Notes from Africa

Wednesday February 13, 2019


Maji ni uhai…maji ni baraka.


Water is life…Water is a blessing.  These two phrases are central to the thoughts of Kenyans.  Because many of them are subsistence farmers, a drought, lack of rain, would mean their fields would not produce; they would face severe food shortages in a matter of months.


In these days in the Kisii Highlands of Western Kenya, we are still in the dry season waiting for the rains to begin.  The hope is that they will begin in the next couple of weeks.  A common sight is people hauling water gathered from trickling streams or artesian wells—adults will carry a bucket of 20 liters two or three kilometers (one way).  This intensive work continues every day as water is needed for cooking, drinking, washing, and bathing.  I frequently see people hauling their laundry to the river for washing.


At the Mission House, I am fortunate to have an adequate supply of water.  We have a 49,000 liter cistern that collects water from the roof of the house when it rains.  Also, there is a 10,000 liter holding tank that is filled with water from the cistern and water from a borehole (a well).  This water supplies all the needs of the house.  For drinking and cooking the water is purified with by a filtration system, and a filter from Water with Blessings is also used.


For those who like math problems:  how much rain will it take to fill the 49,000 liter cistern?  Here are the dimensions: the back side of the house has 13.7 meters of eave troughs, and the front side of the house has 6.4 meters of eaves.  From the edge of the eave to the top of the roof is 4 meters.  Let me know when you have the answer.  Remember in Kenya rain is measured in millimeters.


I am mindful of the blessing of water, and the life that water gives… I am grateful to have an adequate supply of water.



Notes from Africa

Wednesday February 6, 2019


Part of my life in the Mission is celebrating the Eucharist.  My usual schedule is to celebrate the 6:30am weekday Mass at Gekano Parish, and on Sundays, two Masses at various outstations (mission parishes or centers, as they are called) of which there are 50.


Last Sunday I went to Emenyenche, one of the far-flung outstations.  Of the 50 outstations, I have now been to thirty-two of them.  Emenyenche is 18.5 kilometers from the Mission House (11.5 miles). With the conditions of the roads (and they were dry), it took me forty minutes to travel to the mission parish.  I did have the consolation of driving on tarmac for about two kilometers on this journey.  But, what a scenic drive.  One ascends a mountain and drives along the spine of the mountain on a north-south axis with spectacular views on either side, to the east and west.  It took some effort on my part to pay attention to the road which had many twists and turns lest I end up in the ditch or worse.


With the number of outstations, some of them might have Sunday Mass four or five times a year.  Outstations more centrally located will have Mass on a regular basis, but not every Sunday.  Each outstation has at least one catechist who assists with sacramental preparation and leads weekly prayer services when a priest is not present.  Each mission parish has the responsibility to fund and construct their church building, and the building is managed by a chairman appointed by the pastor.


I do enjoy the travels each Sunday as I go around to the various outstations, and I have been warmly welcomed.  An outstation may have as few as 50 people at a Sunday Mass or numbers exceeding 300 at the larger, more central outstations.  The vast majority of the faithful travel to church on foot, a few take a pikipiki, and I have seen only two or three vehicles bringing people to church.  I would guess many people walk well over 5 kilometers just to get to their respective outstation, and the walk is up and down the Kisii Highlands at elevations that reach over 6,400 feet.


Notes from Africa

Thursday January 31, 2019

A common form of transportation in Kenya is the motorcycle.  Pikipiki is the Swahili word for motorcycle.  The motorcycle serves as a taxi, ferrying people from one place to another.  Not only does one see people riding a pikipiki, but, also, one will see just about anything that a motorcycle can carry.


I have seen up to six people on a motorcycle, one of them being the driver (some people say, “There is always room for one more.”)  A motorcycle often carries food—crates of bread piled six or seven high, bunches of bananas or sacks of grain.  Water and crates of soda, too, are seen.   Goats and chickens are hauled.  Sheaves of Napier grass are toted from field to the animals who eat it.  Sheets of tin for roofing, pieces of lumber, and other building material are seen—sometimes the lumber is 12 ft. long so that the pikipiki takes up the whole road.  I have seen couches, chairs, and beds transported, and even coffins (I don’t know if it was occupied or not).  It is not uncommon to see 25 or so plastic chairs being piled on a motorcycle and carted to a venue.   Students at boarding schools use a pikipiki as a means of conveyance to and from school for themselves and their belongings.   Last weekend, I even saw a kitchen sink being hauled.


There is a saying, “Everything but the kitchen sink.”  Well, a pikipiki


In town, the motorcycles swarm like flies, passing on either side of the vehicle and darting in and out of traffic; it seems they make a two-lane road into a four-lane road.  They are nimble and agile and most useful in moving through congested streets.  In Africa, people say there is no hurry, but to drivers of a pikipiki, this rule does not seem to apply.  Just as with any group of drivers, there are good drivers and poor drivers, but it only takes one poor or careless driver for an accident.


I have been a passenger on a pikipiki—one day I was out for a walk when a thunderstorm settled in the area.  As the lightening flashed and rain drops began to fall, a pikipiki driver asked me if I needed a ride.  Just as I was dropped off at the main gate, the skies let loose with a deluge.  I found myself grateful for these machines I often call an annoyance!


Notes from Africa

Thursday January 24, 2019


“You have more books than a library!”


Recently, one of the girls from St. Theresa’s came to my house to ask a question.  When she looked through the door, she saw the dining table upon which were several books (I was preparing a homily).  Nearby the dining table is a small book shelf.  She saw all these books and proclaimed, “You have more books than a library!”


I do enjoy reading.  Over these past weeks I have been reading River of Doubt by Candice Millard, a story of Theodore Roosevelt’s adventure through the unmapped regions of the Amazon River and its tributaries, namely the river originally called Rio da Duvida, the River of Doubt, and now called Rio Roosevelt.  Also, I have started to read a short biography of Augustus Tolton who was the first identified black American ordained for service to the Church in the United States.  Born into slavery, the book covers events his life and the challenges of prejudice, racism, and narrow-mindedness he faced in his journey of life.


I have finished reading Hints of Heaven, The Parables of Christ and What They for You by Fr. George William Rutler.  It has been said the parables are prime examples of the spiritual insight given by Jesus to guide us through life.  If you want a challenge, read and pray the parables.  Also, on the finished pile of reading is a short biography of Shahbaz Bhatti.  Shahbaz, a Catholic layman from Pakistan, a country with only 2% of its population being Christian, worked tirelessly for the civil rights of Christians and people of other faiths.  He was the first Christian to serve as a minister his country’s government and was ruthlessly assassinated by Taliban-affiliated militants.  He is a witness of what it means to practice one’s religion without fear.


The ‘to read’ pile of books include:  The Fallen, a novel by David Baldacci, and short biographies of Helen Prejean, called “Death Row’s Nun,” and Rutillo Grande, a priest in El Salvador whose death changed the life of his close friend Archbishop Oscar Romero.


The short biographies of Augustus Tolton, Shahbaz Bhatti, Helen Prejean, and Rutillo Grande are part of a series called “People of God” published by Liturgical Press in Collegeville, Minnesota.  The series focuses on contemporary figures whose compelling witness give concrete examples of faith, hope, and love in the world of today.


If I ever run out of books to read here (very doubtful), I can go to the small bookshelf by the kitchen table and begin to read dictionaries—in English or Swahili.


P.S.  I made a mistake in last week’s blog—Nairobi is 190 miles from Gekano, not 190 kilometers as I had written.

Notes from Africa

Thursday January 17, 2019


And the weather forecast…


One of my friends says of weather forecasters, “They throw darts at a board,” meaning the surface of the dartboard is covered with various weather conditions and to whatever spot the dart is thrown, that is the forecast.  I like to say weather forecasters should end their report with the phrase “somewhere in the world”—they would be accurate all the time.  Of course, predicting the weather is science as well as art.  Could you do better?


It is easier to record the weather than to predict it.  I have received a rain gauge and a thermometer to aid me in detailing the weather conditions here at Gekano Parish.  Each day, if it rains, I write down the amount, and, at various hours of the day, I note the temperature.  Here is a sampling from the first week of January, a notably dry month in the Kisii Highlands:


         January 1st          .15” rain     58F at 5:00am     81F at 2:30pm

         January 2nd                           59F at 5:00am     78F at 5:15pm

         January 3rd                            60F at 5:00am     84F at 2:00pm

         January 4th                            63F at 5:00am     75F at 5:15pm

         January 5th          .10” rain     60F at 5:00am     76F at 12noon

         January 6th          .15” rain     61F at 5:00am     83F at 1:00pm

         January 7th                            61F at 5:00pm     86F at 1:30pm


As you notice, the weather is fairly predictable in the Kisii Highlands, but I still prefer to record the weather than to predict it.


On a more serious note, earlier this week there was a terrorist attack in Nairobi on an upscale hotel complex that also houses headquarters of several international companies doing business in Kenya.  Just as the name implies, a terrorist attack means shock and horror over the dastardly, evil deed.  I must admit a chill ran down my spine when I first heard of the attack the afternoon it occurred even though I am 190KM away living in a remote village.  There is a certain amount of vulnerability being in a foreign country.  I do remain vigilant as to my comings and goings, but I do not let such news deter the work of the Mission.  Generally speaking, the Kisii Highlands have been known as a relatively safe area of Kenya as compared to the major cities of Nairobi and Mombasa and the eastern border of the country with Somalia.   Contingency plans are in place for me should events or circumstances force me to leave this country. 

Notes from Africa

Wednesday January 9, 2019


The beginning of school…


A new school begins with the New Year in Kenya.  The basic system of school is three months of school, a month break.  Three terms consist of one academic year, ending with exams in the month of November for those who are finishing STD 8 (Grade 8) in primary school and Form 4 (senior year) in secondary school.


St. Theresa’s is a boarding school.  Those in F2, F3, and F4 arrived last week, and the new students, F1, arrived this week.  The same occurred in secondary schools throughout the country.  Primary schools started last week, also.


I find it a lesson in simplicity to watch the girls arrive at school.  They bring ‘a box’ (equivalent to a large suitcase), a backpack, a mattress, and a pail or basin for washing clothes.  Items such as street clothes, cell phones, ipods, etc. are not permitted, and the belongings are thoroughly searched for any contraband, as it is called.  All that the girls need for the school year is brought with them when they arrive, and they can purchase things such as toothpaste, pens, shoe polish, and notebooks at the canteen on campus.  The school desires students focus on their studies and not be engrossed in that which detracts from them.  Probably, this challenge occurs for many, many school systems.


As the girls entered school with their belongings, I continued to reflect on what is necessary in life.  I firmly believe we who have been raised in the American culture of materialism have a distorted view of what is necessary.  As one priest from the Diocese of Fargo once said, “We need to keep a sharp distinction between needs, wants, and luxuries.”  Often, it seems, luxuries become wants and needs, and there is an allure of advertisement that lulls into believing we will be happy if we have _______ (fill in the blank).  Maybe, we need to learn to look at life through a different lens than that of material goods—the gospel and parables of Jesus would be a good place to learn to look at life through a different lens.


Enjoy the photos of four F1 students with Sr. Inviolata, the school principal at St. Theresa’s.  Also, my two little neighbors, Jeremiah and Christopher, had to show me their school uniforms, a bit dusty after a hard day at school.


Notes from Africa

January 4, 2019


Life in the Mission the first week of January.


With the departure last Saturday of my guests, Jim Nistler and his family, there has been much work. Some of the work involved the usual cleaning that occurs when guests leave.  I had hired two high school girls to come and assist with the washing of bedding and towels, but they forgot to come and assist.  So, it goes…  Over the course of the week, I did some laundry each day so as not to be overwhelmed with having to do it all at once.  Remember, washing everything by hand does take more time and effort than loading a washing machine…


At this time of the year, we Catholics have been celebrating the birth of Christ which means, in the vernacular, “there has been a lot of church”—the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Christmas, Holy Family, and this Sunday, Epiphany.  For a priest this is true, also; plus, there is the task—the art—of preparing a homily for each Sunday and Holy Day.  Then, for me, to prepare the homily in Swahili has been an added challenge.  With each Liturgy of the Church celebrated, I seek to do my best—I do have high standards when it comes to the celebration of the Eucharist each Sunday and Holy Day.


The first week of January also saw the beginning of a new school year in Kenya.  Many primary schools opened on January 2nd and most secondary schools opened on January 3rd


Yesterday, I was visiting with the principal at St. Theresa’s Gekano Girls about the opening of school.  When I saw her in the morning, I greeted her and then said, “Wanafunzi wengi watafika leo”  (Many students will arrive today).  She responded, “On Africa time” (which means, basically, they will get here when they get here).  Most of the students did arrive yesterday and some are arriving today; those who are starting as Form One (freshman) will arrive on January 7th.  The first days of school for secondary students involve the taking of exams to see how much has been retained from last school year.  These exams reveal, to some extent, if students have studied over the break; these exams are also used in determining one’s grade at the end of the term.


For us at the Mission, the opening of school means paying tuition and other fees associated with school.  Three days this past week have involved writing checks—not always an easy task because we have students in over 175 schools-primary, secondary, Polytechnics, and post-secondary—and each school has a different fee structure.  It takes time to review each fee structure and determine the appropriate amount to be paid by the Mission.  Of course, it seems there are a few stragglers in every bunch.  Probably, we will be writing checks here and there for a few weeks.

For those in elementary school, the students will receive an allowance for school uniforms as they come to Mission Saturday this month.


So has been life in the Mission the last days of December and the first week of January.  I am grateful.  I am fortunate.

Notes from Africa


Sunday December 30, 2018


Yesterday, my visitors, Jim Nistler and members of his family (his daughter Peggy and her husband, Todd, and their children Joseph and Sarah) departed Kenya to return home.  It was a blessing to have them visit, especially during this Christmas season.  I must say, “the inn was full.”


As you may know, Jim and his late wife, Henrietta, were founding members of the Mission of the Diocese of Bismarck in Kenya.  Their labor of love continues to bear fruit.  Many people remember the Nistlers and fondly welcomed Jim and his family.


During their stay they were able to assist with some chores around the Mission House such as washing curtains and painting the railing on the porch.  They also installed a stand and water tank for the guesthouse on the school compound.  Their work is appreciated.  The Nistlers also were able to join us for Mission Saturday to greet the orphans and observe the work involved in our Orphan Education Program.


A highlight of their stay was a visit with Bishop Joseph, the bishop of Kisii.  He welcomed us into his office and regaled us with stories of the diocese and his remembrances of, and, work with, Jim and Henrietta.  Coming from an oral culture where history is told and retold, the Bishop’s stories are more like narratives that often involve moral insights and praise of good works.


Although, the visit of Jim and his family was brief, I am grateful for their visit and reflect on those who preceded me as missionaries here in Kenya.  I pray for the wisdom and strength to continue the good work that has been done and that their work may bear fruit.


As the New Year is upon us I say, “Heri ya mwaka mpya,”  Blessings on the New Year.


Notes from Africa

Thursday December 20, 2018


On Monday and Tuesday of this week, the Bismarck Mission hosted a Christmas gathering of those in our Orphan Education Program.  One gathering was at Ichuni parish and the other at Gekano.


Each day started with Mass and followed by two speakers, one of whom is a graduate of our Education Program.  Part of the message the speakers gave was one of encouragement, and part of the message was one of challenge.  Who knows what it means to walk in the footsteps of poverty day after day?  Who knows the weight of the burdens borne within a soul?  All of us need encouragement to use well the gifts and abilities God has entrusted to us.  Our crosses and challenges in life may vary, but we are all called to be faithful and faith-filled.


After these events, the children and youth were given a Christmas gift of wheat flour and cooking fat, the basic ingredients in a festive food called “chapo,’ basically like a tortilla.  Lunch for the day consisted of a small loaf of bread and a soda.


During these days, I was able to visit with the orphans individually as they were called forward to receive their gifts and lunch.  For those who are participating in the Water with Blessings Project and who were trained in the use of the filtration system on December 1st, I was able to ask them how the filter is working.  The smiles on their faces said more and meant more than any words can express.  Many of them, though, did say they have received a blessing, and went on to add that they no longer have to drink brown water.


Indeed, these were days of blessing and gratitude.  I reminded the orphans and their families that all of this is made possible by the generosity and goodness of the people of the Diocese of Bismarck through their support of the annual African Mission Appeal.


As we walk through these last days of Advent to the celebration of the birth of our Savior, know of my gratitude and prayers.  Merry Christmas.


Notes from Africa

Wednesday December 12, 2018


In these past weeks, we have making preparations for the Christmas gathering of those enrolled in our Orphan Education Program.  We will have two gatherings, one on December 17th at Ichuni and the other December 18th at Gekano Parish.  We have just over 400 in the program at this time.  Each day will begin with Mass to thank God for the generosity of the people of the Diocese of Bismarck without whose support the Mission would not be possible.  After Mass, we have a scheduled speaker, a former student in our Orphan Education Program.  Following the speaker and announcements, we proceed to hand out the Christmas gift that consists of wheat flour and cooking fat.  The amount given is determined by family size, for example, one orphan will receive two kilograms of flour and 500 grams of cooking fat.  We conclude with lunch—a bottle of soda and a small loaf of bread.


This year at the Christmas gathering we will be handing out to the girls and young women in our program dresses that were sewn by a lady from Mandan.  The dresses are of various sizes and colors.  Earlier this week Rogers, two of his daughters, and I unpacked and sorted them.


Also, preparations are being made for a visit by Jim Nistler and some of his family.  For those who do not know, Jim and his late wife, Henrietta, were part of the first missionary team from the Diocese of Bismarck to be sent to Kenya.  Many of the older people have a fond remembrance of Jim and Henrietta, and they frequently ask about him.


Finally, the new school year begins on January 2, 2019.  This means we will be paying school tuition and fees in the days after Christmas—again, we have one day set aside at Ichuni and one day at Gekano.  Supporting these orphans so that they may receive an education is the heart and soul of the Bismarck Mission.  On behalf of the orphans, their guardians and extended families, I would like to thank the people of the Diocese of Bismarck for their continued support of the Bismarck Mission.