Notes from Africa

July 17, 2019

This past week we learned of the death of Most Reverend Paul A. Zifel, Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Bismarck after a prolonged struggle with Alzheimer’s.  May he rest in peace, and his family and the people, religious, and clergy of the diocese be consoled. 


In March 1998, Bishop Zifpel made a pastoral visit to the Mission at Gekano in the Diocese of Kisii, Kenya.  Twenty plus years later, people still ask about him and remember his graciousness.  Yesterday evening, we celebrated a Memorial Mass to pray for him.


One story about him—shortly after he was installed as the Bishop of Bismarck, he was at a gathering in Dickinson, North Dakota.  My father happened to be present at the same event so I introduced him to the Bishop.  Bp. Zipfel, with a hint of jocularity, upon seeing my dad, called him, “a young punk.”  My father sheepishly told the Bishop, “But, I am older than you.”  A good laugh was enjoyed by all.


Since my return from my home visit to North Dakota, I have been updating records for our Orphan Education Program and the Heifer and Housing Programs.  The flower garden has been weeded.  (Enjoy the picture of a rose bush below.)  I continue to celebrate daily Mass at Gekano Parish and to two outstations on Sundays for Mass.  My Swahili was a bit rusty for a week or so, but, with use, I find myself comfortable using the language.  Also, I have been studying the Mass in Ekegusii, the native tongue of the Kisii tribe, and am preparing myself to celebrate Mass in the language in the near future.


Word traveled quickly that I had returned.  It seems there has been a torrent of people coming to ask for various needs—orphans associated with the program and people of the surrounding area.  Some of these needs can be addressed; other needs presented are not part of the Mission and its reason for being here; and various needs are beyond the ability of the Mission.  I pray for the “Wisdom of Solomon.”


I have been to Nyabururu Parish a couple of times to visit with Logan Obrigewitch and Jacob Magnuson, the two seminarians who are in the Diocese of Kisii for the month of July on a pastoral assignment.  They keep telling me, “We are well fed!”  (I know their mothers would appreciate this.)




Notes from Africa

July 10, 2019


(At least,) Two sides to every story…


Recently, a young man, who is in Form 4 (senior in high school), came to visit with me.  He admitted that he had been ‘sent home’ from school to await disciplinary action; after mentioning this, he went on, immediately, to ask about a particular need that needed to be addressed.


When this senior in high school finished his discourse, I assured him that his need was being addressed.  Personally, I was more interested in why he was sent home from school.  He explained that he was a class prefect (a class leader designated by the school) and that some of his charges wanted to stone (he then changed the story to pelting with rocks) one of the guards at the gate because he took away barbells that the boys at the school use in their free time.  The young man continued that he was being held responsible for this behavior even though he was not knowledgeable of the situation.  Something seemed suspicious in his story…


Later that same day, I needed to visit his school to pay school fees.  While at the school, I visited with the deputy principal about the student’s suspension from school.  The school official explained that one of the responsibilities of the prefects is to awaken other students in the morning (5:00am).  First, the gate guards rouse the prefects from their slumber, and, then, they charge them to stir their classmates from the inertia of sleep.   


One particular day, this student and two other prefects decided they want to stay in bed and not perform their duties.  As a consequence, the three prefects were suspended from school and await disciplinary action from the school.


My guess…if I would visit with the two others prefects, I probably would get an altogether different story.  Maybe, there are more than two sides to a story…


It is a challenge to listen well to the orphans who come to the office for assistance, but a healthy dose of skepticism is needed as well, especially when the story seems suspicious.  I have been advised several times to have the children and youth in our education program produce evidence to their stories—advice that I have taken into consideration.

Notes from Africa

July 3, 2019


Last Friday evening, I returned to the Mission at Gekano Parish after a month of holiday in North Dakota where I was able to visit my family and some friends and do some work for the Mission.  Many people who greeted me during my home visit said, “You look good.”  I replied, “Did you expect me to be emaciated because I have been living in Africa?” (I did obtain a physical while home—my weight was exactly what it was two years ago before I came to Kenya.)


A common question I was asked, “How long did it take you to travel home?”  All total, it was 38 hours—a seven-hour drive to the airport in Nairobi, an eight-hour flight from Nairobi to Amsterdam, another eight-hour flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis, and a one-hour flight from Minneapolis to Bismarck.  The remaining hours were spent in airports.  The same was true for the return flight.  Such extended times of flying and mulling around airports becomes wearing and wearying.  I could tell I was tired when I went to brush my teeth—in my coat pocket, I had a small tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush; I reached into the pocket to retrieve these items.  Well, as I started brushing my teeth in a restroom at an airport, I noticed there was no foam to the toothpaste—I looked at the tube and discovered I had used Hydrocortisone Cream.  I proceeded to expectorate profusely.   My mouth was not tingly fresh…


Two seminarians of the Diocese of Bismarck accompanied me back to Kenya—Logan Obrigewitch who finished first theology at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, and Jacob Magnuson, who completed his first year of theology at North American College in Rome, Italy.  They will be spending the month of July at Nyabururu Parish.  Over the weekend, before I drove them to Nyabururu, they were able to come with me for Sunday Masses at two mission parishes, and they washed windows while I worked on my homily for the weekend.  Also, we were able to visit with Bishop Joseph in Kisii town who graciously welcomed them to the Diocese of Kisii.


My clothes are washed, and I have started the regular routines of daily life here at the Mission.  I am fortunate to have received another two-year assignment to serve here in Kenya.


Notes from Africa

May 23, 2019


A part of life with a large group of children and youth, such as those in our Orphan Education Program, is the reality of sickness and disease.  Some of the afflictions encountered include:  typhoid, chicken pox, malaria, ringworm, brucellosis, amoebiasis, HIV infection, and the common cold.


Typhoid is a bacterial infection usually transmitted through contaminated water, food, or close contact with one infected.  Chickenpox is a contagious viral infection.  Malaria is a parasite transmitted by infected mosquitoes.  Ringworm is a fungal infection.  Brucellosis is a bacterial infection obtained from unpasteurized dairy products (here, mainly, milk that has been improperly boiled).  Amoebiasis is a parasitical disease transmitted through contaminated water.  HIV is viral—just under 5% of our orphans are HIV positive, infected from birth.  And, the common cold, well, is the common cold.


In the vast majority of these cases, the children and youth are sent to the clinic for treatment.  With those who are HIV positive, they take antivirals that dramatically slow the progress of the disease and prevent secondary infections.  Strict adherence to an antiretroviral regimen enables them to lead ‘normal’ lives.


Addressing health concerns becomes a part of life in the Mission.  We are fortunate that the nurse/director of St. Elizabeth Clinic at Gekano Parish is Sr. Stella, whose expertise and training assist us greatly in these cases, and she is eager to be of service when we need to consult about the general health of a particular individual.


For me, I have been healthy—I am grateful.  Several months ago, though, I had a mild rash on my arms.  I was treated at the clinic—given an antihistamine injection, antihistamine tablets, and hydrocortisone cream (the consultation and medication cost $3.00).


As I come to the end of this posting, I write that I will be leaving Kenya for a home visit in the month of June.  Therefore, I will not be posting anything until July.  During my home visit, I plan to spend time with my family, to rest, and to do work on long-range planning for the Mission with the Director of the Mission and others.  After the home visit, I will return to Kenya and continue serving in the Mission…and be resuming the weekly blog.

Notes from Africa

May 15, 2019


As I walk around the town of Kisii, it is obvious I am not a native of Kenya.  Frequently, I am greeted (especially by children) as “Mzungu,” the common term for white person that actually means “European.”  People I encounter are curious as to what I am doing in this country.  This past week, a clerk in a store asked me this very question.  I responded by talking about our Orphan Education Program, and our support of 400 orphans in the two parishes of Gekano and Ichuni.  The clerk thought this was a large number, and she complimented me and our Mission for serving this vulnerable population group.


Four hundred orphans may seem a lot, but, in the larger picture of Kenyan society, 400 is only a few.  Estimates regarding the number of orphans in this country reach 2.8 million.  For a comparison, the entire population of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana is 2.7 million.


Again, another comparison:  at the end of June, two seminarians, Jacob Magnuson and Logan Obrigewitch, will be coming to Kenya for a one-month pastoral experience in a nearby parish called Nyabururu, probably the largest parish in the Diocese of Kisii.  I visited with a priest who hails from that parish and asked him, “How many Catholics belong to Nyabururu?”  He hesitated and struggled for an answer.  I said, “Sixty thousand?”  He said, “No, more than that, probably over 100,000.”  The entire Diocese of Bismarck is composed of less than 62,000 Catholics.  The parish at Nyabururu is served by three priests.


From these two comparisons, it is obvious that the challenges facing society and the church are enormous in Kenya because of the fragmentation of the family, the total number of orphans represents 5% of the entire population of the country.  A strong society and a healthy church need intact families to shape and form succeeding generations.  Fragmented families, grinding poverty, suitable employment, and corruption in all levels of government and society paint a bleak picture.  In the midst of all this, there is hope, hope that lives in the hearts of faithful Christians. 


It is the hope of the gospel that sustains the Church in Kenya.  It is this hope upon which the Bismarck Mission builds in the lives of orphans.  It is challenging, to say the least, but we can, and we do, make a difference through the Mission.


In the midst of all the challenges we face in life, in our own circumstances, let us not forget about the most vulnerable in our midst…

Notes from Africa

Thursday May 9, 2019


Yesterday afternoon, I sat down to write my weekly blog—I had planned on writing about the beautiful flower garden.  But, an intense thunderstorm engulfed this area with a torrential downpour that contained pea-size hail stones.  The deluge dropped 2.00” of rain in less than one-half hour, along with gusty winds. (It also knocked out the electricity, so I did not have internet.)  By the time the storm ended and the rains ceased several hours later, the rain gauge measured a total of 3.00” of rain.


The ‘long rains’ in Kenya appear toward the end of March and through April and May into early June.  The rains have been slow in coming this year to the Kisii Highlands, and several parts of Kenya have had little or no rain; there is drought in some areas.  In the month of April, I recorded 7.50” of rain, and, to date, in May, 6.90”.   (The average monthly rainfall in Kisii for the month of April is 10.80” and the month of May, 8.60”.  Annual rainfall averages over 75″.)


For subsistence farmers and their families, a shortage of rain, or no rain, has immediate consequences as their maize and bean crops, planted in February, are adversely affected.  People in villages and towns are seeing higher prices for these staples and other commodities, namely, fresh vegetables and fruit.


After the thunderstorm, the flowers cease to have as many blossoms, but the plants will survive to bloom another day.  Fortunately, I took pictures of the flowers on Tuesday this week.  Please enjoy them…


Notes from Africa

Thursday May 2, 2019


“Jack of all trades…”


As property owners and administrators of facilities know, the maintenance and upkeep of property and buildings continually confronts them.  Here in the Mission, this is true.  Small projects involving electricity, plumbing, and carpentry need to be done on a constant basis.  And, as people who know me are aware, these projects are out of my comfort zone.  I like to say, “You put a tool in my hands, and I break out in an allergic reaction.”  Often, in these situations, I call upon Rogers, a man who has worked for the Bismarck Mission over fifteen years.


The nickname of Rogers is “Jack,” because he is a Mr. Fix-It.  He is able to handle most of these small projects involving maintenance and upkeep, and if he is not able, he knows who to call.  Also, Rogers aka “Jack” is knowledgeable of farming and husbandry practices in Kenya.  He owns a shamba and raises, among other things, corn and maize, cows, chickens, and geese, bananas, avocados, groundnuts (peanuts), and papaya.


Rogers also assists in the other aspects of the Mission—the Orphan Education Program, Post-Secondary scholarships, and Housing and Heifer projects.  With his years of experience, knowledge of the culture and its ways, and the ability to speak the native tongue, Ekegusii, as well as Swahili and English fluently, he provides invaluable expertise to the overall daily functioning of the Mission.


Rogers himself is a product of the Bismarck Mission, being an orphan, along with two brothers, were sponsored by the Mission.  Rogers is married to Grace—he calls her “my better half.”  They have five children—Sylvia, Charles, Mary, Elizabeth, and Joseph.


After Masses on Easter Sunday morning, I drove to his home to spend the afternoon with Rogers and his family.  I am fortunate to have such a co-worker. Indeed, he is “Jack of all trades…”


Notes from Africa

Wednesday April 24, 2019


The human struggle to pay attention


Often, I have been known to ask people on a Sunday afternoon or during the course of the week, “What was the homily about at Sunday Mass?”  It is a question of great importance.  The question may reveal that people were not paying attention—listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit in the words of the preacher.  Also, the question may reveal that the preacher did not do justice to the sacred task of preaching—the preacher did not listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit in preparing to address the People of God in a homily.  People of God deserve good preaching.  I write this because, frequently, I am the preacher, and, at times, I am one who gathers in worship and listens to a homily preached by another.


On Holy Thursday, at the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. Charles Lwanga in Kisii, two points made by Bishop Joseph Mairura Okemwa in his homily struck me—a week later, I still reflect on them.  At the beginning, he quoted the Entrance Antiphon of the Mass (based on Revelation 1:6):  Jesus Christ has made us into a kingdom and priests for his God and Father…”  Speaking specifically to the priests, the Bishop spoke about the calling to have our lives be an acceptable offering to God in service of the Church.  This calling builds upon the baptismal calling of all the faithful to offer their lives as an acceptable gift to the Father, in other words, to live faithfully in the sight of God and to offer good works in the name of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.


Bishop Joseph continued his homily speaking about prayer.  Prayer is the privileged moment to be in the presence of God.  As Peter said at the Transfiguration, “Lord, it is good to be here.”  Indeed, it is good to be in the presence of the Lord.  In these privileged moments of prayer, we “cast all our cares on the Lord,” and we taste the goodness of God, the depth of God’s love for us and the world.  But, we cannot stay in prayer all the time—we are sent into daily life to live.  In the events and happenings of daily life, we live our faith, seeking to conform our lives to the ways of God—to allow the Spirit to transform us so that we see, think, speak, and act as God does.  And, I ask myself, “Am I paying attention in prayer?”


It is the human struggle to pay attention—not only to words spoken by other, but ultimately to pay attention, that is, listen well to the voice of the Holy Spirit who leads and guides the Church to the fullness of life.


Ask yourself, “How well do I pay attention?”

Notes from Africa

April 19, 2019

Good Friday


Each year during the month of April on Mission Saturdays, we bestow academic awards to acknowledge the success of students in their studies at school. Part of the joy and consolation of ministry in the Mission is rewarding this progress of the orphans.  On the Saturdays of this month, we have been handing out 25 chickens (for those in primary grades) and 26 goats (for those in secondary school).  The hard work and academic success are great to see, especially when one begins to understand the backgrounds of many of the orphans.



As we review report cards and bestow the academic awards, we give encouragement to the students.  When congratulated the students usually break out in a smile.  Some students need more than encouragement—we remind them to seek help from their teachers or to speak to us about other issues that may be affecting their school performance.  As teachers in Kenya are fond of saying, “Pull up your socks!”


Orphans in our education program do face consequences for continued poor performance in school.  A motivating factor we have is the paying of tuition and fees for the students…continued poor performance may result in being placed on academic probation and the student and guardian are responsible for paying for school.


As we have finished the season of Lent and are in the midst of the Sacred Triduum of the Lord’s Supper, the Commemoration of the death of our Savior on the Cross, and the celebration of his resurrection from the dead, I say to you who read this, Heri ya Paska—blessings of Easter.


PS  (I need to thank my father and my brother and his family who donated generously for the goats given out this year.)


Notes from Africa

Wednesday April 10, 2019


(First, I must apologize for the delay in posting the blog for this week, but most of Wednesday and Thursday, we were without electricity, therefore no internet.)


This past week, I began to study and to learn the Mass in Ekegusii, the native tongue of the Kisii tribe.  Two reasons stand forth in my mind—the first, what a privilege it is to celebrate Mass in one’s native tongue.  For those who are monolingual, this may not be as obvious.  Think of those who go to a foreign country for whatever reason—usually in the world today this is because of immigration, fleeing some type of violence or civil unrest or the search for employment to support one’s family.  What might it mean for these people to have the consolation of the Mass celebrated in their native tongue?


Secondly, language expresses the beauty of a culture and its people.  Language helps to reveal who we are as a people; we use language to speak of the mysteries of our faith.  Ekegusii is not a language such as English, Chinese, or French, spoken by many.  In a small way, I want to encourage people to use and preserve their native language.  I recall several years ago reading a story in a local (North Dakota, local, that is) paper about the death of the last speaker of the Mandan language.  The death was hailed as a loss to the world.


Ekegusii is similar to Swahili in some ways—the vowels and consonants are pronounced the same, and some words are comparable.  Indeed, Ekegusii is one of the root languages of Swahili.  But, in Ekegusii, it seems to me that vowels proliferate and, as in Swahili, every vowel and consonant are pronounced; it is challenging to move my tongue that fast…


Here is the Sign of the Cross—in English, Kiswhili, and Ekegusii:


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Kwa jina la Baba, na la Mwana, na la Roho Mtakatifu.  Amina.


As’erieta ria Tata neri’Omwana neri’Omoyo Omotagatibu.  Amina.


One person helping me in this venture is Ebisiba Ndege, a Form One (first year high school) student at St. Theresa’s Girls High School.  She lives in the neighborhood and has been coming several mornings during the week to assist me during her school break.  Ebisiba is one of ten children in her family—six sisters and three brothers.  In return for her assistance, I have agreed to pay some of her school tuition and fees.  It is a fair deal.20190411_094627