africa as a seeker. What did I ultimately find?
In my last entry I was beginning the eight-day guided retreat, “Discerning Jesus,” with only nine sisters. This time I was able to talk to each of them at least twice or more if they wished. I learned more about them personally, religiously, and ministerially, which was a great blessing to me. I was struck by their love of the congregation, as many of them were more years professed and currently in leadership of one kind or another. Their love and appreciation of the missionary sisters who had preceded them also touched me deeply. Even though many of these sisters are senior members of the East African delegation, the oldest is only 45 years old, and they miss their wisdom figures even as they are more than capable to carrying on the work of the congregation. There is so much energy, creativity, zeal, and vision represented in these women!
Within walking distance of the convent and school compound, I attended St. Veronica Catholic Church, staffed by the Congregation of Mary Immaculate with an Indian Pastor. Ironically, in this more cosmopolitan city, the short trek via SUV may be the most rugged terrain I bumped through in all my travels. In the church, there was seating for about 2000 congregants with a mezzanine above and a large nave that slopes downward toward the sanctuary. Molded beige plastic chairs were neatly arranged row after row in the wide-open space. There were no kneelers except for two narrow banks of pews under the low-ceiling-ed wings. The sound of plastic on the hard-tiled floors punctuated the liturgy as people rose and sat and rose again. Instead of stained glass, traditional Italian holy-card images of saints and the life of Christ adorned the windows. Light shone through the colorful renderings which was particularly dramatic in the early morning darkness as we approached the structure lit from within. Statues of Mary, Joseph, and angels were ivory-skinned Western European in visage. The only evidence of African art were the design behind the altar in bright orange-gold, black and white, and the beautiful repeating-patterned metalwork in the windows, some with colored glass. The latter captured my camera’s interest, as they did in Arusha.
On my first weekend at St. Veronica’s, Sunday, September 17, I noted a group of men, women and children dressed in matching colored African cloth, silk-screened, logo-ed t-shirts and scarves in the opening processional. They appeared again during the preparation of gifts, another ritual after communion in which they presented something else to the Pastor, and finally in the recessional. I learned that different groups take the lead each week, and these were members of the St Alphonsus Ligouri parish group. The church was full to capacity, and these Christians stood out in their uniform dress and leadership this week, starting at the church entrance where they collected foodstuffs and other gifts from and for the community. I love how the East African sisters refer to people as “Christians” rather than “parishioners.” Christians emphasizes baptism in Christ over the institutional affiliation, which is important but not the most important aspect of our belonging.
The choir was gathered up toward the front of the sanctuary, and I sat as close to them as I could. The Stella Maris choir had just returned triumphant from a competition among parish choirs, so after communion they stepped into the main sanctuary in front of the altar and performed two original pieces in Kiswahili. Though I could not understand a word, I was enthralled with the harmonies and the storytelling I could intuit from the music. After Mass I asked on the sisters the content of the lyrics: Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man. At the processional, the man who plays the traditional African shaker made from straw and metal, enthusiastic throughout the Mass, was obviously in an ecstatic state. Such joy in worship, and a little amusing too. I have a video clip though tamer than his rapturous convulsions during the Mass.
The following weekend at St. Veronica’s, I counted about forty parish children lining up to dance in the Processional, again during the Gloria, and honoring the Word before the proclamation of the Gospel. They wore white head scarfs, bright yellow tees, red aprons for the little girls, and bright red African designs for older girls. The scarves and t-shirts were emblazoned with the message: ‘The Word of God is my food and drink,’ and a logo for the Jubilee of Sr. Faustina Society.
This week I also noticed the tattered copy paper taped to the pillars throughout the church that included St. Veronica’s Paybill and account number as well as the message, “First Sunday of month is parish tithing please come accordingly.” This message also appeared intermittently on screens that provided the lyrics to the worship songs.
This week I sat directly behind a woman with a young boy perhaps between one and two years old. I spent a good deal of the Mass watching him, and he me. At one point his mother set him down in the low step between the tiered chairs and he began poking at my very white toes. Most children here are fascinated by my ghostly appearance, and I by their dark-velvet beauty. There are so many children. Everywhere. But it was most noticeable this last Sunday before school-aged children and young adults were to return to school after the holidays. The Pastor called forth all those who fell into this category to come into the sanctuary to receive a blessing. I guessed approximately 800 youth emptied out of the far corners of this massive worship space into the equally vast sanctuary. We held our hands out to join in the blessing these young Christians who are the future of this country, this East African region, this universal Church.
September 24 marked the end of the “Discerning Jesus” retreat, and the end of my duties in East Africa. The nine retreatants, true to their African sense of hospitality and gratitude, had created a simple and meaningful ending celebration including a blessing from the retreatants,
congratulations on “new life” (a phrase that they use at the end of their annual retreats), the ever-present drumming, singing, and cake! I have also noticed in each of these celebrations across Tanzania and Kenya, that every sister makes presentations to the entire group upon going or coming or when someone is being congratulated for an accomplishment. No one is exempt for reasons of shyness or “not being a good speaker.” I imagine this comes from growing up in an oral tradition. I write notes (from which I craft carefully articulated and too-long letters after the fact, even three months leter). They make speeches. And I had to get more comfortable with making spontaneous presentations myself, not just teaching, but speaking heart to collective heart.
Another aspect of community life among our sisters in both Tanzania and Kenya which I so admired is the way they celebrate the individual. I was a guest, and I was celebrated multiple times in each place I visited, both upon arriving and departing. But this was also true of the sisters who were being transferred to other communities or who were leaving after a prolonged stay. Prayer services and parody songs specific to the person’s particular gifts and contributions were normal fare. Beautiful ambience in chapel or in the community room marked the special occasion. A corner of my suitcase was dedicated to handouts of songs, prayers, parodies, and gifts in my honor, but what touched me most was that this celebration of the individual is for everyone. See how they love on another, the mark of an authentic Christian. This was even more remarkable as there were so many comings and goings across borders in a region where about half the sisters are fulltime or part time students.
There was more dancing and singing in the Nairobi convent as I prepared to leave for Germany on September 27. I received a beautiful white shawl with line drawings of giraffes, zebras, and lions which they laughingly wrapped around my head, and several yards of African fabric in which they playfully swaddled me around and around until I was a tottering blue mummy. As usual, they spoke beautiful words, and then it was my turn, and it was hard to say goodbye.
September 27 was departure day for those of us going to Germany for our SND Chapter: Sr. Christine, Sr. Margaret, Sr. Kellen, Sr. Teopista. In the wee hours I received a text that asked me to return to California for a family emergency. I was heartbroken on so many levels. The five of us travelled together to Doha, Qatar and on to Frankfurt, but then we separated. I made my way to Los Angeles through Dublin. It was a two-day journey back to California, bringing a magical experience to what felt like an abrupt but necessary halt. It was all grace. I was meant to be in the USA rather than in Europe for the duration of my sabbatical and through 2022. God knows what God is about. What this unexpected “downtime” has afforded me, especially three months after my departure from Africa, is time to let the graces sink in, to rest in my family, my sisters, and my religious identity informed by both.
When I applied for sabbatical, I had questions about where we are as a Church, as Christians in a largely post-Christian reality in the USA. I wondered about the place of religious consecration in this post-COVID world as well. What does parish life look like post-COVID? Why do people stay connected or disconnect from the Catholic Christian community? What might evangelization, the proclamation of the person of Jesus Christ as the answer to the human conundrum, look like as we move forward? How do I engage my seminarians and priest colleagues and others in this conversation without sounding like a have ceased to trust in my religious and Christian identity?
Then I landed in East Africa, and all this fell away in the day-to-day experience of worship, community, and local church. It was not a matter of what was in my head but of the actual on-the-ground encounters, and what the sisters face each day. It was not a matter of answering all these niggling questions as much as living into the reality of the moment, including taking baths out of buckets and watching everyone roll up her sleeves to put food on the table from the gardens.
Since I returned to Notre Dame Center in December after my sojourn to San Leandro to help family, I have rested a great deal, but also found new zeal for more concrete endeavors: music, more intentional engagement in local parish life, perhaps continuing practicing discernment with young adults, being more open to invitations to give retreats, and of course, being as present and available as faculty at the seminary. Of course, all these opportunities require ongoing discernment. Advent afforded me the opportunity to reconnect with the meaningful, haunting music I love to play for worship. The prospect of encouraging opportunities for Synodality as an ongoing practice at the convent, the parish and the seminary also appeal to me, recognizing that this may take considerable perseverance on my part to keep the conversation going. As I write this, I recognize my overzealous enthusiasms rearing their heads warning me that my lifelong commitment to learning the subtle art of discernment among the too-many options in also on the horizon. But it also shows that I am more rested. My imagination is re-enkindled. The aim of sabbatical is to take time to rest and regroup, to re-energize and to come back with more clarity and enthusiasm (that is, en-spirited-ness), to respond to God’s next invitations. Mission accomplished perhaps?