Notes from Africa

January 20, 2020


The routines of daily life sustain us with the passing of time. I have been told to pay attention to the routines and to take nothing for granted because the grace of God works in the ordinary routines of life, and one does not know if the routines of tomorrow will be present.


For example, part of the weekly routine of my life is the washing of clothes, and, as faithful readers of the blog know, this task is done by hand. This routine allows me to reflect on the happenings and events of daily life—it is a time of meditation to pay attention to the various aspects of the Mission and brainstorm ideas. It is also a time that I use to clear my mind so that I may return to another task, such as writing the Sunday homily in Kiswahili. I know that with the convenience of a washer and dryer this would not be possible for me because I would be rushing to put in a load and rush off to another task.


Another part of my daily routine is to write in my journal. Since coming to Kenya, there are only two days that I have forgotten to do this. I liken my scribal entries to an examination of conscience because frequently I write about the events of the day and describe the blessings, the challenges, the struggles, and the failings inherent in my daily life. Often, I end my writing with a statement such as, “I am grateful” or “I am fortunate.”


Of course, not everything in life is routine, nor do all the events and happenings occur according to one’s timetable and expectations. Here, I am reflecting on five priest friends who, in the past month, have lost a parent. As it has been said, “Death disrupts our days and disturbs our nights.” These priest friends, along with so many others, are pulled out of the ordinary routines of life to attend to “sacred business,” one of the works of mercy, “to bury the dead.” Because I am not able to attend funerals of family and friends, I do send a note to these friends and assure them of my prayers for their departed parent and their family, and in the course of a week, I do celebrate a Mass for the repose of the soul of the departed.


An extraordinary event such as death, often brings larger questions into our consciousness—the very questions of why, what, and where. “Why did this happen?” “What are we going to do? “Where are we going or where have we come from?” What is it that I believe?” Frequently, there are more questions than answers in the midst of extraordinary events.   As my father told me and my siblings when our mother died, “Life is now different, so too, we must be different,” sage advice that I cherish.


For me, life in Kenya is different than life in the United States, and I am learning to live differently…

Notes from Africa

January 13, 2020


Last week, the educational institutions in Kenya commenced a new school year—for primary grades on Monday and secondary students on Tuesday.   In our orphan education program, we have been paying uniform fees for all the primary age students and those who are in their first and third year of secondary schools. For those in secondary schools, we have been paying tuition and fees and loaning text books for classes.


In the three parishes the Bismarck Mission serves—Gekano Parish, Ichuni Parish, and Manga Parish—we have 421 orphans currently enrolled. These orphans attend 213 different schools, the vast majority in Kisii and Nyamira Counties. We have primary students (K-8) at 123 various schools. Secondary students are enrolled in 87 diverse schools. When paying tuition at 87 different schools, each with a particular tuition and fee structure, it becomes a challenge to examine each fee structure carefully to determine the appropriate payment for each youth. (Many schools have a different tuition and fee scale for the various years of study.) A few motivating factors for students include bringing an original report card at the end of each term, providing a receipt for any funds given, and conveying the current year’s fee structure, this means, no report card or no receipt or no fee structure equals no money for tuition and fees. I find it amazing how fast a student can produce the “forgotten” document from home or school.


When looking at religious affiliation of the current population, 72% are Catholic, 20% Seventh Day Adventist, and the remaining 8% of various denominations such as Lutheran and Pentecostal.   Slightly over one-half of those enrolled are female. And, just over 4% of those in our Orphan Education program are HIV positive.


Also, at this time of the year, we have been paying tuition and fees for those in our Post-Secondary Scholarship Program. We are providing scholarship for eighteen students pursuing an education beyond the secondary level. These students are scattered about the area in thirteen different institutions of higher learning. If I thought the fee structures of secondary schools was challenging, I need only to review the fee structures of these post-secondary institutions. These fees structures are laborious to read, and the task of determining the amount to be paid can be arduous. All part of a day’s work in the Mission…


It is a blessing to serve these children and youth. Each day, as I walk to the office, I lift up my heart to God in prayer, asking for the wisdom and insight and patience to assist those who enter the door seeking assistance.

Notes from Africa

Thursday January 2, 2020


In my conversations with family and friends, I often say, “Everyday is an adventure.” Indeed, I find this to be true; in the Mission there are no dull days.


Over the past three months, the Kisii Highlands and many parts of Kenya were subjected to heavy rains. From October 1st to December 31st I recorded about twenty-five inches. Even in December, normally a dry month, much rain fell. This made traveling to the outstations on Christmas day a challenge. It was an adventure to navigate the roads—up and down hills, around sharp corners, and stretches where there was nothing but potholes and ruts. Along the way to one of the outstations, unbeknownst to me, I splashed mud on a piki-piki driver. He furiously drove to catch up with me and started giving me an earful. I looked

at his clothes—there were a few speckles of mud, not much more. I said, “Pole,” (I am sorry) and drove off. To the altar servers in the vehicle with me I said, “I should have asked him if he knows how to wash clothes.” They broke out in uproarious laughter that continued until we reached our destination.


At the beginning of Christmas Mass in Nyakoroto, after reverencing the altar, I felt a drop from above—I took out my handkerchief and wiped off my head. I looked up to see the culprit and, fortunately, it was a small dropping from a wasp’s nest. The two catechists noticed this, and they had broad grins on their face.


It is a custom for parishes to give the priest a gift on Christmas. At one outstation, I received a goat. At another, I received a bale of flour—twelve, two-kilogram bags. The goat became a festive meal for a group of alumni of the Orphan Education Program on New Year’s Day, and the flour is being given away.


Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I went to visit the grandmother of one of our orphans, Catherine, who is enrolled in our Post-Secondary Education Program, pursuing a diploma in accounting. Catherine mentioned her grandmother, Pauline, is approaching 100 years old—they think she is 99 years old—wanted to personally thank me and the Bismarck Mission for what we have done for Catherine. When I entered the house, grandmother was on a stool reaching for something on a shelf—not a bad feat for such an elder. Pauline speaks Ekegusii and a little bit of Swahili and no English. I know a few words in Ekegusii and continue to learn Swahili. Catherine was gracious enough to be the translator. Catherine (and her siblings) has been in the care of her grandmother since she was five months old when her mother died. Catherine has great respect for her grandmother and has learned many things, among them, how to be a good, Christian woman. Oh, the working of grace amid daily life…


This past week, the rains have subsided and the sun, once again, shines throughout most of the day. It is 77F as I write these ‘Notes from Africa’ at 5:00pm.


Heri ya Mwaka Mpya (Blessings of the New Year).

Notes from Africa

Monday December 23, 2019


Each year in the week before Christmas we gather the orphans in our Education Program to celebrate Christmas. We set aside one day of the week for each of the parishes, that is, one day for Ichuni and one day for Gekano.


We begin the day with the celebration of Mass, and the orphans organize themselves to form a choir to lead the singing and proclaim the readings. Following Mass, speakers we have invited come to share with the children and youth of the program. This year we had speakers who have been enrolled in our program and are now in the process of completing their post-secondary education through scholarships providing by the Mission. The speakers had basic messages, such as work hard, be honest, have discipline, practice your religion, and avoid those things that could lead one into trouble. They shared of their own struggles and joys. In the end, they expressed gratitude to the Bismarck Mission for the support and encouragement they have received over the years—gratitude to the donors who make their educational endeavors possible and gratitude to God for the gift of life and faith.


Following the speakers, the participants receive their Christmas gift from the Mission—wheat flour and cooking fat. These items are used in making mandazi (a fried dough bread) and chapati (a soft, unleavened, layered bread) which are native dishes prepared for special occasions. Along, with the gifts, the orphans receive lunch which consists of a bottle of soda and a small loaf of bread. (The preferred sodas are Fanta Pineapple and Fanta Orange).


Serving 400 children and youth means having many kilograms of wheat flour and cooking fat and cases of soda along with the requisite number of small loaves of bread. Again, this aspect of the program is made possible by the donors to the African Mission Appeal. Many of the orphans and their guardians stopped to visit me in the course of these two days to express their appreciation and gratitude for the work of the Mission—gratitude that needs to be given where it belongs.


Chrismasi njema (Merry Christmas) and Heri ya Mwaka Mpya (Happy New Year).


Notes from Africa

Thursday December 12, 2019


Earlier this week, I received word that my guests of the past three weeks, Wes and Kathy Pepple and Liz Bustad, safely returned to their homes in Williston, North Dakota.   Without them the Mission House is quieter, and the necessary work of cleaning up after company has commenced, namely, the washing of towels and bed linens. I enjoyed their presence as well as their assistance in the cooking, washing of dishes, and cleaning of the Mission House.


During their visit, they were able to experience many different aspects of life in the Mission. The fourteen inches of rain received during their stay did not deter them. They were able to participate in a Mission Saturday, a day when a specific group of orphans come for their monthly allotment of maize and a small stipend. Serving the orphans in our Education Program is the heart of the Bismarck Mission.


Other programs and services are offered to the orphans as well. My guests were able to gain insight into two of them: the heifer program and the housing program. One Saturday we went out and about to visit three families with heifers and two families that received a house this year. In the heifer program, after an application and selection process, an orphan receives a bred heifer and is responsible for the care of that animal. Once the first heifer calf is born and matured, this calf is reclaimed by the Mission, inseminated, and then given to another family, and the cow remains the property of the orphan. If a bull calf is born, the family keeps that calf. Sometimes it might take two or three years before a heifer calf is born…


Similarly, in the housing program, after an application and selection process, an orphan or guardian of the orphan, receives the necessary funds to purchase material for a simply house; it is the responsibility of the family to secure the material and build the house. The building of the house is done in stages, and the family receives the necessary funds as the process continues. The first stage is placing of the poles and ‘tinning’ of the roof, then slats are placed on the poles so that the “mudding” may take place. Finally, doors are installed.


We also had a two-day trip to Nakuru. At Nakuru, we visited the National Marian Shrine at Subukia, located on 250 acres of land, a short drive from Nakuru. We also went through Lake Nakuru National Park where we saw many native animals and panoramic views of Lake Nakuru and the surrounding country. The Marian Shrine at Subukia is dedicated to apparitions of the Blessed Mother encouraging the local people to do four things: participate regularly in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, use the Sacrament of Reconciliation often, pray the rosary, and read the Bible. A spring on top of the mountain that miraculously appeared freely flows and is known to have curative powers and is a profound place of prayer. A story was told of a gathering of 15,000 members of the Catholic Women’s Association at the site for a meeting. When most of them went up the mountain to collect water, haggling, bickering, and fighting broke out over one’s place in line to retrieve water. The spring dried up. The women were told to repent of their actions and pray. They held an all-night vigil, praying the rosary and singing—the next morning the water started to flow again and an orderly group of women retrieved their water. There was water enough for everyone. A church is in the process of being built on the site; this church will have a seating capacity of 4,500.

Notes from Africa

Tuesday December 3, 2019


On Thanksgiving Day, my visitors, Wes and Kathy Pepple and Liz Bustad, joined our Water with Blessings (WWB) coordinator, Lilian Kwamboka to train eighteen women in the process and give them each a filter and bucket.


Water is life (Maji ni uahi). Water is a blessing (Maji ni baraka). Upon these two themes the WWB project is based. We receive water gratefully from the Creator who has blessed the earth with this gift so that it may produce its fruits. Water, as we know, is used every day for drinking, cooking, bathing, etc. Perhaps, most of us do not even think about the source of our water for daily use. And, more than likely, most of do not worry about water born diseases such as cholera, typhoid, or amoebic dysentery.


As the women gather with their children for a WWB session, they instinctively know the value of pure, clean water. They know the burden of providing such a gift for their families. WWB enables the women to use pure, clean water for drinking and cooking purposes, also the bathing of small infants. Part of the commitment they make is to share the use of the filter with three other families for six months. Also, they have follow-up sessions, one per month, for six months to reflect on their experiences of using the filter and to express any problems or issues that may arise.


Since October 1, 2019 when Lilian was hired, she has trained 40 women who have 92 children. When I participate in these training sessions, there are two highlights for me. The first is watching the expression on the faces of the women and children as the dirty water is purified and collected in a glass. Then, someone drinks this purified water to the amazement of all. The second aspect that impresses me is the time when the women receive their bucket and begin to color the attached decals and personalize the bucket. In this process, the children eagerly participate, using colored markers. Smiles break forth among the participants.


Later, on Thanksgiving Day, I prepared a chicken and rice casserole for our dinner. Or, I might add, I tried to prepare it. First, I did not have enough rice and tried to compensate by adding less water to the recipe. Then, when baking in the oven, the power went out. The chicken was taken out of the mixture and pan fried, and water was boiled for pasta. And, I forgot to cook the peas. But, it was a meal enjoyed by all, a meal in which we were are mindful of many, many blessings, and we did not go hungry.

Notes from Africa

November 27, 2019


Last week, Rogers and I drove to Nairobi to welcome three guests to Kenya, Wes and Kathy Pepple and Liz Bustad, all of them from the Church of St. Joseph in Williston.


The original idea for Water with Blessings (WWB) came from the Pepple’s, and over the past one and half years, and, after a trial period, we have begun the process of implementing the WWB project and making it a permanent aspect of the Bismarck Mission. To date, we have trained nearly 150 families and given them a filter and bucket. Also, we have hired Lilian Kwamboka, to coordinate this project; she, herself, is a product of the Bismarck Mission’s Orphan Education Program and has training in social work and community development.


At the end of each training session, one of the women of the group who received a bucket and filter stands up to express gratitude and joy on behalf of the whole group. These simple words, spoken from the heart, bring smiles and shouts of joy. The words of these women are meant for the Bismarck Mission which includes the donors who have contributed graciously to this project. I pass on to you these words of gratitude and expressions of joy.


Liz Bustad has spent her professional life in the area of public health. We have started reflecting on the health needs of those in the Orphan Education Program and what we may be able to do to increase awareness of healthy living. Working with St. Elizabeth’s Clinic of Gekano parish, Liz is assisting the Mission in reflecting on how this may be done. We have more work to do in this area, but we are making progress. Our goal is to have “wellness clinics” for the orphans two to three times per year during for health screenings and educational sessions.


Indeed, the work of the Mission is for the benefit of the orphans and made possible by those who support the annual African Mission Appeal.


Tomorrow, November 28th, is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. I express my gratitude for the encourage and support I receive as I serve in the Mission. Here, we plan to have a chicken and rice dinner.


And a note on the weather. To date in November, we have received over 10 inches of rain. The roads are soft, and in many places, there are mudholes and ruts. But, we remember Maji ni uhai (water is life) and Maji ni baraka (water is a blessing).

Notes from Africa

Sunday November 17, 2019


A goal that the Bismarck Mission set for this year was to expand our Orphan Education Program to another parish and to increase the number of orphans we serve from 400 to 450.


With the permission of Bishop Joseph of the Diocese of Kisii and the consent of the pastor of Manga Parish, the Bismarck Mission inaugurated its Orphan Education Program this past week at Manga Parish. We were able to register 36 orphans. There are many children and youth who still are to be enrolled once we have the proper documentation.


Documents needed to be enrolled in the Orphan Education Program include a letter from the chief of the village attesting to the status of the children as a total orphans and to their place of residence; a letter from the pastor stating the need of the children and that they are orphans; forms from their schools, namely, report cards and a letter stating they are enrolled currently in school; and original birth and death certificates. Obtaining all these documents can present challenges—we patiently review the guidelines and ask those who do not have proper documents to return. A most issue is the failure to bring original birth and death certificates; frequently, we receive a photocopy of these.


With the addition of the orphans from Manga Parish we have 430 children and youth registered. They vary in ages from two years old to twenty years of age.


The school year in Kenya finished at the end of October. Those who finished STD 8 (8th grade) sat for national exams (called KCPE) the first three days of November. Those in F4 (12th grade) are in the process of taking their national exams called KCSE. The KCSE exams began on November 4th and end November 26th. I liken this exam to the ACT or SAT that are taken by American high school students, except that Kenyan students have this process extended over the course of a month, with exams taken Monday through Friday.


The scores from KCPE determine where one may go to secondary school. And, the scores from the KCSE determine at what level one may pursue education beyond the secondary level—from polytechnics (trade schools) to certificate/diploma degrees to a four-year university degree.


During the time of these exams, there is a sacred silence on the school compounds—visitors are strictly limited to those who have reason to be on the compound.  Armed guards escort those bringing the exams and students are searched before they enter the classrooms to be seated for the exam. Education officials randomly visit schools to ascertain that proper procedures are being followed.

The pictures are from Manga Parish on registration day.

Notes from Africa

Friday November 8, 2019


I returned safely to the Mission House after a holiday in Zanzibar. I had planned on writing a blog there, but I did not have a secure internet connection to use and did not want to risk having my computer infected with a virus. I apologize.


Zanzibar is an archipelago that consists of 52 islands, six of which are inhabited. It is a semiautonomous part of the country of Tanzania and has 1.5 million inhabitants, 80% of whom are Muslim. It is a unique country in Africa because it is a peaceful island where people of varying faiths, ethnicities, and languages live in harmony. I stayed on the main island, Unguja, which is commonly called Zanzibar, in Stone Town, a port city that is an old trade center for Europeans, Arabs, and Africans. Stone Town is characterized by narrow, winding streets in which one can easily lose one’s sense of direction and is populated by small shops, homes, schools, and places of worship for Moslems, Christians, and Hindi among other religions.


The three main industries of Zanzibar are tourism, agriculture, and fishing. Tourism accounts for 72% of the local economy. The people warmly welcome the American dollar. Zanzibar is a major exporter of spices, most notably cloves. I visited a spice farm where coffee, lemon grass, allspice, cloves cacao, vanilla bean, starfruit, pineapple, mango, banana, pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, curry, coconut, ginger, henna, lemon mint, lime, jackfruit, and annatto (used for coloring in curry and is also called ‘natural lipstick’) are grown. The guide explained what part of each plant was used (the leaf, the flower and fruit, root, and bark) and for what purpose, medicinal, culinary, and otherwise. For example, allspice comes from the leaf, cinnamon from the bark, ginger and turmeric from the root, and lime and apple are fruit. It was hard to make notes and hold an umbrella in the rain at the same time. It was a most enjoyable tour and would take another one given the opportunity. Tanzania is the world’s largest exporter of cloves.


One day I took a long walk to the Anglican Cathedral, the former site of one of the largest slave markets in East Africa. Zanzibar prospered highly in the slave trade with parties going into mainland East Africa and capturing people from present day Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo, and other countries who would be enslaved. These slaves were also used to transport goods that were used in trade, one of the most valued items being ivory. It was said that for every elephant tusk brought from inland Africa five slaves died. The slave trade flourished from 1800-1909. In the 19th century, over 1.5 million people were taken to Zanzibar as slaves to be used on clove plantations and as indentured household servants. Others were ‘exported’ to places such as South Africa, Persia, India, Arabia, and Mauritius. The Slave Museum provides provocative insight into this sad history.


Of course, among other activities, I did relax and do some reading. I read two books during my stay—Halsey’s Typhoon by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin and Sherman’s March by Burke Davis.


Enjoy the pictures.


Notes from Africa

Thursday October 24, 2019


Events of daily life…


Last Sunday, I traveled to Gianche mission parish, the Church of St. Laurence, to celebrate Mass with the people. It was my first visit to this mission parish; I have celebrated Mass in 34 of the 54 mission parishes. A custom among people is to approach the priest after Mass for a blessing—often times, I will bless up to 50 liters of water and rosaries, crucifixes, and people. At Gianche, the catechist announced that after Mass, people may come for a blessing. Every person in the church came forward one at a time, some 150 of them. I was able to visit with many of them, asking about their families, shamba (farm), and school. All during the blessing of people the choir sang and danced, singing hymns in honor of Mary, the Mother of God. Another custom is that Mass ends with a hymn in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was a cherished time for the people and me. I am fortunate.


At times, I have the opportunity to visit with orphans in our Education Program outside of the regular Saturday meetings and Wednesday office hours. This week afforded several opportunities to do this. In the course of my conversation with two high students—we talked about their studies, grades, families, and future plans—two of them paused, looked at me, and stated their gratitude for all the Bismarck Mission does for them. They have hope because of the presence of the Mission and the support it provides for educational endeavors. Heartful gratitude poured forth from these two teenagers. I responded to them by saying that the very reason for the existence of the Mission is to provide them an education and help them grow and mature as good Christians.   Of course, this gratitude is not meant for me alone—the gratitude is extended to all the faithful of the Diocese of Bismarck and those who support the ministry of the Mission. Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude…we all need to be encouraged to pray in gratitude for all the blessings of life.


On Monday, I will be leaving for a short holiday, traveling to Zanzibar. For those who need a short lesson in geography, Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania, part of that country. Historically, it is one of the main entry points into Eastern Africa by European and Arabian explorers, an island filled with the lore of East Africa. For the next two weeks, I hope to write my blog from Zanzibar (and include pictures). Maybe, I will be able to watch a game of the Baseball World Series between the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros.