Notes from Africa

June 7, 2021

I safely arrived at the Mission here at Gekano parish on May 29th after travels that were wearisome.  Officials at each airport—Bismarck, Denver, Frankfurt, and Nairobi—carefully scrutinized all documents, especially, a negative co-vid test.  In Nairobi, there were problems with my visa, and I ended up for one and one-half hours in the Immigration Office at the airport—not the most hospitable place at 9:00pm.

My intention had been to write earlier, but the past week I have experienced intestinal discomfort that sapped my energy and insight for writing.  So, it goes…

My stay in the United States was extended nearly two months because of a surge of co-vid cases in Kenya.  Because of this, travel was restricted in the nation.  I had the good fortune to preach about the Mission and its activities in parishes around the Diocese of Bismarck—Epiphany in Watford City, Our Lady of Consolation in Alexander, St. Hildegard in Menoken, Sacred Heart in Wilton, St. Ann in Hebron, Sacred Heart in Glen Ullin, St. Mary in Richardton, St. Thomas in Gladstone, St. Stephen, rural Richardton, and Corpus Christi in Bismarck.  As I reflected on the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles on the Solemnity of Pentecost, I was consoled that the Good News was heard and understood by people—“Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, visitors from Rome…Cretans and Arabs”

The preaching about the Mission and its activities was received favorably by the people.  The preaching was the news of ‘mission,’ not only the Bismarck Mission but the Mission of the Church.  “Because of the love of God and the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ” the Diocese of Bismarck has established a mission in Kenya, East Africa, to bring the gospel of love and hope to our brothers and sisters.  Mission is the work of the Church—mission involves spreading the gospel message, helping those in need, and conversion of life.  The people of the parishes communities wherein I preached were like the people on Pentecost day—they heard and understood the Good News.  We can only thank God.

Even though my stay in North Dakota was extended, there was much not done—I would have liked to visit more members of my family and other parish communities, especially those in Bowman, Rhame, and Marmarth.  With St. Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians he writes about the desire he and his companions have—it is my desire—“We are all the more eager in our great desire to see you face to face” (1 Thes. 2:17).

In preparing to return to Kenya, there was the realization of the frailty of human life because of ageing and disease—various members of my family have been afflicted.  Their afflictions humble me; their afflictions cause me to intercede for them; their afflictions also help me focus on the work of the Mission.  I leave home, family, and friends for one reason—for the sake of the gospel.

Notes from Africa

April 13, 2021

My return to the Mission in Kisii, Kenya has been delayed because of the third wave of covid in Kenya.  The county of Nairobi and the four surrounding counties are locked down—there is no traffic in or out of this zone.  People may fly into Nairobi, but they may not go out of the restricted zone.  The length of this restriction is unknown at this time.

My time in North Dakota has been a whirlwind.  First, there have been the regular visits to the eye doctor, dentist, and family physician for regular checkups, and appointments with a specialist for the arthritis that has diagnosed in my lower back.  I am grateful to say that there has been relieve for the latter.  It has been a pleasure to visit my father and my three siblings; in fact, I was able to celebrate my father’s 87th birthday with him.  Also, I have seen a few aunts and uncles and extended family.

Work for the Mission has continued as I have had numerous conversations with Chuck Reichert, the director of the African Mission.  We have been reviewing programs and services offered by the Mission, finalizing the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, and reflecting how we can improve/expand/develop programs and services for the orphans and vulnerable to whom we minister.

I have had many questions and comments regarding my presence as a missionary—”How many languages do you speak?”  “We are grateful for the work you do.”  “Is the government stable?” “The Water with Blessing program is great.”   These questions and comments give me the opportunity to speak about life with the people with whom I live and minister.

In return, I have asked people questions and made comments—“Have you considered becoming a missionary?”  “The generosity of the people of the Diocese of Bismarck in support of the Annual African Mission Appeal has been gracious.”  “I am grateful to be serving as a missionary.”  Again, it gives me the opportunity to speak about our African Mission.

The responses to the question about becoming a missionary have been varied—“I could not learn the language.”  “I enjoy my creature comforts too much.”  “I am too old.”  “My health will not allow it.”  In the end, I reflect on vocation—the calling of God and doing what I do for the sake of the gospel.  I pray that I may as gracious and generous to the people I serve as God has been gracious and generous to me (although, I know that no one will out do God in graciousness and generosity).

In these days while I am back in North Dakota, I am attending the Spring Clergy Conference this week in Bismarck, assisting in parishes on weekends, continuing to study Swahili, visiting with family and friends, speaking about the Mission, and doing work for the Mission that can be done remotely.

Notes from Africa

Monday March 1, 2021

Odds and ends…

Last week, the Most Reverend Joseph Mairura Okwema, the bishop of the Diocese of Kisii, sent a letter announcing that two new parishes will be opened in the near future.  He continued that he is visiting three other centers (what would be called Mission Parishes) in view of making them parishes.  One of the centers will be coming from Gekano Parish, meaning that the parish will no longer have fifty outstations.  By the end of this year, five new parishes will have been established “due to the growth of our Christian numbers.”  This area of Kenya has one of the highest birthrates in the world…room is needed for Christians and future Christians to worship.

I finished updating records for our various programs last week.  Last year, we were able to build seven houses for orphans in our Education Program.  Also last year, two heifer calves were weaned, and the cows of these calves became the property of the families.  We have nine families with cows, the two heifer calves being raised and eventually inseminated and given away, and two other cows that are being prepared to be given to families.  As orphans come to Mission Saturday, I do ask those who have received these gifts about the status—a smile creeps across the face as they speak of the house or cow. 

With 1.3 billion people on the continent of Africa and most of the countries mired in poverty, being vaccinated for co-vid has presented challenges.  We are witnessing the inequality of distribution of vaccines, mainly because of money.  Canada has enough vaccine to inoculate its people five times over!  We need to keep in mind that the health and well-being of all is beneficial to health and well-being of all.  It is in the best interests of the richest countries to be of assistance to the poorer countries, and it is a matter of justice and solidarity.  Vaccinations in Kenya are scheduled to begin next week with a three-tiered protocol.  (Keep in mind the same people said vaccinations would begin at the end of January.)  Experts are saying it will be well into 2022 before most of the population has been vaccinated.

Last week, I was notified that my name is able to be placed on a list to be vaccinated.  I did not need much encouragement from my bishop or the Director of the African Mission to return to the United States to receive the vaccine.  The timing is fortuitous because my work/residency permit expires next week.  The Department of Immigration has had my paperwork for renewal since October 2020, and I have twice visited Immigration to seek information about the process. On my first follow-up visit in December, an official told me, “This is Kenya, it takes time.”   At the beginning of February on my second visit, an official told me, “Within a week you will be hearing from us.”  Needless to say, I have not heard anything.  I think he told me this to get me out of his office as I persisted in asking questions.  Once I return to Africa, I will need to continue my visits to Immigration.

By the way, today is March 1st, the optional memorial in the Church calendar is that of St. David.

Notes from Africa

February 19, 2021

Work behind the scenes.

The Africa Mission relies on the prayers and fiscal support of the people of the Diocese of Bismarck that comes from the Annual Appeal that is scheduled for the weekend of March 6th and 7th this year.

During the month of January, Chuck Reichert, the Director of the Africa Mission, worked with Ron Schatz of the Development Office and Sonia Mullally, editor of the Dakota Catholic Action (DCA), to give focus to this year’s Appeal.  They are responsible for the production and dissemination of information about our Mission in the Diocese of Kisii, namely, the Appeal video and the Kenya Connection, an insert of the diocesan newspaper.  On the video, Bishop Kagan introduces the theme of the Appeal and highlights aspects of the Mission.  Liz Bustad added perspective from her experience in the area of public health and her visit to the Mission in November 2019.  Part of my responsibility was to supply information and insight for others as well as write an article for the DCA.

The culmination of all these efforts is the Appeal Weekend during which the orphans and others we serve wait upon a generous and gracious response from the people of the Diocese of Bismarck to support the programs and services they receive.  Without the people of the Diocese, we would not have an African Mission.

Another yearly task of work behind the scenes is the formation of a budget for the next fiscal year.  This work has commenced.  As I have done initial preparations, there has been a mindfulness of 2020, “The Year of Co-vid.”  Our budget, as in the budgets of many, many institutions and companies, has been severely altered, but, as the saying goes, “Not to plan is to plan to fail.”

Here in Kenya, I work with Rogers Osoro, the assistant administrator, and Sr. Theresa, the bursar, in looking at how to improve our programs and services and fund ordinary expenses such as fuel, maintenance, and repair of Mission property.  Seventy five percent of the budget I prepare goes directly to our programs—Orphan Education and post-secondary scholarships and the heifer and housing programs.  Ten percent is used to support projects within the village and Gekano parish.  The remainder is used for salaries and operating expenses.  In Bismarck, ND, Mr. Reichert works with people in the diocesan Fiscal Office to reflect on expenses incurred in the daily operations there.  Ultimately, he is responsible for collating all the information and presenting it to the bishop’s office for final approval. 

Work behind the scenes is necessary—there are many people who assist in making the Bismarck Mission a reality in the lives of those we serve.  Let us be grateful.

Notes from Africa

Josephine on my right and David, the catechist on my left
Group of children in front of the church
Interior of the church

February 2, 2021

A highlight in the life of a priest is the celebration of the Sacraments of the Church, especially Sunday Mass with the people.  My Sunday routine involves celebrating Mass at Gekano parish and its fifty missions.  Some of these ‘centers,’ as they are called, are large and Mass is celebrated frequently, and some of the centers are small and Mass is celebrated occasionally.

Last Sunday, I went to the center of Riamisiani, an outstation ‘in the bush’ where Sunday Mass was last celebrated on October 25, 2020.  It was my first visit to this humble structure called a church and dedicated to St. David where sixty people were gathered.   I did have someone in the vehicle with me to show me the way.  At the end of Mass, I told the people that I was looking forward to being with them in their church dedicated to St. David because my name, too, is David.  The people applauded in approval.  If I would have remembered, I should have told the people that the name of my bishop is David, and two of my good friends also share the name!  (The feast day of St. David in the church calendar is March 1st, probably not many know this.)

A woman named Josephine, a daughter of the man who donated the land for the church, explained that her father’s name was David and thus the name for the church and continued to speak of the reasons for his generous gift of land.  Then, the catechist, whose name is David, spoke and introduced the leadership of the community who thanked me for my presence in leading them in the celebration of Sunday Mass.  At the conclusion of these comments, all the people came forward to receive a blessing from me.  After Mass, we proceeded across the street to the house where Josephine was raised for lunch with members of her extended family who still live on the family compound.  It was a joyous occasion for these people who seldom have the privilege of celebrating Mass in their church.  As one person told me, “Kenyans love to go to church.”  I might add, “They also love to sing and dance.”

With the visit to Riamisiani and the celebration of Mass, I have been to forty-two of the fifty centers of Gekano Parish.  In due time, I will make it to all fifty of them.

Notes from Africa

January 18, 2021

The Bismarck Mission received a $500.00 grant from the Bowman Rotary Club in Bowman, ND to be used to purchase water storage tanks to assist women who have been trained in the Water with Blessing project the Mission sponsors.  The tanks hold 210 liters of water and are used to collect rain water.  This means mothers who receive them do not have to make as many trips to an artesian well or a river to haul water in twenty-liter containers.  Climbing a hill and walking up to one-half mile with twenty liters of water is not an easy chore.  Many of these women will also be toting an infant.

The women who have received a bucket and filter continue to report that their children have not been ill because they have access to clean, pure water.  Also, they state that they do not use as much firewood as they no longer have to boil water before using it.  I am encouraged by such reports.

Rotary International describes itself: “Rotary is a global network of 1.2 million neighbors, friends, leaders, and problem-solvers who see a world where people unite and take action to create lasting change – across the globe, in our communities, and in ourselves.

Solving real problems takes real commitment and vision. For more than 110 years, Rotary’s people of action have used their passion, energy, and intelligence to take action on sustainable projects. From literacy and peace to water and health, we are always working to better our world, and we stay committed to the end.”

I am grateful to Greg Wolf of the Bowman Rotary Club for being my contact with them.  Also, I am grateful to Rotary for their grant, a gift that will enable us to purchase thirty-six water storage tanks.  To date, eight water tanks have been given, and, in the past three months, Lilian Kwamboka, who coordinates the Water with Blessings project, has trained forty women.

The woman who suggested water storage tanks
John, a catechist, who is picking up a tank for his wife. John has also been of assistance in recruiting women to be trained as the parish community he serves.
Lilian and Ruth

Notes from Africa

Monday January 11, 2021

Photos of Mission Saturday, January 9, 2021

During the week of January 4th, schools reopened for all students in Kenya after the enforced holiday because of the pandemic.  Those students in Grades 4, 8, and 12 did resume studies in October 2020 because they have national exams for which they need to prepare.  On the post-secondary level, a few colleges had on-line studies during the hiatus.  School calendars on every level have been altered.

At Mission Saturday last week, I visited with many children and youth; they were eager to resume their studies.  It has been challenging for them to maintain studies on their own throughout the past nine months.  I think it is fair to say that most students will be faced with academic lacunae, especially for those who were struggling in school before the appearance of co-vid.  

As we assisted students with tuition and fees and uniform allowance these past weeks, I made the following list from our orphan rosters:

  1. Enrollment in our Orphan Education Program 463 children and youth with 302 at Gekano Parish, 100 at Ichuni Parish, and 61 at Manga Parish.
  2. Males-226 and Females-237
  3. Religious Affiliation:
    1. Catholic: 335
    1. Seventh Day Adventist: 89
    1. PAG (Pentecostal): 20
    1. Other: 19
  4. On the primary and secondary levels, we have students in 216 different schools which include 128 primary schools, 85 secondary schools, and three special schools.

I do remind the orphans that tuition and fees and uniform allowances are possible because of the generosity of those who support the annual African Mission in the Diocese of Bismarck.  As we begin this new school term, I extend their gratitude to the donors.

Notes from Africa

December 28, 2020

Christmas at Gekano Parish

Each year the Bismarck Mission hosts a Christmas gathering for the orphans enrolled in the Educational Program.  As this time, we have 459 enrolled.  In the week before Christmas, we went to each parish—Ichuni, Manga, and Gekano—for a celebration.  Because of co-vid our gatherings were altered this year but did include the distribution of their Christmas gift which consisted of wheat flour and cooking fat that are used to make mandazi and chapata, two traditional foods used in celebrations.  They were served a lunch of a small loaf of bread and a soda.  As a result of a donor from the Diocese of Bismarck, each orphan also received a gift of KSH 500 ($5.00), a significant amount of money that would represent the approximate value of one day’s wage. 

School for the children and youth of Kenya is scheduled to resume on January 4, 2021, a long ten months since school was suspended in March 2020, although grades four, eight, and twelve returned to school in October to prepare for national exams.  Simply put, there will be challenges.

Amidst the Christmas gatherings, I tried to prepare for the Mass of the Fourth Sunday of Advent and the Mass of Christmas, most notably, to write homilies in Kiswahili.  We do know that Christmas fell on a Friday which meant the following Sunday was the Feast of the Holy Family, another Mass for which I needed to prepare.  I did feel stress.

On Christmas Eve, we received 1.60” of rain which meant the roads were muddy and slippery.  On Christmas Day, I went to three mission parishes to celebrate with the people.  As I left the house at 6:30am to venture forth for Christmas Masses, the area was shrouded in fog and mist, dense enough that the road was barely visible.  I said to myself, “How does one see the potholes and ruts in such conditions?”  Creeping along in first and second gear I arrived at the first mission at 7:00am, climbed the steep hill only to find the church locked—no one was there.  After five minutes, a man came to unlock the church and said the people were told Mass was at 8:00am.  I descended the hill to the vehicle to wait inside it—it was damp and cool so I warmed myself with the heater.  We did start Mass at 7:30am.

I arrived at the second mission to a church full of people, at least 500 were crowded into the building with the choir singing vigorously.  With the strength of all the people singing, ululating, and dancing, I thought the roof of the church might be lifted.  It was an experience to behold.  Inside the church, it was hot…  After Mass, the catechist mentioned that Mass at this mission parish was to be at 7:00am and the Mass at the aforementioned mission parish was to be at 9:00am.  The people waited nearly two hours for Mass.  In my defense, I did show him the message I received from the pastor stating the times and places.  Evidently, somewhere along the line there was miscommunication and misunderstanding.

At the third Mass of the morning, I arrived to a large group of people in an open field.  During preparations for the celebration of Mass, I did a rough count of the assembled faithful, about 900.  The sun was blazing, and the skies were clear.  The altar and chair in which I sat were mercifully under a makeshift shelter shielding me from the intense sun of the day.

By the time I returned home, unloaded the vehicle, cleaned up and ate lunch, it was 3:00pm.  I was tired.  By 7:30 that evening I was in bed for a good night’s rest.

Just to make matters more interesting, on Holy Family Sunday, I was scheduled for three Mass, again at three different mission parishes.  When I arrived at the third place at 11:00am, the gates and the church were shuttered.  I waited about ten minutes, and no one showed up so I went home and had the remainder of the day to rest.

As I have often written, “Every day is an adventure.”

Heri ya Krismasi na Heri ya Mwaka Mpya!  (Blessings of Christmas and Blessings of the New Year.)

Pictures from the Christmas gatherings:

Notes from Africa

10 December 2020

“The time came for Mary to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son.  She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2: 7)

The most moving passage from the Gospel according to St. Luke reminds me of the journey I took to Guatemala several years ago with a group from the Church of St. Joseph in Williston, North Dakota.  Our pilgrimage, if it may be called that, was to the God’s Child Project to build houses for families in the countryside.  After each group completed their building of a house, we were visited by Patrick Atkinson, a man well known for his service to the poor.  He invited us to reflect on the quoted scripture passage, “What does it mean that a family will have a home because you helped build them a house?”  He continued, “Every Christmas when you hear the story of the Holy Family and ‘there was no room for them in the inn,’ pray for the family whose house you built.”

In the middle of the season of Advent as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, I am reminded again of my trip to Guatemala and the words of Patrick Atkinson especially as the Bismarck Mission completed last week its assistance to eight families to build a house.  The houses built here in Kenya vary from those in Guatemala because of the climate and building regulations.  For our orphans and their extended families, a house means they have a safe, warm place to live, to sleep, and to continue their studies.

To have a home…what a blessing.  What does your home mean to you?

This is from a letter written by an eleven-year-old orphan girl named Mercy who is the eldest of five siblings enrolled in our program:

We really appreciate very much for the support you have given us including uniform and food and now you have constructed for us a house.  We are very much happy and we can feel comfort.  May almighty God bless you and make you not to lack anything.  May God bless the work of your hands.  We thank Bismarck Mission a lot.

The homes built in Kenya are constructed in stages.  At each stage, various materials and supplies are given to families who do the manual labor.  As the supplies and materials are delivered there is a crowd of people, mainly children, who gather ‘to see what is going on in the neighborhood.’  Members of the recipient family express their gratitude on these visits.  I assure the orphans and their families that I will extend their gratitude to the people of the Diocese of Bismarck who make these homes possible through their support of the annual African Mission Appeal.

As we continue to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Christ, I would ask that you remember the Bismarck Mission and its service to orphans in your prayers.

Notes from Africa

November 20, 2020

Notes from Africa

Gekano Parish has 50 “centers” (what we in the United States informally call ‘Mission Parishes’).  On Sundays, the three priests of the parish and I go forth to celebrate Masses at the various centers, each of us usually celebrating three Masses, at 7:00, 9:00, and 11:00am.  To date, I have been to forty of the fifty centers.

Traveling to the centers usually means an adventure.  Lately, because of rains, the roads have been muddy, filled with pot holes and ruts.  The four-wheel drive on the vehicle has been engaged consistently.  Navigation also provides a challenge.  Even though, I know my way to many of the places, there are a few places that I do not know well and easily take a wrong turn.  In the Kisii Highlands, it is easy to become disoriented on the winding, twisting roads.  If a location is obscure in my mind, I usually travel to it on Saturday “to find my way” as I do not want to be too lost on Sunday mornings.

Each Sunday is an adventure.  On a rainy Sunday morning, I arrived at a center shortly before 7:00am, and no one was there.  I checked my notes to make sure I was at the right place.  Shortly after my arrival, a man and his daughter came and unlocked the church.  Often, it seems, people begin arriving and preparing for Mass once the priest arrives.  It is a challenge for the people because some priests operate on Mzungu time (that is, they are punctual) and other priests operate on African time.

Many of the centers are in the process of being built or renovated.  I find construction to be an ongoing activity in most buildings in Kisii land.  Some of the centers are large enough to seat 250 to 300 people.  Other structures are humble edifices of tree limbs and roofing sheets that hold 40 or 50 people around which a larger, more permanent structure is being built.  (See pictures.)

Most Sundays there is at least one story I can tell about happenings during the celebration of the Masses.  Recently, at one center, a young mother with her new born child came from during the offertory procession and gave a chicken as an offering of thanksgiving for the birth of her child.  A chicken would be valued at US $5.00, the equivalent of a daily wage for this area.

At another center, a lady was at the lectern proclaiming the first reading.  Her son, two or three years old, came and stood by her.  Eventually, he unbuttoned his pants and became pulling down his underwear to urinate.  My jaw dropped as I said to myself, “The boy is going to urinate in church in front of God and the gathered Christians!”  The mother had the presence of mind, without losing her pace of reading, to shoo the boy to his sister in the front row and took the boy out of the church to relief himself.

Every day is an adventure.

People at Rionguti Center standing in front of sand and rock piles. They are making preparations for the expansion of their church which is in the background.
The church at Sirate. The foundations around the current church are evident.