Notes from Africa

May 17, 2022

Recently, I attended the ordination of five priests for the Diocese of Kisii.  True to the Kenyan culture, the Mass was scheduled to begin at 10:00am when it was closer to 11:30am before it started.  It lasted over three and one-half hours; I left during the announcements.  Bottled water was passed out freely among the priests who were concelebrating the Mass.

The five newly ordained have been added to the current 69 diocesan priests (active and retired) who serve the Diocese of Kisii.  The Diocese of Kisii has twenty-nine parishes, and each parish has anywhere from ten to forty outstations (what some would call Mission Parishes).  In terms of population, there are 722,775 Catholics within the diocese which encompasses 847 square miles, meaning that there are 91,263 Catholics per square mile, and one priest for every 9,767 Catholics.

The Diocese of Bismarck is preparing to ordain five priests next month.  Currently, there are around 80 priests serving in the diocese (70 diocesan, active and retired, and ten religious order).  The Diocese of Bismarck has ninety-seven parishes and missions.  In terms of population, there are 61,862 Catholics scattered over 34,773 square miles, meaning there are 178 Catholics per square miles, and one priest for every 773 people.  (Note, please review the statistics for the Diocese of Kisii.)

In terms of counties in North Dakota, Bowman County in the southwest corner of the state consists of 1,167 square miles; Williams County in the northwest part of the state consists of 2,077 square miles.  Burleigh County, the seat of the state capitol, Bismarck, comprises 1,633 square miles; Renville County in the north-central part of the state comprises 877 square miles (the approximate size of the Diocese of Kisii).

On Sundays, a priest in the Diocese of Kisii will usually celebrate at least three Masses and has permission to celebrate up to five according to guidelines issued by the Kenyan Conference of Catholic Bishops.  I have heard of priests celebrating five Masses on feasts such as Christmas and Easter; he would begin around 5:00am and probably finish around five in the afternoon.

On Sundays, I usually celebrate three Masses—at 7:00am, 9:00am, and 11:00am—at three different outstations.  Traveling time may vary according road conditions, but I generally leave my house at 6:30am and return around 1:00pm.  A ‘usual’ Sunday Mass lasts around one and one-half hours, sometimes up to two hours.  On special occasions such as First Communion and Confirmation, the Mass will be closer to three hours long.

What might these statistics say about the distribution of priests in dioceses throughout the world?  Is it a matter of charity and justice to share in the burden of dioceses with so few priests and so many Catholics?  Do we sense that we have a responsibility to promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life and share these vocations? 

Notes from Africa

April 22, 2022

In the February 2022 edition of the Dakota Catholic Action, I wrote about the development of a Wellness Program for those in our Orphan Education Program.  The purpose of the Wellness Program is to promote awareness of the importance of physical health, to ascertain any noticeable health issues, and to take preventive measures so that existing conditions do not worsen. 

Earlier this month, we scheduled two seminars that served as a pilot program.  We gathered 125 orphans over the two-day period.  The health screenings included blood pressure and temperature checks and the measuring of weight and height.  Each student was checked for chiggers and ringworm and other skin diseases—common afflictions in children.  Blood tests for anemia, ulcers and diabetes, three diseases prevalent in the life of Kenyans, were done.  Also, each child was tested for HIV.  Staff of St. Elizabeth Hospital, the Mission Clinic associated with Gekano Parish, assisted with the medical tests.  The educational seminars had age-appropriate information on topics such as nutrition and hygiene, relationships and decision making, and drugs and alcohol.  These seminars were led by the alumni of the Orphan Education Program, that is, those who have finished their secondary school and are in the process of continuing their education at the post-secondary level.

As with any pilot project, the project is done to see what was done well, what can be improved, and what the results were.  Upon reviewing the two seminars with those involved, the seminars were deemed a success.  In the medical area, we found cases of ringworm and scabies, and the children were given medicine to address the issues.  The cost of ringworm medication is KSH 150 (approximately $1.40) for a tube of ointment, a cost which many families are not able to afford.  Several instances of high blood pressure were noted—these children will receive monitoring when they come for Mission Saturday.  A few cases of elevated or low blood sugar were noted as were a few cases of H-pylori.

In the education seminars, we gained insight into common issues facing orphans.  For example, there are instances where money given for uniforms is taken by the guardian and not used for the expressed purpose.  Another example, the prevalence of poverty in the lives of many that forces people to choose between food, education, and other basic necessities for daily living.  Some families are able to provide only one or two meals per day.   With the conflict in the Ukraine and insecure food supplies in Kenya, the prices of most commodities have risen sharply.  Last year, we paid KSH 2,800 for a 90 kilogram sack of maize, now, the price is KSH 5,400.  The cost of cooking oil is nearly double what it was a year ago.  For those in poverty and living at subsistence levels, these increases are devasting.

Bismarck Mission seeks to build and sustain holy and healthy families.   The pilot seminars proved to be a success; we are making notes of how to improve these seminars and seek to offer seminars for every one of the 467 orphans each year.

Doctor looking at skin condition
Secondary school girls at an educational seminar
Checking blood pressure
Blood testing
HIV testing

Notes from Africa

Tuesday March 29, 2022

The only time I watch television in Kenya is when I go to eat with the sisters in the convent next door, and they have the news on during lunch time (that is, if we have electricity).  Recently, a special was aired on the extended drought afflicting parts of Kenya, mainly along the northern tier and counties in the east of the country.  Much of Ethiopia and Somalia are experiencing the same conditions.

The numbers presented in this report were staggering—approximately 1.5 million livestock have perished in this persistent drought in an already arid land, about one-third of the livestock being cows and the rest mainly goats and camels.  Many of the people in these areas are nomads who travel even greater distances seeking water and forage for their animals.

People suffering from severe hunger in Kenya has increased to 1.8 million people which is up from 1.1 in October 2021 most of the cases of hunger being in the afflicted regions.  Because of the lingering effects of the co-vid pandemic and social instability in some of these areas, the distribution of foreign and national aid has been limited.

There is a saying in Kenya, “Maji ni uhai.  Maji ni baraka” (“Water is life.  Water is a blessing).  For those who go without water, they know this very well.

In the Kisii Highlands, the first two weeks of March saw the daily high temperature in the low 90’s (F).  However, the trade winds have blowing bringing with them the beginning of the rainy season in the Kisii Highlands.  In the past ten days, we have received nearly five inches of rain.  The day time high temperatures now reach the upper 70’s (F), and the overnight lows hover in the upper 50’s (F).

At the beginning of March, students in Standard 8 (equivalent of Grade 8) sat for three days National Exams.  The results of these exams determine which high school a student may enter.  The Mission has thirty-one students who took this exam.

Those students in Form 4 (equivalent of senior in high school) are completing their National Exams.  Exams for Form 4 students started on Monday March 14th and end Friday April 1st.  The first two weeks of these exams cover compulsory subjects studied—each day the students sit anywhere from two and one-half hours to five hours for these exams.  The last week of exams covers elective subjects, and the students sit about two and one-half hours each day.  These national exams determine where a student may go to post-secondary school and what subjects the students may study in college or a technical school.  The Mission has thirty-one students who sat for this grueling exam.

Notes from Africa

January 31, 2022

When I went into a store recently and greeted a clerk with the normal afternoon greeting, she replied, “Kwa kawaida,” (that is, “The usual”).  Indeed, many days are “the usual,” but I continue to say, “Every day is an adventure.”

January is part of the dry season in the Kisii Highlands.  Only 3.80” of rain have been recorded.  On a few days, the high temperature reached 88̊ F, and the low temperature in the morning has been around 60̊ F.  In this dry season, as usual, a dust storm is raised every time a vehicle passes, and the vegetation becomes coated with the red dust.

I did attend the funeral for the father of the pastor of Gekano parish who died a few weeks short of his 101st birthday.  As usual, the services did not start at the appointed time of 10:00am which I was told.  I arrived at the parish where the funeral was to be celebrated only to discover that the funeral Mass would begin at 12 noon.  Fortunately, I brought along work just in case such a thing would happen.  The man buried, Mzee Benard, served in the Second World War from 1939 to 1949.  Being a British colony at the time, Kenya followed the lead of the crown in England.  As I was driving home, I pondered how many more funerals of veterans of the Second World War would I attend—probably, not very many, if any.

The beginning of the month saw the start of a new term of school—part of the usual routine at these times is the paying of school fees which occur on Wednesdays during office hours and at Bismarck Mission on Saturdays.  Also, report cards from the previous term have been reviewed.

The Water with Blessings project continues.  We trained thirty women this month and gave them a filter and bucket to use.  We gave away five water storage drums used for collecting water for household use.  The usual response is much gratitude, at times, the women break into song and dance and ululate.  I remind the women that this project is funded by the people of the Diocese of Bismarck.  The women continue to report that their children are not suffering from ‘stomach disorders’.

I do enjoy reading.  Here in Kenya, reading is the usual activity of the evening for me.  This month I finished two books:  The Our Father A New Reading by the German theologian Gerhard Lohfink, and An Army At Dawn by Rick Atkinson on the Allied invasion, called Operation Torch, of North Africa in the Second World War.

Something out of the ordinary was a trip to Nairobi.  First, I made a visit to Immigration to continue the process of renewing my National Identity Card.  Also, I took Wes and Kathy Pepple to language school.  They began studying Swahili at the Consolata Language School.  When I spoke to them last week, they said, “Our heads are swimming.”  I could relate to their sentiment.

Vegetation coated with red dust
Young boy enjoying cup of clean, pure water
Delivery of a water storage drum

Notes from Africa

January 4, 2022

I often write in my journal, “Every day is an adventure.”  It could be written that December was “a month of adventure” with the continuous activity at the Mission.

Wes and Kathy arrived in Nairobi the evening of December 7th, and, after an arduous encounter with customs officials, they emerged from the terminal on December 8th.  They arrived safely with a supply of water filters and an eagerness to share in the work of the Mission.  I am grateful for their presence.

In December, we held two training seminars for Water with Blessings (WWB); at each session, fifteen women received formation and instruction in the use and care of the water filter and a bucket to make clean, pure water for their families.  The premise behind WWB is that water is a blessing from God (“Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” is a familiar hymn).  Water is life.  The filters and buckets, too, are a gift from the people of the Diocese of Bismarck.  In turn, the women are asked to share clean, pure water with three other families for a period of six months.  Lilian continues to be a good instructor.

We also held four follow up sessions for WWB.  The women continue to self-report that their children are not suffering from ‘stomach problems’ associated with drinking contaminated water.  Indeed, WWB is a blessing for these women and their families.  We delivered seven water storage tanks—a 210 liter container used to capture rain water.  Each time this 55 gallon drum is filled with rain water means ten fewer trips to a stream or artesian well to tote water for household use. 

Each December Bismarck Mission hosts a Christmas party for the orphans.  Because of the altered school schedule due to the corona virus pandemic, we had only two available dates in the month—on the 23rd, when gatherings were held at Ichuni and Manga, and the 24th, when a gathering was held at Gekano.  After introductions and greetings, I gave a reflection on the birth narrative as found in Luke 2: 1-14, and Rogers made announcements pertaining to the school schedule and paying of fees for Term 3 of the school year which began on January 3rd.  The children and youth received a gift of wheat flour and cooking fat and a lunch of a soda and small loaf of bread.  They were delighted with these gifts.  I had the privilege of calling forth each family and greeting them with “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” (in Swahili:  Krismasi Njema na Mwaka Mypa).

December 29th and 30th found us paying school fees for secondary students.  It was a hectic time as each school has a different fee structure, and we have youth in seventy-five different secondary schools.  One day, after writing cheques for five straight hours, my right hand was sore and stiff.

As we know, Christmas and January 1st, the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, were celebrated on Saturdays which meant a full slate of Masses for these most holy feasts associated with the incarnation of our Lord followed the next day by the feasts of the Holy Family and Epiphany, respectively.  All ‘free time’ during the month was spent preparing homilies in Swahili.  As one priest wrote me, “I only want to preach in English.”  I understand this sentiment all too well.  On Christmas Day, I left the Mission House at 6:30am and finished the last Mass at 2:30pm.  I was worn-out.

We did manage to make a short video of a talk I gave for the upcoming African Mission Appeal.  This will a part of the overall video that will be played in parishes before the annual collection in March.  I hope you enjoy it!

Wes and Kathy are making preparations to start language school in Nairobi on January 10th to study Swahili for three months.  They do maintain a blog on the website of their home parish, the Church of St. Joseph in Williston, North Dakota.  You may access the blog and their photos at: 

stjparish.com.  The blog is posted under the News section and in the Photo Album section are additional photos of the activities of the Mission.

Heri ya Mwaka Mypa—Blessings of the New Year.

L to R: Lilian, Wes, Kathy, Emma, and Ivan, Lilian’s son
Two women receiving water storage tanks
One of two goats received on Christmas
A happy mother with her daughter

Notes from Africa

December 16, 2021

In the past weeks, I have encountered numbers that have caused me to ponder.  I trust you will find these figures interesting.

Kisii County has a population of 701,000 people, and is comprised of 514.56 square miles.  By way of contrast, Burleigh County in North Dakota has a population 95,626, and is comprised of 1,632.65 square miles.  The population density of Kisii County is 1,362 people per square mile, and the population density of Burleigh County is 58 people per square mile.  In fact, in 2020, the population of the entire state of North Dakota was listed at 779,094 people.  North Dakota has an area of 70,762 square miles.

One day after the Sacrament of Confirmation, I walked into the parish office at Gekano.  Seated at a desk was a catechist who was entered the 480 names of those confirmed into the Sacramental Register.  If you have ever maintained these registers, you know the amount of work involved.  Fortunately, the names given to the confirmands was the same—Clement for the males, and Clemencia for the females.

The population of the country of Kenya is listed at 54 million.  The breakdown is 48% of the people are Protestants, 25% are Roman Catholic, 10% follow the Sunni path of Islam, with the remaining 17% comprised of those various other religions including those who adhere to indigenous practices.  That means approximately 13.5 million people are Roman Catholics in this country.

The distance between the Mission House and Kisii town is 20 Km (about 12 miles).  There are approximately 25 speed bumps of various size along the route.  On the usual route, I have become familiar with the location of these necessary nuisances.  I did ask Rogers what would happen if there were no speed bumps on the roads; his response, “It would be chaos.”

Notes from Africa

Monday November 15, 2021

Notes from Africa

Anaweza kuona (He is able to see).

The gospel reading for this day is taken from the Gospel according to St. Luke (18: 35-43), the granting of sight to a blind man at Jericho.  In the past two weeks, we have had two orphans who have had eye surgery—one was totally blind due to an infection that had spread to both eyes and the other had a condition called ‘squints,’ that is, he was cross-eyed.

The blind boy is able to see normally out of one eye, and he continues to have follow-up treatments at Kikuyu Eye Hospital near Nairobi to ascertain whether the doctors might be able to salvage any sight in the other eye.  The other boy was taken to Tenwek Eye Hospital for corrective surgery, and he now has normal vision.  It has been a time of rejoicing in these families for these modern miracles.

In the scriptures, especially the prophets, the day that the blind shall see and the lame shall walk is the day of salvation, a testimony that God has visited his people.  “They will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God…Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.  Then the eyes of the blind shall see…”  It is the day to praise and thank God for his action in the world.

Most blindness in the world is due to insufficient medical care.  Bismarck Mission has made efforts to attend to medical needs of the orphans whom we serve in our Educational Program.  The surgery for the blind boy cost KSH 150,000 (around $1,400.00) and for the boy with ‘squints,’ KSH 85,000 (around $780.00).  In a land of poverty, these are enormous sums of money.  Contemplate, if you will, the difference normal sight makes in one’s life.  A grandmother of one of the boys said it best, “Tumshukuru Mungu,” that is, “Let us thank God.”  She continued referring to the people of the Diocese of Bismarck, Asante kabisa,”

that is, “Thank you very much.”

Some of the sights in travels to missions for Sunday Mass:

Dirt roads + rain = challenges when driving
View from Gechona Outstation
The simple structure used as a church at Nyamakairo outstation

October 25, 2021

Events and happenings:

Last Friday morning as I sat down at the table to finish writing the Sunday homily in Kiswahili, there was a pungent odor wafting through the room.  At first, I thought someone was burning refuse, but upon further investigation, I discovered the school was drying omena in the sun as it was warm and sunny at that midmorning hour.  Omena, the common name of the silver cyprinid is also known as the Lake Victoria sardine.  It is a tasty fish that is often served with ugali and mboga

The second term of the school year began the second week of October.  We have been paying school fees and reviewing report cards on Mission Saturdays and office hours on Wednesdays.  It is a curious pattern that those with poor report cards have a tendency to delay in bringing their report cards or, even worse, bring a report card that has been altered.  (I think some internet cafes do a brisk business in seeking to imitate report cards.)  There are consequences for not bringing a report card—we withhold the paying of school fees until we see it.  There are consequences for bringing an altered report card—generally, the first step is to visit with the student and state we can tell the report card has been altered and to bring us the original one and not pay school fees until the original has been seen; the worst consequence is expulsion from the Orphan Education Program. 

The rainy season continues in the Kisii Highlands.  To date this month, I have recorded over 12” of rain.  Even as this area is lush and green (it is called “the land that is ever green”), other parts of Kenya are suffering from drought and consequent food shortages.  The trade winds, though, have started blowing meaning that the end of the rainy season will be coming shortly.

In the last month, we trained twenty-eight women in the Water with Blessings project.  It is a joy and privilege to participate in these training sessions, especially when the dirty water flows through the filter and becomes pure and clean.  With the plentiful rainfall in this area, clean, pure water for drinking and cooking is still a challenge.  Very few areas of Kenya have a public water works system—the system in Kisii town delivers colored, impure water.  To assist with the collection of rain water we give away 210 liter (equivalent of 55 gallon drum) to those who have completed the training process and follow up sessions of Water with Blessings.  We have delivered seven drums this month.  Last week, when we delivered four drums (in a rain shower), the women started singing and dancing as they saw the water storage tanks being unloaded from the vehicle.  They were thanking God and saying, “Amina, Amina.”  Each time a 210 liter storage tank is filled by harvesting rain, it means that the mother makes ten fewer trips to the river, borehole, or artesian well to carry water in 20 liter (five gallon) buckets. 

Lilian demonstrating how to cleanse the filter properly

Omena drying in the sun

Clean, pure water being produced
Three of the rejoicing women

Notes from Africa

October 4, 2021

The month of September is the beginning of ‘the short rains’ in the Kisii Highlands, a season that extends through November.  This period is followed by three months in which little rain is received.  During September, I recorded 10.90” of rain, and rain fell on twenty-seven of the thirty days.  The first days of October we received 3.55” of rain.

In September, we also enrolled thirteen students in post-secondary educational programs in technical schools and universities.  We have a total of thirty-one young men and women that are being supported by Bismarck Mission.  One of the new students is being sponsored by a young woman from the Diocese of Bismarck; this young woman, who herself is entering college on a scholarship, decided to us some of her savings to support an orphan in her post-secondary studies.  Truly, the grace and charity of God is at work…

This past week the first term of the new school year ended, and students are on break until October 11th when the second term begins.  We will be paying tuition and school fees to support these orphans in their educational pursuits.  In writing out checks, I will have much practice in writing the names of the schools and my own signature.  This does require much diligence because banks and schools are meticulous in examining each detail of a check—any type of discrepancy will cause the check to be rejected.

Currently, we have 453 orphans enrolled in our Orphan Education Program—fifty-nine at Manga parish, ninety-seven at Ichuni parish, and 297 at Gekano.

On Sunday, October 2nd, there was one Mass at Gekano parish.  Unbeknownst to me, it was the celebration of First Holy Communion.  Mass was ‘scheduled’ for 11:00am and eventually began at 11:45—this in true Kenyan fashion of keeping time.  The Mass was held at an altar outside the church, and people filled the compound.  Five hundred sixty boys and girls received their First Holy Communion.  The total astounded me.  The choir and people sang with vigor; women and girls danced with joy.

By the time Mass ended, and speeches of congratulations were given it was 2:45pm—the speeches were rushed because of a thunderstorm approaching the area.  I only had to cross the road in a light rain, but the people made their way home in the rain shower.

Enjoy the pictures from Holy Communion…

The gathering of people for First Holy Communion
The First Communicants responded to the pastor’s homily
Presentation of the Bible for the Liturgy of the Word
The blessing of people as they bring forward their sadaka, the weekly offering
The gathering of people

Notes from Africa

September 21, 2021

Part of our care for orphans in our Education Program means attending to their needs.  This past week, I made two trips to Kisii town so that three orphans could obtain medical care, one of them to consult a doctor about an infection and the other two to visit the eye clinic.  A description of the process of receiving medical care:

Going to the hospital.  We left the Mission House at 9:00am and arrived at the hospital registration desk where KSH 400 consultation fee was paid.  Then, the young woman had her vitals taken—the station for this is located in the middle of the reception area of the hospital.  After this was done, she sat and waited to see the doctor who eventually ordered lab work.  She was sent to the lab and first had to pay KSH 3,100 before the tests performed by the lab.  Another period of waiting ensued.  Once the results were acquired, she went back to the waiting line to consult the doctor regarding appropriate care.  He wrote a prescription which was taken to the pharmacy.  The pharmacist gave the price of the medication which had to be paid before receiving it.  The antibiotic drugs cost KSH 800.  We finished at 11:45am and were home at 12:15pm.

Going to the eye clinic.  Once again, we left the Mission House at 9:00am and arrived at the eye clinic where the two students were registered—KSH 1,000 each.  Once the fee was paid, the girls waited in line for a consultation to ascertain the issues afterward they were sent to a technician who performed various tests (which meant waiting in line again).  Finally, they were seen by the optometrist who did his examination and reviewed the notes made by the assistants.  In the end, one girl had an eye infection (medication KSH 1,000) and needed glasses (KSH 8,000) and the other had issues with light sensitivity for which she received medication (KSH 800).  Again, once a price is given, one must go to the bursar and pay before receiving the services or medication.  The lenses for the glasses were ground on site and fitted into the selected frames. We finished at 12:45pm and arrived home at 1:15pm.

In the course of these visits, there is waiting that is required.  I have learned to make sure I bring along a copy of the Liturgy of Hours to pray the Office of Readings and midday pray, and I walk around the compound to pray the rosary.

P.S.  KSH 105 = $1.00