Blog from Africa is helping us follow the journey of a soul
BY TONI CASHNELLI
Br. Tim Lamb, OFM, is far from home, but as close as your computer.
Thanks to Skype, we can see him 8,000 miles away in Africa. And thanks to Tim’s online blog, we know he has dined on locusts, driven on the left side of the road and spotted his first zebra in the wild.
But all the technology in the world cannot ease the transition to a culture, a landscape and a language that are as foreign to most Americans as the surface of the moon. For that, you need a curious nature and an open mind. Tim, a missionary with the Province of St. Francis in East Africa for the past nine months, is blessed with both.
"I’ve always thought I was a real adaptable person," he said last week in a conversation via Skype. "But this experience has made me more aware of what’s going on inside me." As with any missionary, the major part of his journey is self-discovery. Tim’s blog, Omnes Donum Est ("All Is Gift"), puts us right in the middle of it.
He records much of what he experiences, from interior monologues to a visit to a primitive prison, from descriptions of farm life to the challenges of bureaucracy. Keeping a blog was "a way of processing it for myself," he says. "If people are getting something out of it, that’s good. But that’s not my motivation."
Tim’s trek to Africa began last fall in Brussels with an immersion course, the Interfranciscan Missionary Program. From Belgium Tim moved briefly to Nairobi, Kenya, then on to the novitiate, a working farm in Kakoba, Uganda, for what he believed was his permanent assignment. "I thought I would be working with refugees," people scarred by tribal warfare, rebellions, genocide and consignment to camps.
Instead he was training counselors, teaching Bachelor students at St. Francis Counsellor Institute. "Life here is simple and centered around prayer," he wrote in a January blog post. In a region of extreme poverty and subsistence farming, "The beauty of the land and the beauty of the relationship of people to the land appealed to me," he says now.
Transferred to Kenya in August he wrote, "I have arrived in Nairobi to very cold weather," daytime temperatures in the 60s. As Master of Students at a friary of 25 men in Lang’ata, Tim is doing much the same job he did at St. Joseph’s in Chicago – shepherding temporary professed friars. "There are lots of similarities," he says. Here, "The guys I’m working with are in theology." He’s also Secretary of Formation and House Bursar responsible for managing bills and the bank account. "The toughest part is figuring out when things need to be paid and having the money to do it."
OFMs, Capuchins and Conventuals live together under one roof. "That’s pretty phenomenal in terms of the world" and a model for future collaboration. "Vocations are good in Africa; ours are great. We’re getting really good numbers." But space and funding are problems. "We’re struggling right now" to make room for young and prospective friars. "We have to do what’s right for formation – feed and house people and pay for tuition," $3,000 per man for education and living expenses. "But it’s getting harder and harder," so fund-raising may be essential. To avoid cutting corners, there is talk of a partial moratorium on admissions.
Why is Franciscan life attracting so many? "People join the Order because they’ve met a friar who has particularly affected their life," Tim says. "Others say the habit attracted them." In some cases, religious life offers "a sense of hope; there is some way to explain the craziness many have experienced" in armed conflicts or in refugee camps.
Last month Tim blogged about adjusting his attitudes. "Forming young friars is sometimes like pushing a pig," he wrote. "Futile at times but I must say always rewarding." In trying to move people in a certain direction, he explains, you’re sometimes talking to the wrong end. "The right end is face-to-face." Dealing with young friars, "It’s not about them having to do something. It’s about how I approach the task."
For Tim, patience is a vital virtue. "There’s ‘time’ and there’s ‘Africa time’. It takes much longer to do things here," like getting a driver’s license. (Go downtown, wait in line to find a driving school, sign up for a course, take the course….and so on.) Fortunately, "Driving on the left wasn’t that hard for me." On his blog Tim called traffic in Uganda "the worst I have ever experienced," partly because of boda bodas, motorcycles for hire that zip around cars and onto sidewalks with no warning.
But posts about loss or frustration are rare. "The truth about transition?" he says in our Skype conversation. "One has to let go of something you had, to grasp onto something. The stress comes when I know I’m letting go of something and I’m not quite sure what I’m grasping onto here. I just have to open my mind a little bit" and "let go of my Western thought that ‘this is the way it should be done.’’’
One example is "letting go of favorite TV shows and grabbing onto something to avoid a vacuum." Instead of tuning in weekly to watch his favorite Mystery! episodes on PBS, "I found them on YouTube, and on Sundays I tune into one on YouTube" through his computer.
One of the biggest changes in Tim is that there is less of him. "I’ve lost maybe 40 pounds eating beans and rice," he says. But, praise God, "We do have peanut butter, my favorite food." His progress in learning Swahili, the language of East and Southeast Africa, is coming along "slowly, slowly," although the extent of acculturation is revealed in the pronoun Tim uses most often. It’s "we" instead of "they."
As a foreigner, he is keenly aware of others’ perceptions. "In relationships with people, I have to be aware of how I’m coming across," he says. "Sometimes Americans come across as ‘rough’, maybe a little too forward." In conversation it seems "I’m responsible for anything the U.S. has done in the last 10 years." One friar "blamed me for lowering the price of oil. He said, ‘You did this.’ I said, ‘No, the government of the United States did that.’"
In the eyes of many, "Americans in general are made of money. If I were to walk into a market I would probably pay 20% more than someone who is Kenyan. Because of the color of your skin, you are charged more sometimes," an object lesson in prejudice.
Culture shock is a reality of life in a foreign country. Fortunately one thing is universal, and that is worship. "Music is very important to the African celebration of the liturgy," Tim says. "Chant is very important. We never pray without drums being played. I think it’s great; I enjoy it." It’s proof that wherever you live and minister, "Faith transcends culture and language and boundaries."
As we sign off from our Skype connection he says, "It’s great to see you. Say hi to everyone for me."
And we promise to do just that.