The Maryknoll Society of Priests and Brothers was missioned to Africa two years before the Sisters. However, I think the first association with mission in Tanzania was made at the same time by the Fathers, Brothers and Sisters. In 1944 Bishop” Joseph Blomjous, M.Afr. of the Missionaries of Africa (formerly the White Fathers), whose diocese took in a good portion of western Tanzania, came to Maryknoll to ask for help. Rome had already given its consent for this large area to be divided with another missionary group if such was available.
In those far off days it was customary for someone from the seminary, usually Father General if he was home, to come over to the convent-on Sunday morning and give the Sisters a conference. On this particular Sunday he brought Bishop Blomjous along and we heard all about Tanzania and the work of the various mission societies and congregations there. Many of us were ready to go with no hesitation. At least it was something to dream about, especially if you were eligible for a mission assignment.
It wasn’t long after the Fathers were settled in Musoma that Mother Mary Columba received a formal invitation from Bishop Blomjous, and a less formal one from Father Collins, requesting Sisters to work in the Musoma area. Another of our customs in those days was an ordinarily silent dining room during meals with someone reading aloud to us. It wasn’t a bad idea. Much of the reading was the Diaries of both the Fathers and Brothers and the Sisters. We had our favorite writers and once Maryknoll arrived in Tanzania we all waited to hear the diaries of Father Bill Collins. His writing was always humorous, lively and filled with anecdotes about the Tanzanians in whom we were all so interested. We would hear frequent mention of Kowak and Nyegina. There was no problem pronouncing Kowak, but Nyegina was another matter. It was only when we got to Tanzania ourselves that we realized how we had been murdering the word.
The Fathers went to Africa two years ahead of us but the first Maryknoll Brother was assigned the same year that we were, 1948. That was Brother Fidelis Deichelbohrer and we will always be grateful to him for literally putting a roof over our heads. There was a corrugated aluminum roof on the convent when we arrived, put on by the previous builder. But three months later, on Palm Sunday, a storm came up and a high wind. Sheet after sheet of aluminum flew off the roof and went sailing across the field. Fortunately everyone was in their house because of the storm or the flying aluminum could have resulted in tragedy if someone had been hit. No one know of our plight until the next morning when Father Bert Good walked down to the “water hole” to see if it had been filled by the heavy rains the previous night. There he saw all our roofing lying about. We were impressed at mass that morning when Father Good offered the Liturgy in thanksgiving for our safety. The aluminum sheets were salvaged and Brother Fidelis came over from Nyegina to repair the roof. He was a master builder and never again did a sheet blow off no matter how strong the wind.
They were not then known as the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa but the beginning of the congregation was there awaiting our arrival in December, 1948. There were six young women who wanted to be Sisters, brought together by Father Erwin Binder, M.Afr. the last of the Missionaries of Africa still working in the Maryknoll area. As time went on, one by one these aspirants decided that this was not their vocation – – all but one, Hanna, the leader of the group. She eventually became Sister Bernadetta Abel, whom so many of us know.
While some aspirants left others came to try it out. What a wonderful, long-suffering group they were! We no sooner arrived than Father Binder turned them over to us for guidance. We had no language, no nothing. I don’t know what we did for them in those early days but there is no end to the good things they did for us. They were our teachers, out companions and our friends. The aspirants taught us the Dholuo language and from our close association with them we learned their culture and their customs. They would introduce us to the people and take us on safari to the villages around Kowak. From the beginning we were impressed with their gentleness and sensitivity. This latter virtue sometimes got us into trouble as when they wouldn’t correct the rather serious mistakes we made in speaking Dholuo because “we understand what you mean” and they didn’t want to tell us that we were wrong.
How many were the blunders we made in ignorance by following our own code of etiquette instead of being sensitive to theirs. There again they didn’t want to correct us but I can recall several times when Hanna was driven to remonstrate at what we were asking her to do. Once when they were inviting several people for a visit to their house I insisted that they make sure the guests understood they were to stay for a meal. It bad happened before that the aspirants had spent the day cooking for expected guests only to find our that the guests had other plans for the evening meal. At the time I didn’t know that nothing could be worse than to mention there would be food served when you invited someone to your home. In the African culture it would be unheard of not to prepare food for any guests whether they were invited or just happened to stray onto the compound.
After the Novitiate was opened in Nyegina in 1953 the history of the Immaculate Heart Sisters became another whole story, but the days of the Kowak Aspirants will be forever wrapped up in our beginnings in Africa.
Mission life for all of us Maryknollers centered around the preparation of the catechumens for Baptism. The Maryknoll Fathers followed the pattern of their predecessors, the Missionaries of Africa, in a process conducted in stages not unlike those used in the present day Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Those wishing to be baptized went through a series of “examinations” over a period of several years. The successful completion of a stage gained for the winner a special sign – – a medal or a cross. The women who studied at Kowak introduced their own celebration dance based on the traditional dances of their ethnic group. Once they had successfully completed the last of the questionings which told them they would be baptized, they emitted their traditional Vigelegele or cries of joy. Tearing off branches of the trees they danced around the mission compound waving their branches and singing joyously, ‘Chuma Oling’. Their song told the message, “We rejoice, for the metal of the cross may now rest on our walls, in our homes! We rejoice, and thank the Fathers, the Catechists, the Sisters – all who taught us and helped us reach this day! We rejoice! We give thanks!”
In local songs there is always a refrain which is repeated and easily learned. Folks walking down the road would join the dance and sing along with these happy women, as we too would join in the celebration! Their song and burst of joy is a memory we carry with us until this day. May these Christians continue to be blessed in their lives as they have blessed us.
Without a doubt the most popular sister at the mission was the Sister-nurse. Almost from the beginning we had a small dispensary roomed in an annex which housed a long bath tub which had never, and would never, be used because of insufficient water. So a board was placed over it and it served the nurse as an examining table. Men, women and children gathered around to get help from the nurse. So often women would come to the convent to borrow a few shillings to get some medicine. Not wanting them to end up trying to repay an amount which might seem small to me but which would be all the cash the family had, I’d say, “I give this to you, mama, no need to repay.” How soon I learned that when these women said, “No, I will repay -it later when I have sold my grain at the market” they meant it! Again and again the two or three shillings I had given out were returned to me, and they went into a little cup to be used another day for someone else. Women who Shad their own dignity witnessed to me their need and ability, in their society, to be independent.
Our first years in mission were rather idyllic. We were gradually getting to know the Tanzanians and their culture a little better, differentiating between the ethnic groups, visiting in their villages and getting on with our work. Each year we had the excitement of one or two additional Sisters being assigned to Tanzania. The most notable changes in those years were in our spreading out to new missions – – Nyegina in ”53 and Rosana in ’56.
Just after New Year’s in 1957 we left the security of what we knew to enter the great unknown, the Shinyanga Diocese with a mission ‘in Buhangija, and Manan College, the new secondary school under the ‘auspices of the then Tanganyika Episcopal Conference, in Morogoro.
Preparation for both of these moves had been going on since 1955. Bishop McGurkin was asking for Sisters and he invited us to Shinyanga so we could look around for a good site for a convent. Well, I think the decision had long been made that the convent would be in Buhangija but Sister Mary Reese and I had a wonderful tour of the whole diocese with Bishop McGurkin as our chauffeur and guide. All of you who knew the Bishop know what a perfect host he was.
The last stop on our tour was Gula, and when we reached there it seemed to me like the very end of the world. We were going to spend the night there. Cots had been set up for Sister Mary and me in the office building, all the preparation having been done by the two charming daughters of the catechist. And that was the first time we met Sister Suzanna Subi, one of the daughters. It wasn’t much later that the young Suzanna came to Kowak to be an aspirant. It was years later that she told me she had been coaxing her mother and father to let her go to Kowak to become a Sister. They weren’t at all happy at the idea of their daughter going so far away and being under the care of foreign Sisters they knew nothing about. But after we left, Sister Suzanna said they gave her their blessing and said she could go. I guess we were approved as safe to entrust us with their treasured daughter.
Life moved slowly and pleasantly in those early years, one day much the same as another, though looking back I see it was packed with adventure for us to whom everything was new. God has been good to Maryknoll in Africa, and I think the Maryknoll missioners who have worked there would agree that the greatest blessing He has given us is the African people amongst whom we lived and worked and spent out time. Where else would you find the joy in the midst of adversity, the patience, the spirituality that is part of their life and culture, their hospitality which has world-wide recognition, and to quote Mother Mary Joseph “the saving grace of a sense of humor.”