Tag Archives: Africa

READING CHAIR – Autobiographical: The Last Good Bye!

THE LAST GOOD-BYE

My Mom insisted that she drive me to the airport…alone.  It was difficult for me saying “Good-By” each time I had to return to Africa.  How do I know that this was my last time that I would see my Mom alive?  I am sure it was difficult for her too, but she did have ten other children!  In the lineup of siblings, I was the fourth oldest, second oldest son.  We did have a close relationship over the years.  I was her chosen son to be a priest, and all that went with it in dealing with my other siblings on such an unsolicited bestowal. She never did consult me, since it was just taken for granted at my birth.  Besides, Mom had six other sons who would eventually marry and produce over thirty grandchildren!

She had a little bright red Toyota that never failed her and got great gas mileage.  She always let me use it when I came home, even for long distance trips, which were few.  I tried to spend as much time with her as I could, since I got a home visit only once every two years, sometimes three!  I never realized how much it would cost me in the long run.  Not only did my young nephews and nieces grow up by inches and feet between each visit, and crossing from Grade School to High School to College to Marriage while I wasn’t there, my parents also went from Elderly to Old to Death.

They both died when I was in Africa, and I had decided before hand whether or not to come home for the funeral.  The reason was not just because it cost so much, but I knew that they both had lived a wonderful and full life, that in the end, I realized that funerals were really for the living.  And when Dad died, he decided to be cremated and my sister saved his ashes in her living room until I came home again.  At least the family had another celebration of his life as we interred his ashes in the National Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio, since he was a WWII veteran in the Pacific Theater.  That had worked out better than I had though.

As I looked at my Mom that day outside the airport, with so many memories flooding my mind, I knew that unless a left now, I would be bawling like a baby and maybe miss my plane.  I knew she was in good hands, since my brothers and sisters would take good care of her, like they did both of them when Dad was still alive.  Seeing my Mom now, so fragile and still able to drive not only amazed me, but also made me realize how much she clung on to life until my next hone visit.

On the plane trip back to Africa, I found myself reflecting on why I had decided to be a missionary in a foreign land so far away in the first place.  I recall that it all really started in the novitiate, when the thought of being a missionary seemed like a great way to serve the Lord.  Like all great thoughts and ideas, the reality is far different.  I thought I would be saving pagan babies, and at the height of my fame I would be baptizing villages of Africans.  The reality was that I would be living with young Catholic men teaching them the fundamentals of religious life and starting over with a new group year after year, for sixteen years.  These young men came from a Catholic Church that began over a century before I arrived!  And I realized that some of the other brothers were here in Africa for thirty or forty years!

What I didn’t realize was that I would also be teaching them the basic fundamentals of community life; like how to use western toilets, since they were only familiar with up-country squatters.  We had to teach them to turn off the light switches when they left the rooms, to turn off the water faucets when finished, how to do laundry, cook, English, and the list was endless.  For example, on my way to the classroom one day, where I taught several classes each day, I heard the shower running.  After many years in Africa, one questions everything and anything.  “I’m counting heads, and everyone is here.  Who is using the shower?” I asked.

“No, one,” they all answered.

“If no one is using the shower, why is the shower running,” I had to be very basic here.

“The shower is broken,” one novice said.

“If the shower is broken, why did no one reported it?” I asked.  I knew where this question and answer routine is going, since saving face in Africa is more important than saving one’s life.  No one admitted that they broke something!  They would always say, “It broke.”  And I always asked, “So, it broke itself?” until I learned the pattern by rote.  So I skipped the questions and ran to the shower to stop the flow of water which would eventually drain our water tanks and then there would be no water and they would just go about life as though there never was water available, just like in the village at their homes.  I often wondered what they would do if they ran out of toilet paper?  And that is why one would find newspaper in the commode, and maybe a dirty sock.  (Don’t ask about the sock, and don’t touch it?  I won’t tell you what happens with very large crowds!)

Anyway, the faucet, which they call taps in Zambia, had been completely unscrewed out of the wall!  So I simply screwed it back in.  So simple, yet it can be so baffling to someone whom never encountered a faucet tap in their life…I keep telling myself.

It would be so easy to just get on a plane and head back home to a normal life of technical familiarity and sanity.  And yet I stay, year after year, because I love it here working with these young men.  That is the simple truth!  I love it so much working with young brothers interested in living religious life that I am always surprised that someone would want to join us.

In African culture, to be a religious is a very big step that any young adult could make, male or female.  Despite all the positive excitement of living the life in the early years, it does eventually wear off, especially when things get difficult, or when life gets especially better, like when has a degree.  A whole new life opens before him which wasn’t available until he joined religious life!  How easy it is for him or her to just leave and get married; and they do…about 90%.  Or sometimes their mother wants her name to live on forever in a child and offers a woman to her son (who is a religious brother or priest, which doesn’t seem to matter to the mother) to produce a child for her.  “It’s OK,” she says, “I’ll raise it myself.”

I have to now seriously ask myself why I stay.  The reason I joined may not even hold anymore.  But basically, I love religious life for what it has done for me and for what it is doing for me now.  What religious life has done for me is to strengthen my relationship with the Lord first through a strong and supportive prayer life and community life.  At least for me, I can’t have one without the other, both prayer and community.  And I have realized over the years that a brother who is going to leave religious life usually leaves their prayer life first, then community.  One of the brothers that I worked with always states, “Unless you love Jesus, then you will not persevere in religious life.  In fact, you don’t belong in religious life!”  It always seemed harsh, but he has been proven true over the years, at least for our African brothers.

I joined religious life to do just that, to strengthen my life and my journey with the Lord.  That is what religious life is doing for me now.  If that ever fails, then religious life has failed me.  That is why it is better for the brother to leave if he feels unable to support other through his active participation in prayer and community life.  And that is why Africa has always been and will always be a blessing for me.  Not because of the young men who have left over the years, but because of the older brothers who have stayed and shared their religious life with me in prayer and community over the years.  For this I have been blessed and for this it was worth leaving my Mom on the curb of the airport saying our last Good Bye!

READING CHAIR – Missionary: 1. “Snakes and Spiders”, Zambia

Snakes and Spiders, Zambia

My time spent in Africa was an encounter with several types of snakes, mostly poisonous.  In Kenya, snakes were rare where we lived in Limuru, because of the altitude, seven thousand two hundred feet.  I was happy with that because they were not so rare in Nairobi at five thousand five hundred feet altitude.  We would encounter snakes at the game park every once in a while when we visited.

cobra of Kenya
Cobra of Kenya

When I was stationed in Lusaka, Zambia, that is where my encounter with snakes was more frequent; at least once a month or more, and half were poisonous cobras!  Our neighbor had about six acres that he allowed to grow wild, and any snakes there would multiply.  Some would cross over into our property through cracks in the wall, especially during the end of the dry season when they would start to burn their grasses.  The fire would chase some of their snakes onto our property, both kinds, poisonous and non-poisonous.  Cobras were quite common, but there were also black mambas!

Black mambas were one of three of the most poisonous snakes on the planet, and they were aggressive compared to other snakes which would generally run away if a lager predator came near.  Black mambas would attack most of the time, as my one missionary friend found out after he was bitten by one that had gotten into his house!

One of the missionary priests always told the story of when he once presided at a liturgy out in the bush in Malawi.  Right in the middle of the celebration, a large rat came running into the church from the back of the building and ran up to the sanctuary and across to the exit at the side door.  Not much later a large black mamba came running in after the rat following the same route.  All of a sudden the whole congregation jumped  up on their chairs until the black mamba exited the same route the rat took.  After a few seconds the whole congregation came running out the doors chasing the snake with sticks and rocks with the intent of killing the snake if it was the last thing they would do.  And they did!  Then the liturgy continued where they had left off as if nothing had happened.

Fortunately there were no black mambas on our property, yet.  At least a cobra will give one a warning before striking by standing up as tall as it could and spread its cape.  A spitting cobra will then spit its poison into the eyes of the predator hoping to blind it, and then run.  If it is not a spitting cobra then they will either strike or run away.  Usually two or more predators would be enough to convince the cobra to run.

Once we had a visitor to our property and I was showing him around.  At one point in the tall grass I had turned and was ready to continue on until I spotted a cobra standing three feet tall blocking my way.  I had never seen any snake that big before, so I quickly stopped and considered my distance from him.  I decided to have the visitor move around behind me and alert the workers on the property, who were near by, to come and help.  I have never found an African not willing to kill a snake.  Once the alarm is sounded, it is amazing how stick and rocks appear out of no where.  As I was waiting for the visitor to sound the alarm, I backed off a little from the cobra and noticed that the snake moved closer to the round as though ready to make a run for it.  Then I moved a little closer to it again, testing its reaction, and the snake stood back up poised to strike.  I was thinking that it was better to let the snake make a run for it out the gate rather than attack me, since I was standing there alone, and a cobra is more prone to attack a single predator.  So I backed off and the snake fell to the ground and quickly disappeared.  When the workers arrived I only said that the snake fell to the ground and ran away…that way.  Off they went in hot pursuit carrying their sticks and rocks, but they were too late.

One year at the peak of the snake season, we had killed at least twelve snakes, with half of them being cobras.  Most of them got trapped in our long driveway, which leads away from our property down a long road between two eight feel tall brick walls.  The snakes come through the cracks in the walls and get trapped in the gravel drive.  “When our guys come back from teaching at the local school they easily spot the snakes and quickly dispatch them.

brown snake of Kenya
Brown Snake of Zambia

Once a brother found a snake in our oven.  He quickly closed the door and turned on the oven to kill the snake.  Fortunately our cook arrived and dispatched the snake for him.  He was a great snake killer, probably because he was afraid for his little three year old girl, and wife.  But the next time a snake got into the house, it got trapped because of the smooth tile floor.  The snake couldn’t get any traction to move, let alone to escape.  The alarm was sounded and again out of nowhere sticks appeared, some looked like our broom stick handles!  Fortunately this snake was a regular brown garden snake, but very large, six or seven feet.  They were not poisonous but they did bite!  It went into the dorm and hid under the bed.  Since we didn’t know if it was a cobra, we had to be very careful.  There were several mattresses piled up on top of one of the beds and we had to carefully look through them one at a time.  In between the last two we spotted at first what we thought was the snake, but it was its skin that it had shed some days earlier.  I kept the skin to bring home to my nephew as a gift!  Eventually we spotted the snake under the bed and the guys quickly dispatched it, making a mess of its blood all over the floor.  They proudly held up their prize, the seven foot brown garden snake.  I thought how many field mice that snake could have caught from our corn field growing outside, but I could never convince the ecological connection from snake to mice to maize.  Besides, it is too difficult to tell the difference between this snake and a real cobra.  And that sounded like a very good reason to dispatch first, ask questions later.

In Malawi, one of the brothers who lived at our community there, next to our high school, Chaminade, that we ran in Karonga, was presented with a green mamba that was killed by the guard in a tree near the building.  I guess he was expecting to be praised.  Instead, the American brother berated him for disturbing the ecology of the area by killing a prime carnivore that kept the mice population in control.  Unfortunately, the brother forgot that there were high school children on the campus that would have been exposed to the green mamba, a deadly poisonous snake that climbs trees and can hang down at face level.  Imagine an encounter with that critter in the night!

banana spider of Zambia
Banana Spider of Zambia

We have banana trees on our property, several hundred trees, and they are ideal for snakes.  The whole time I have lived there, I have never encountered any snakes in the banana trees, but I am sure they were there.  I have encountered spiders, big spiders.  These were large grey tree spiders that have a big white marking on their abdomen, the shape of the marking is hard to describe, bar shaped?  We would encounter them in the banana and avocado trees.  Their webs are of extra thick treads, almost like sewing thread, a slight yellow in color.  Fortunately they are easy to see, but at night, when checking on the water pump located under the avocado tree, one can forget they are there.  Usually we leave them alone since they eat the flies, mosquitoes, and bugs that can infect the trees.  Once in a while I have to send one of the guys to climb the trees and harvest the avocados, hoping he will take care not to get entangled in their webs.  The spiders usually are not aggressive and avoid encounters.  However once in a while I will have noticed that all the webs have been cleared out of the trees, probably by the more squeamish brothers in community, especially those who are small and have to climb the trees for me.  I don’t say anything.  I have learned to go with the African flow.

READING CHAIR – Missionary: 11. “Killer African Bees”, Kenya

One day I was walking with one of our novices on a path that led away from the house and towards the orchard.  It wasn’t a smooth path but it was quiet with no one else around on the property except for a few neighbors next to us. Usually I tried to take some time with each of the novices to chat about their time here with us and just to see how they were doing with the program.

I kept hearing the calves crying and asked the novice what he thought, were they in heat already? He though not, since they were still too young.  There were two beautiful calves that were getting quite large by now, tied up near the building in a small grove of trees.  Because I spent a lot of time outside with the animals, I was familiar enough with the cows, and they just did not sound quite right.

killer bees 3We started to head back in that direction just to check on them. Our property sits on about nine acres of land, half of it farmed and with four hundred fruit trees.  As we got nearer to the calves, it looked like one of them was crying with its tongue sticking out. Just then we noticed the bees all around the property and realized that they were attacking our calves. I quickly had the novice head to the barn where our farm manager was and to alert him of this sudden emergency.

By now everyone had noticed the bees were everywhere and that the calves were being attacked. Some were putting blankets around themselves and try to release the calves so they could head to the barn.  Our farm manager had started a smoky fire to drive away the bees, which seemed to be working if they could get the calves there.  Unfortunately, one of the calves headed toward our herd of females and brought the attacking bees to them.  Finally, our manager arrived and had to cut loose those cows as well to chase them up to the barn.

The smoke screen from the fires at the barn seemed to be working.  Our problem now was that the vet was afraid to come on our property with all the bees, and unless he quickly injected our cows, especially the calves with anti-bee venom, we could well lose them all! Eventually the manager convinced him and he quickly injected all of them in time.

Surprisingly, none of our guys got stung.  Since these bees are so easy to disturb an attack on a human could be fatal!  The whole property was filled with bees everywhere, even in the house. All we could do was just wait them out until the sun set, hoping that they would settle down when the air wold get cooler, and hoping no one would get stung in the meantime.  Fortunately for us the weather turned cool and a slight drizzle began.  Almost immediately the bees began to disappeared.

Now was the time for us to find them and dispatch them before they started again tomorrow.  I had wanted to raise domesticated bees, but that possibility was now out of the question. These African killer bees could be very dangerous, especially when they started to swarm, and this was the time they would start to find new homes.  What happened on our property today, we would eventually learn, is that not one but two rather large swarms were out looking for a place to settle their new hives.

As a hive grows in size, eventually the bees will produce a new queen and part of the hive will follow her to find a new home, hopefully somewhere far from the first.  It seemed that our property was elected. We had one unwanted hive on our property already.  They had made a home in our retreat house wall, entering from an outside hole near the chimney.  We tried every way we could to remove them but they kept coming back.

killer bees 4That night we got ready to find the swarms and destroy them.  We found the first one quickly, near the barn in a small tree. They were a large size ball of bees wrapping themselves around one of the branches. With the weather so cool, they were completely docile! All we had to do was to stretch a plastic bag around the small branch and cover them, then cut the branch from the tree to remove them.

The second swarm took us a long while to find. We searched everywhere and them almost stumbled upon them in a pine tree located near the front entrance of our building.  They were the biggest swarm I have ever seen, like a very large football, only wrapped around the tree.  I took us almost half an hour just to burn the bees off the trunk.  What a horrible waste of honey producers, I thought to myself, since I very much wanted to save them.  But domesticated bees and wild African bees are two different species, one tame and the other wild and dangerous.

With the destruction of the other hive we could rest knowing that tomorrow would be another day without a battle with the killer bees.  I also knew that any mention of starting any bee hives would have to wait until another time.

READING CHAIR – Missionary: 10. “Askari Ants”, Kenya

10. “Askari Ants”, Kenya

Everyone who lives in Africa for any length of time will eventually experience the Askari Ants, at least that is what the Kenyans call them. They are different from

askari ants
Askari Ants – Kenya

any ants one may experience elsewhere. They seem like two species of ants since the ‘Askari Ants’ or guard ants do just that, they guard the other light brown smaller type.

The Askari Ants are larger and a darker brown color, but they also have a very large head with mean looking mandibles or pincers! It is their pincers that cause the problem and pain. Anything and anyone that gets in their way or attacks the other ants, the Askari Ants will quickly attack, but in a way that is slightly different. They wait until several thousand of their members are assembled in a specific area and then they bite! Somehow they give out a signal when all are ready and then bite, that is, they pinch their victim and will never let go. One has to physically remove the head of the ant with the pincers.

There has been some recent research using this ant to suture cuts by getting them to pinch the two portions of skin together and then cutting off the rest of the body and leaving the head with the pincers in place. It seems to work, but convincing the locals to go along with the procedure will take some time yet.

My first encounter with the Askari Ants was in our garden where we grow a variety of fruits and vegetables. After cultivating an area for a while, I decided to weed a section of the garden just for a change. After a few minutes I had this horrible burning, biting sensation in my crotch and screamed out for help. Our neighbor came to my aid and pointed out that I was covered with Askari Ants, and that the only solution was to remove all my clothes and pick off the ants by hand, one by one. Naturally I ran for the nearest place that I could get undressed.
The pain was excruciating and even after the ants were removed, their bites still left a burning sensation that took a while to wear off. The Askari Ants would explain several unexpected sightings of native workers in their field suddenly getting naked! The really mystery to date would be how the ants knew to bite all at once only after several hundreds of them were in position in my crotch?

We raised rabbits on our compound in Limuru and when any of my does were ready to give birth, I would get up early and go visit her to see how many babies she gave birth. There was one such doe I was waiting for her to give birth at any time, and when I went out that morning, I saw that she had given birth to eight babies, but they were all a dark brown color. Upon closer inspection, they were not brown but covered with Askari Ants. The mother was quietly sitting near by not moving a muscle. It seems that her fur had saved her from the ants. Somehow the ants had crawled up the long legs of her hutch and into her cage, literally covering her babies with Askari Ants, killing them by their hundreds of stings. I was devastated and was determined to make sure it would not happen again.

I had just read a great story that took place in Africa called, “The Wormwood Bible” where one of the protagonists had failed to listen to the native and planted his garden his way. He of course lost it all to the rains.  I was very much interested in how folks did things here in Limuru.  I was told that one had to sprinkle wood ashes around the cages to keep the Askari Ants away, and if your hutches were build with legs, you had to oil them down or at least put each leg in a small can filled with oil.  I did both and never had problems with those damn Askari Ants again, at least concerning my rabbits.

A new member of the community arrived and had to learn the hard way, like the rest of us, about all small intricacies of African life and landscape and insects. Brother Tom was a fast learner, but one can not foresee everything. Every Sunday evening our community would split in half and have a sharing on the week, talking about the challenges and the blessings of the past week.  Tom tended to be dramatic at times, especially when it was his turn to share his thoughts on the gospel readings for the day.  This evening, as we lit the candle and everyone settled themselves and we turned off the lights, all of a sudden Brother Tom got up and started dancing.  I thought to myself, here we go again!  But then he just as suddenly exited out the door and headed for the toilet.  When he got back quite a while later, he said that he was attacked by Askari Ants!

I thought that would be impossible, since the ants rarely come inside the house. The good thing about the ants is that they are constantly on the move. When they appear in the garden, no sense in trying to kill them, since by tomorrow they will all be gone. We all looked at the couch that Tom just happened to be sitting on by himself, and sure enough, there were the ants. They had come in a small opening by the window, headed for the couch and climbed up a leg and up to the top and across, then down the other leg and out another little opening by the window. Tom just happened to sit right in the middle of their path with his arms spread out across the top of the couch. The path of the Askari Ants can be about one to two inches wide with literally thousands of ants quickly moving to their next destination. Outside, the ants can literally wear a path through the grass, eating anything that gets in their way, even humans!

My last encounter with the Askari Ants was at the burial of our good friend, Dom Pohl, a Cistercian monk at Our Lady of Victories Monastery in Kipkelion, Kenya. He had been the Abbot there for several years, and now in his eighties and in perfect health, he was the novice master of the monastery with a good number of monks from Kenya and Uganda. During our yearly visit to the monastery, he would usually give us spiritual talks.  Every once in a while he would show up at our novitiate in Limuru after doing business in Nairobi, and we would invite him to stay and spend the night, but always he would refuse and head back to his monastery as soon as he could take the next local train. On one occasion, when the trains stopped running from Limuru to Kipkelion, he took us up on our offer, and found a way to get back to his monastery the next day on his own.

As it turned out, during our last stay at the monastery before the post-election violence eventually closed it, we just had our talk by Dom Pohl.  The next day he headed out to say mass at a local parish but felt bad and turned around and came back.  Another monk realized that he was in pretty bad shape and headed out to the doctors with him, but Dom Pohl died on the way. We were at least fortunate to be able to attend his funeral.  It was quite an affair, since he was well known in the area. Unfortunately, the funeral lasted forever, but at the end, with the commitment at the burial site, we were given a break, at least those standing at a particular spot at the grave site.

Kipkelion Monastery
Cistercian Monastery in Kipkelion, Kenya

The people near by kept mentioning Askari Ants, but we didn’t connect until it was too late and the ants started biting us two white folks.  So we had to leave the burial and head back to the nearest outhouse, or choo, as they call it, to remove the ants.  We were able to beat the crowd and eat our lunch early.  Thank you, Dom Pohl, for still watching over us.  He was sort of the no-nonsense monk anyway and would have been perfectly happy to just have the monks put him into the ground without all the pomp and ceremony.

So if you ever visit this wonderful continent, now you know to look out for those Askari Ants, especially if you decide that it would be a nice idea to have a pick-nick in the middle of Africa.