Notes from Africa

Monday June 29, 2020

 

People in Kenya await July 6th, the day the current restrictions because of the corona-virus will expire, and President Kenyatta will address on this topic once again. Expectations have been high in the hope of some change, especially the opening of houses of worship and international travel. Plans are being laid for the anticipated opening of schools in September. In areas of life, people have “voted with their feet,” that is, social distancing has not been observed and many people have stopped wearing masks in public in the villages and rural areas. (It must be said that social distancing is very difficult in this country with its population density and social customs.)

 

I continue to celebrate daily Mass with the six sisters who live in the convent next door. Our Mission Saturdays are held with one member of each family coming to receive the allotment of maize and the monthly stipend; I am anxious for the day when we will be able to have all the orphans attend Mission Saturdays and hand out the academic awards of chickens and goats obtained by primary and secondary students with very good grades.

 

These past weeks many orphans returned applications for either a house or a heifer. In fact, we received 30 heifer and 23 housing applications. We have been going to the places where these orphans live to do our evaluation. These trips take us up and down mountains, with the vehicle or on foot (when walking, I have the habit of counting the number of steps we take, one visit had us trod 343 steps down and then back up a very steep, wet slope); we travel rutted roads full of potholes that are made more challenging when it rains; and we have made our way to the edges of the parish boundaries. Most importantly, our visits give me an opportunity to see the places where our orphans actually live and meet members of their extended family. We are welcomed with joy into these homesteads, and children are eager to see ‘the Mzungu’ (the ‘white man’ who is a priest). Unfortunately, on these trips I have forgotten to bring my camera and take pictures.

 

Last week, I recorded an overnight low of 12.5°C (54°F), the coolest temperature observed since I started keeping track nearly two years ago. I know this pales in comparison to December 1983 when the temperature in North Dakota hovered around -40°C (-40°F) for nearly two weeks. In this frigid weather I traveled home from college, a trip of 600 miles. But, here in Kenya, 12.5°C is a cold temperature; many people say, “Kuna baridi sana” (There is much cold). In the month of June, I have recorded 9.85” of rain.

 

 

 

Bird of Paradise blooming in the backyard.

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Notes from Africa

June 8, 2020

Notes from Africa

 

Several times over the past two weeks I have sat down to write and post on my blog, but I have found myself uninspired or, one might say, a case of writer’s block. It does happen. I decided to write about items that are evident to me and share them.

 

First of all, we continue to serve the orphans on a limited basis on Mission Saturdays—we have one member of each family come for their stipend and allotment of maize on which their families depend. Although we see a smaller percentage of the total number of orphans, they are being served. Our census stands at 442—290 at Gekano, 99 at Ichuni, and 53 at Manga.

 

During these past weeks we have been able to hand out applications for a house or a heifer. We have had 30 heifer applications returned and 22 housing applications. Now, the process begins of visiting these families and determine who will receive a house or heifer. We will be able to build five houses, and we will have up to five heifers to be given. Going out into the surrounding villages means one has to travel the rough roads so often pitted with potholes and ruts, but it gives us the opportunity to see where and how our orphans live and meet them ‘on their own turf.’

 

On Saturday June 6th, President Kenyatta addressed the nation on the corona virus. Because of the uptick in the number of cases, the restrictions have been extended for another thirty days. Many, many people had anticipated changes. It is hoped that some schools will resume in September. A committee of government and health officials are working on protocols for houses of worship to reopen. With a jobless rate of at least 50%, the restrictions are devasting for many who live in cities, but the government needs to work to contain the virus. Certainly, there are no easy answers.

 

I have had ‘free time’ these past weeks. With assistance from others, the offices were deep cleaned and painted. And, I have spent the evenings reading—some of the books include The First World War by Martin Gilbert, Invasion Diary by Richard Tregaskis, and Enola Gay by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts. (A friend and I had planned on visiting World War One battlefields and monuments later this year.)

 

On May 30th, my classmates (Msgr. James Braaten, Fr. Phillip Brown, and Fr. Dennis Schafer) and I celebrated our ordination to the priesthood, a celebration that took place at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck, North Dakota in 1989. On June 4th, I began my fourth year of serving our African Mission in Kenya. Little did I imagine that thirty-one years after my ordination that I would be serving as a missionary in Africa—I wanted to be a teacher at the post-secondary level at a small college!

Notes from Africa

May 19, 2020

Notes from Africa

 

Over the weekend, President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed the nation regarding the status of the corona virus in Kenya. He stated that the restrictions placed on the country will continue until June 6th. The capital city of Nairobi and the area around Mombasa remain locked down. Also, the borders with Tanzania and Somalia have been closed. As one person told me, “This is not what Kenyans were expecting to hear.”

 

Working within the restrictions in the country and following the protocols of wearing face masks, social distancing, etc. we have been holding Mission Saturdays in a modified form. One member of each family comes to receive their monthly stipend and allotment of maize. While not ideal, we go forward one step at a time trusting in the goodness of God, “who hears the cry of the poor.” Orphans and/or their guardians continue to express their gratitude.

 

Over the past year, the Mission has been reflecting on the health care of orphans and has been putting together a plan of action to address basic needs. Part of the plan of action has been to purchase a hematology analyzer for St. Elizabeth’s Clinic which is part of the parish at Gekano. A hematology analyzer is a medical device that gives a complete blood count measuring several components and features of blood, including: red blood cells, white blood cells, hemoglobin, and platelets. This blood test is used to evaluate overall health and detect a wide range of disorders such as anemia, infection, and leukemia. Last Saturday, to the delight of Sr. Stella, the nurse/director of the clinic, and the staff, the analyzer was a delivered. A technician came to set up the device, and train the staff in its use and maintenance. Sr. Stella said to me, “Thank you and the people of Bismarck.”

 

The purchase of the analyzer is a win-win situation for the orphans and the clinic. It allows a simple blood test to be done on site, thereby people do not have to spend a day traveling to Kisii town or Nyamira town for a simple blood test. Orphans will benefit directly from the use of the medical device, and the clinic will be able to serve the local population in addressing basic health care needs.

 

Because of the pandemic other aspects of the health care plan of action have been placed on hold—some of these include health care screenings and classes on healthy living, namely, nutrition and hygiene. These classes will be taught by students in our post-secondary education program who are pursuing degrees in medicine and education.

 

The Mission is fortunate to have the support of the people of the Diocese of Bismarck who have been generous in their funding of the Mission and its various programs. We stand with our brothers and sisters in Kenya…

 

Notes from Africa

May 5, 2020

 

These days of the pandemic find me with a noticeable daily routine. I rise at 5:00am for morning prayers and preparation for Mass, which is celebrated at 7:00am with the six sisters next door. Breakfast follows, and then work for the day.

 

I have been typing the psalms and canticles of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours into Kiswahili. Since I am not writing homilies in that language, it gives me practice. Also, a practical aspect—I will be able to use the psalms and canticles in my daily prayer and not have to flip through the Bible to find the appropriate passage. This morning I finished the typing. The onerous task of proofreading has commenced.

 

Part of the daily routine has been cleaning the Mission House or working in the flower garden—each day I set about the cleaning of a particular room. All that I have left to do is scrub the shower and wash the windows. As anyone who has cleaned houses knows, dust and dirt return, and as any gardener or farmer knows, weeds are tenacious.

 

Work with the orphans has been curtailed. On Saturdays, we hold a modified Mission Saturday whereby one member of a family comes to receive maize and the stipend. This minimal contact has been a blessing for the orphans and their guardians; they rely on these modest subsidies. We have been able to do follow up with families who have a heifer as well as the four families who are in the final stages of construction a house sponsored by the Mission.

 

Each aftern,oon I go for a walk to pray the rosary. The school compound is spacious, but I am starting to make a path where I have trod… Once the rosary is finished, I sit down and read news from around the world before getting ready for supper.

 

In the evening, I find myself reading—the last month I have read Walter Lord’s book on the Alamo, ‘A Time to Stand,’ Stephan Talty’s, ‘Saving Bravo,’ the dramatic rescue of a navigator in Vietnam, and Richard Bassett’s, and ‘Hilter’s Spy Chief The Story of Wilhelm Canaris.

 

Twenty-three counties in Kenya have reported serious flooding with over 100,000 people displaced because of swollen rivers and raging rapids that have formed. The hardest areas are to the north and northwest of Kisii. At noon today, the death toll was 164. The weather forecast continues to call for average to above rainfall for the next week, and warnings are being broadcast for people to move to higher ground.

 

Also, locusts, a second wave, continue to wreak havoc in many of the northern and eastern counties of Kenya and some of the neighboring countries (especially, Ethiopia and Somalia) and countries on the Arabian Peninsula. These waves of locusts are being called “an unmitigated disaster.” Poverty and hunger are likely to rise as a result.

 

 

 

Notes from Africa

April 22, 2020

 

On this Wednesday afternoon in the middle of April (in the second week of the Easter season), here in Kenya ‘the long rains’ are falling, that is, it is the rainy season. For the past week, the skies have been overcast most of the time. Since the beginning of March, I have recorded twenty-eight inches of rain at the Mission House. Rains of the past week have created problems—around Kericho there have been landslides, killing some people, and the Kisumu area has experienced heavy flooding. The weather forecast is for above average rainfall for the next week.

 

Locust, which invaded northern and northeastern Kenya earlier this year, laid eggs that are now hatching new swarms. The central, northern, and northwestern areas of Kenya are expected to be hit hard with these swarms who devour everything green in their path. Other countries in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have also been afflicted by these ‘desert locusts,’ as they are been called. I have not read any predictions about locusts in the Kisii Highlands and surrounding areas, but people have been instructed to be on the lookout for these devastating critters. Restrictions on international travel for personnel and obtaining insecticides to combat the locusts add to the burden of these days.

 

As elsewhere in the world, Kenya has been stricken with the corona virus (COVID-19). The country has recorded 296 confirmed cases with fourteen deaths. Measures taken to address this outbreak include the closing down of the area around Nairobi (no one may enter or leave the city) and three counties surrounding Mombasa have been locked down. Face masks are mandatory when in public—if without a mask and arrested, one may face a fine up to KSH 20,000 (USD $200) and six months in jail. A curfew has been established and aggressively enforced from 7:00pm to 5:00am. Social distancing and hand-washing instructions proliferate. The number of people in any one vehicle is limited. Along roads, police check points have been erected; at these stops, medical personnel take the temperature of people in every vehicle. If one has a fever, one is taken to a quarantine center where one must pay for one’s room and board. (The first time I encountered a temperature check point, I said to myself, “I am glad the era of rectal thermometers is over.”)

 

Life has been disrupted. A major concern in all that is happening is the issue of hunger. One official said there will be ‘a pandemic of hunger,’ with others speaking of famine in parts of Africa, and food insecurity and hunger will be the fate of millions. Indeed, these are somber times.

Notes from Africa

Notes from Africa

April 6, 2020

 

“These are days of idleness, isolation, and introspection.” These were the first words of my homily this morning as I gathered with six sisters to celebrate the Eucharist. First, this small daily gathering is seen as a privilege when most Catholics in the world are not able to receive Holy Communion, as many do who participate regularly in the daily and Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. Second, as we come to celebrate, I have been amazed by the prayers of intercession that have been offered—when I can remember the prayers for a couple of days, they must be powerful. Yesterday, one the sisters prayed that the characteristics of Judas—talking and acting before thinking—be taken out of our lives. Another sister started her prayer with gratitude—“we are alive today.” Indeed, part of African spirituality is the awareness that life itself is a miracle and a sign of the presence of God. Another prayer was “that God who knows the depths of each heart, grant us mercy, wisdom, and strength in these days. And, of course, prayers are offered for the sick, our families, government leaders, the hungry, the now unemployed, medical workers…

 

To be sure, the pace of life has been altered greatly for me, but I have found little idleness as I have been preparing for daily Mass and the services of Holy Week. It takes longer when everything is reviewed in English and Kiswahili. Also, each day, I assign myself a project—reviewing the Mass in Kiswahili and Ekegusii and studying these languages. Along with my colleagues, we are going through each of our programs and the services we offer at the Mission to review them and make sure our records are updated. I began a self-study of the Book of James in the New Testament—I have wanted to do this for many years, and now have the time. At one of our Fall Clergy Conferences, Fr. Joseph Ponessa, the presenter who holds a doctorate in Sacred Scripture, mentioned that this book could possibly be considered as a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount as found in the Gospel according to Matthew.

 

There are daily chores of washing clothes and cleaning the house. There is time each day for a nice nap after lunch.

 

When I was studying at St. Mary’s College in Winona, Minnesota, one day, before the beginning of a class in philosophy, the students were having an informal question and answer session with the professor, Fr. Andrew C. Fabian, O.P. Someone asked him, “Father, do you ever get lonely?” With a smirk on his face, he answered, “Why would I get lonely when I have for friends the three most powerful people in the universe, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” This quip has stayed with me all these 35 plus years since I heard it uttered, and I reflect on these words that express a profound truth. Certainly, in the midst of all that is happening, there is unease and a sense of being isolated—especially since the international borders of Kenya have been closed and there are no internal flights leaving the country.  I do have regular contact with family and friends via phone calls—this is consoling. There are the sisters next door and my colleagues, Rogers and Sr. Theresa. But, the truth of the quip causes more introspection—how close am I to my friends, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit?

 

Every night as the Church prays, Compline (that is, Night Prayer), there are the words of Psalm 31, “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.” These words have such depth of meaning that they were uttered from the lips of Jesus as he died on the cross.

Notes from Africa

Friday March 27, 2020

 

On Wednesday, the decision was made to suspend the operations of the Bismarck Mission during these days of the corona virus pandemic. As of this writing, there has been one death and thirty-one cases diagnosed in Kenya. As a whole, the government has prohibited gatherings of people, has banned entry into the country of anyone who has been in a country where the virus is present, has encouraged social distancing and proper hygiene—that is, encouraged people to stay at home and not travel (this is a particular challenge because of population density and cultural customs), has closed major outdoor markets, and has implemented a 7:00pm to 5:00am curfew, has closed all schools, and has ceased all international flights out of the country. Also, there are no public Masses being celebrated.

 

It is a different world. Indeed, all are susceptible to the virus, but the poor, the elderly, and the sick are most vulnerable. It is estimated by the World Health Organization that 40% of Kenyans live hand to mouth, are subsistence farmers or workers. A loss of one’s days wages mean there is food insecurity or worse, hunger. There are major concerns regarding the health care system in Kenya, and its ability to care for those afflicted as well as adequate protection for those ‘on the front lines.’ The country and neighboring countries have experience in diagnosing such deadly diseases as Ebola, which has appeared in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the past year.

 

After consulting with others, the decision was made to suspend operations of the Mission and place the notice on the door of our office. It was with a heavy heart that I acted, ever mindful that almost all of our orphans rely on the monthly allotment of maize and the small monetary stipend for their livelihood and well-being.

 

I remain at the Mission House on the compound of Gekano Girls, St. Theresa’s, a compound that is basically isolated within the neighborhood. There are six sisters of the Congregation of the Blessed Virgin Mary who live in the convent next door. I am fortunate to be able to celebrate Mass with them each morning and share the morning and noon meals with them. There is work of the Mission that continues, but not in the public sphere, work such as planning for the future and reviewing services and programs. Obviously, there is time for prayer and meditation during the course of these days.

 

On a personal note, I am recovering from my second bout of amoebic dysentery in the last two months, each bout sapping my energy, putting me flat on my back for several days and taking away the appetite, and needless to say, having to the severe physical discomfort. Staff at the clinic have told me that is common for this to reoccur a couple of times until the amoeba are ‘knocked out.’ Lab tests have revealed the exact type of amoeba, and I have started an aggressive round of treatment ‘to knock it out.’ I am grateful for the staff at the clinic who know what to look for and have the resources to treat such a scourge as dysentery.

Notes from Africa

March 18, 2020

 

Last weekend it was announced that the first cases of the corono virus made their appearance in Kenya. To date, four people have been diagnosed. On Sunday evening, the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, accompanied by many members of the cabinet, made a speech to the nation. In this speech, he announced measures being taken by the government and health officials in response to the presence of the virus in this country.

 

First of all, President Kenyatta recognized this is an unprecedented issue in our times, and all people will need to make adjustments in their life. The government has prohibited any one from entering Kenya that has come from a nation that has a case of the corona virus, except residents and foreign nationals who will have to be quarantined for two weeks. This means that tourism, one of the economic pillars of the country, will come to a halt affecting the livelihood of many, many people. All schools across the country, on the primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels, are being closed. Large gatherings of people have been prohibited, eventually, this will influence the way people purchase food since local markets are normal gathering places for the purchase of food and trading of merchandise. Since most Kenyans live day to day regarding the acquisition of food, the issue of hunger looms. As elsewhere throughout the world, instructions on hygiene have been given.

 

In the life of the church, the local bishop has prohibited the sign of peace during Mass, has asked that hand washing stations be placed at the entrances of churches, and has instructed that Communion being given in the hand. The pastoral life of the church continues—the bishop has been insistent that the church cannot abandon people during this time of need.

 

In my homily at Mass on this Wednesday of the third week of Lent, I reflected on the Way of the Cross and the fourth sorrowful mystery of the rosary, Jesus carries his cross. Why did Jesus carry the cross? He did so out of obedience to the Father—he loved his God and faithfully carried out the will of the Father. He carried the cross “for us and for our salvation.” “Because by your holy cross, O Lord, you have redeemed the world.”

 

In this world of today, we have the cross of the corona virus—an unwelcome cross, a cross with heavy burdens, a cross that is full of inconveniences as the ways of daily life are interrupted severely. How will be carry the cross? Will it be out of love for God? Will we unite our cross to the very cross of Jesus—for our salvation and the salvation of the world? We beseech God for strength and perseverance. We look to the Beloved Son and seek to imitate his example of what it means to bear the cross. We do not despair. We do not panic or live in fear. We have the providence of God that creates and re-creates, the ultimate re-creation being life without end. Oh, behold the mercy and grace of God.

 

 

Rainbow of March 4, 2019

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Notes from Africa

March 9, 2020

Wednesday March 4th was the deadline for returning post-secondary applications to the Mission Office. Each year, for those who finished their secondary education, the Bismarck Mission awards a limited number of scholarships for those desiring to further their education. Twenty-one students returned an application, eleven of them on the last day. There is nothing like a hard and fast deadline to prompt action among students.

At the end of secondary school, all students take what is called the KCSE, a national exam. One enters an institution of learning according to the score one received on the KCSE. One may qualify for admission to a Polytechnic where one studies a technical trade such as dress and garment design or welding, or one may pursue a certificate or diploma course of studies, roughly equivalent to a two-year degree at a university in the United States, or one may pursue a four-year course of study leading to a bachelor’s degree.

In reviewing the twenty-one applications, the diversity of interests of the students struck me—some desire to learn how to drive, take a course in plumbing or fashion design. Others desire to pursue a path of studies in education or nursing, and still others desire to pursue coursework in finance and business. Duration of studies vary as well, from two months to five years. Given the diversity, there were two themes that were found in all the applications: first of all, gratitude for everything the Bismarck Mission has done for the individual from the paying of school fees, a monthly allotment of maize and a stipend, lessons about honesty and punctuality, and the encouragement to persevere in studies. The second common theme is that of poverty, and the despair that so often comes with it. Besides poverty, those enrolled in our Education Program have also suffered the loss of their parents. The Bismarck Mission has been a beacon of hope in the lives of orphans and their extended families, giving them an opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty and have hope for tomorrow. For these orphans and their families, they discover that someone cares for them, an entity with the name of Bismarck. The wisdom of the elderly—work hard, persevere, be honest, maintain faith in God—is also a frequent theme.

Over the next week, all of the applications will be reviewed for thoroughness and to ensure that all of the application requirements are met, one of them being, that all borrowed text books must be returned. Behavior of the applicant is also considered—for example, did he/she attend Bismarck Mission, wear school uniform, bring report cards in a timely manner, etc. After this reviewal, the applications will be sent to the Director of the Bismarck Mission so that he and a committee of people who have served in the Mission may make their recommendations and select those who will receive scholarships.

It is a joy and a privilege to administer this aspect of the Bismarck Mission. I find myself fortunate and grateful.

Notes from Africa

Sunday March 1, 2020

 

When I hear the word locusts, my mind is drawn to biblical accounts of plagues, especially in the Book of Exodus, “For if you refuse to let my people go, tomorrow, I will bring locusts into your territory. They will cover the surface of the earth, so that the earth itself will not be visible. They will eat up the remnant you saved undamaged from the hail, as well as all the trees that are growing in your fields” (Ex. 10: 4-5). Indeed, these are terrifying words.

 

In the past couple of months, locusts have invaded the Horn of Africa with devastating effects in the countries of Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, Eritrea, South Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania. Seventeen counties in Kenya, mostly in the east and north, have reported swarms of locusts. Several Persian Gulf countries have also been afflicted. The swarm—the horde—seems to have originated in Yemen because of unseasonal weather that has made the land a fertile breeding ground.

 

Most of these countries suffer from constant food insecurity; in the past couple of years, there has been drought and, more recently, heavy rains and severe flooding. Also, in several countries, political instability has been constant. In these unstable countries, the locusts cannot be sprayed with pesticides because of the danger to crews in planes and those working on the ground. Kenya has run out of pesticide. Other countries have struggled because of lack of resources and inadequate infrastructure to meet such a challenge.

 

A locust can travel up to 150 kilometers per day. A one square kilometer swarm of locust will consume the amount of food that will feed 35,000 people for one day. From what has been reported and what I have been told, once a swarm comes, there is nothing green left. The biblical writer expresses it well, “Nothing green was left on any tree or plant in the fields throughout Egypt” (Ex. 10:15). Since the majority of people in the area are subsistence farmers, such an event is catastrophic, resulting in hunger, and even, famine, and many people will be cast into the downward spiral of poverty.

 

In the Kisii Highlands, people have planted their crops, and there has been an abundance of rain the past couple of months, and the crops are rapidly growing. Kisii and Nyamira counties are lush green with varying shades of the color. The area is on a high alert for locusts, the nearest ones have been reported around Kisumu, 100 kilometers away.

 

People who are already vulnerable are facing the challenges of no crop, higher prices for food, and the question of how they will feed their families. At the Mission, we have purchased maize for the next several months to hedge against the expected spike in commodity prices. And, we wait with people, imploring divine assistance. The international county has provided aid, but a significant challenge is posed by the diverse governments with which they must work.