Franciscan

Friars visit Africa

8 days in Africa Immersed in a missionary’s world

BY FR. JEFF SCHEELER, OFM

If you looked at the pedometer app on my cell phone, you would think that I walked about 50+ miles during our eight-day visit to Br. Tim Lamb in Nairobi, Kenya. We did walk, but instead of counting steps, my pedometer literally counted the bumps in the road, of which there were many! Provincial Councilor and Mission Director Br. Vince Delorenzo and I visited Tim Nov. 13-23. Tim lives at St. Anthony Friary and serves as Secretary of Formation and Master of the House of Theology for the Province of St. Francis in Africa, Madagascar and Mauritius. If that sounds like a big job, it is! Tim is doing well, and his ministry is much appreciated.

It is pretty spartan living: The 24 friars in the community share two cars; we ate little meat; the electricity went off for several hours about five times during out eight-day visit; we washed clothes by hand with homemade soap and let Brother Sun dry them. There weren’t many mosquitoes, but the net over the bed was helpful for the pesky few that were around. I had to brush my teeth and shave a few times by the light of my phone! We ate fun things like ugali (a white corn mix that is often used like bread to eat other foods), matoke (bananas in a light tomato sauce), a millet porridge for breakfast (kind of like a dark cream of wheat), scrambled or hard-boiled eggs in a tomato sauce, and lots of rice and beans with greens grown in the garden – all of which were quite tasty. Tim has lost 40 pounds, not from lack of food, but from a different style of eating.

Liturgies in the house were quite lovely. The student friars used drums and sang beautiful songs in English, Kiswahili, French, and Portuguese with incredible harmonies. There are two common meditation periods each day along with Mass, morning prayer, evening prayer, and night prayer.

Students crowded

Tim accompanies 20 philosophy and theology students. Usually the students study philosophy at an inter-obediential school (Capuchins, Conventuals and Friars Minor) in Lusaka, Zambia, but they are so crowded that five students were sent to study philosophy at an Apostles of Jesus school in Nairobi (the Apostles of Jesus were founded in the 1960s in Uganda).

Fifteen of the brothers study theology at Tangaza College. This is the school where our brother Fr. Andre McGrath served as Principal (President) many years ago. Tangaza, similar to our Catholic Theological Union (CTU), is sponsored by 22 men’s religious communities. We visited the Apostles of Jesus school and met with the current Principal of Tangaza, an American Carmelite who happened to be a friend of an old friend of mine whom I met maybe 30 years ago. Talk about a small world! The friars also remember Fr. Max Langenderfer, Fr. Joe Hund, and Br. Giovanni Reid.

On the grounds of the friary there are also two hostels housing 62 female students studying at nearby schools. Schools often do not have dorms, so students need a place to stay and this provides some income for the community. Funding is one of the major concerns that Tim and the Province face.

Out in ‘the bush’

Tim took us to the Provincial House and we met with Provincial Carmelo Gianonne. Carmelo gave us a tour of the house and an overview of the Province. We were disappointed that the monkeys which sometimes come to visit the veranda chose not to come while we were there, but Italian-born Carmelo did provide us with some wonderful spaghetti and meatballs! Carmelo and Tim both told us that since they have so many students in formation and so little money and space, they are considering placing a moratorium or severe limits on inviting more students into initial formation. I can’t recall the exact numbers, but the number of students in formation is about the same as the number of friars in the province.

One of the great treats of the experience was a three-and-a-half hour trip to a region called Subukia, where the friars serve. Subukia is really in "the bush." After we left the main road, we traveled about 15 miles on a dirt road to reach the area. Traveling in a packed 14-passenger van along the famous Rift Valley, we saw zebras, donkeys, sheep, and cattle. We passed coffee and tea plantations. Because of the winding road, we crossed the equator twice along the way!

The mission and friary are lovely. In a friary that used to serve as a postulancy, Fr. Miro and Br. Florentius have created a beautifully landscaped and prayerful oasis. The friars have 16 outstations (branches), 10 of which are in pretty good shape. It was a happy coincidence for us that a new church was being dedicated during our visit. Because its construction was largely funded by the General Secretariat for the Missions in Waterford, Wis. (near the novitiate in Burlington), Fr. Teofil Czarniak, Executive Director, and Ms. Tyler Curtis, Operations Manager, were also present for the celebrations. We had some nice evening gatherings and conversations with them. Mass, with lots of exuberant singing, dancing, and words of appreciation, lasted three-and-half hours. Many of the kids were curious and stared at the white folks, whom they call mzungu.

Wild kingdom

You can’t go to Africa without going on safari, so we also visited a Giraffe Centre where we were able to get up close and personal with the animals. They ate from our hands and allowed us to hug them. On the last day we visited the Nairobi National Park, not far from the friary. We hired a driver to drive us through the park where we saw more giraffe, water buffalo, antelope, baboon, ostrich, and other flora and fauna. Someone said there were lions in the distance, but I could not see them. The mud was thick and deep; our first car broke down; the second car tried to pull out other stuck cars and almost got stuck itself! We visited an animal orphanage within the park and did get to feed the lions, and scratch the neck of a cheetah. Our guide put peanuts on our heads and the monkeys came and ate them.

It was a great experience. We felt most welcomed and heard the phrase expressing that "karibu!" very often. We are most grateful to Tim, the Province, the students for their kindness, welcome and hospitality. We say "asante sana" (thank you very much) for the experience. In appreciation we told the students that our Mission Office would be sending about $2,000 so that Tim could purchase more bikes for the students to get to school.

More photos on Flickr

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