by John Sivalon
In a 1995 World Bank report using basic economic indicators, Mozambique was ranked as the poorest country in the world. Two major contributing factors to this degree of poverty existing in Mozambique are the two wars that it has experienced since the 1960s. In terms of the Church infrastructure, the first war may have been the most destructive. Frelimo nationalized most of the Church buildings after independence and did nothing to keep them up. Rectories were destroyed, schools became dilapidated, projects were half completed and left to deteriorate, churches were misused and religion in general was scorned.
In conversations with some of our hosts, it was said that the second war was much more destructive for the general population of Mozambique. It was much more widespread throughout the country and much more indiscriminate in its killing and destruction. Thus many more people left their homes, their small plots and their personal possessions and fled to neighboring Tanzania or Malawi. The armies of both Renamo and Frelimo followed slash and burn policies leading to the most striking initial observation of my first visit to Maryknoll’s newest commitment in Africa – a near total lack of animal life, both domestic and wild.
As we drove into Mozambique and toward Lichinga, the diocesan center of our new Maryknoll mission apostolate, I was filled with a certain anxiousness about what we were going to find. This anxiety quickly changed to a sense of hope. Many people had returned and others were continuing to return. Some were at the stage of living in grass huts and the fields near their homes were in the process of being cleared. Others had built mud huts and had already harvested at least once with their store bins full of corn. Some had built mud brick houses and obviously had enjoyed a series of harvests. This was the hopeful sign. The land is fertile, and in a situation of peacetime, could obviously sustain life at a level quite above what you would imagine of the poorest country in the world. In peace Mozambique would quickly move out of that infamous ranking.
A second sign of hope was the openness and friendliness of the people themselves. The scars of a harsh colonial rule, two wars, and an indeterminate amount of propaganda had not destroyed the joy, hospitality and friendliness that we have come to associate with Africans from our experience in Tanzania. Many people were able to speak Swahili and many more while hesitant to use it, had some knowledge of it, could definitely hear it and when pushed would eventually speak it. Thus, when stopping on the roadside, when looking at some of the centers of our new parish, when meeting some of the lay leaders and when stopping to watch some local fishermen pull in their afternoon catch, we were able to greet people, to have basic conversations and to gain a very early, remedial understanding of the situation. In all these travels there was never the hint of suspicion, fear or anger. In fact, we saw more of a military presence in Malawi than in Mozambique.
A third sign of hope was the Jesuit Bishop of Lichinga, Dom Luis Gonzaga Ferreira da Silva. Here we met a man full of hope, enthusiasm and energy. As he ran up the stairs late for our meeting, his steps denied his 74 years of age. After saying good bye to us on Sunday morning, he ran down the street catching up with the youth and joining them for a pilgrimage walk to the top of a local mountain in solidarity with Pope John Paul II’s youth festival in Paris. His love for Mozambique and for the people was confirmed by his surviving the two wars and especially by being allowed to remain after the war of independence. His home is a gathering place, where local volunteers are welcome with guitars and laughter, where simplicity reigns and where meals reflect the real absence of meat.
This is a man who shows no signs of bitterness for what had been done to the Church. This is a man who shows no signs of bearing a burden even though his diocese is as large as the country of Malawi with one local diocesan priest who is 70 years of age. This is a man looking to the future, to rebuilding and to renewing. This is an inviting man looking for companions in this endeavor.
Maryknoll has joined him. After the Tanzania Region of the Maryknoll Society unanimously endorsed pursuing this mission work, the Tanzania Regional Council contacted the Maryknoll General Council and they responded by assigning new people to this apostolate: Father Ken Thesing, Brother Ed Redmond. Father Bill Vos of MMAF accompanied Father Howie O’Brien and myself on our trip to Lichinga. Bill is hopeful, as are other MMAF members in Tanzania, that sometime in the future they will join this apostolate. The Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa (an African Sisters Congregation) continue their struggle for the freedom to respond to the invitation of Dom Luis and to join in a collaborative effort. The Tanzania Region continues to look for Tanzanian laity, priests and Sisters in an effort to strengthen our presence.
The Metangula Parish of the Diocese of Lichinga cries out its challenge to the Mission Vision Statement of the Maryknoll Society. God’s fertile soil beckons its welcoming foundation for human promotion. At the same time it calls for its intelligent use without abuse which is evangelization. The 80% “nominal” Muslim population is an invitation to the intricacies of religious dialog which is evangelization. The growing number of restored churches holds out their embracing hands to the hundreds who wish to celebrate and worship which is evangelization. The maimed, the wounded and the sick plead for the caring accompaniment which is evangelization. The whole area and all its people after thirty years of minimal contact hunger for the proclamation of the Word which is evangelization. And Dom Luis Gonzaga, Maria and Simon the local Church leaders, and all those whom we met along the way say, “you are welcome.”