i think i’ve mentioned that my friend erica is in tanzania for a month. she is staying with some nuns in a convent there, and i was happy and relieved to hear that she had arrived there safely.
she’s been there over a week now, and i’d gotten a couple of texts from her, but today i got this long and interesting account. i can’t ask her right now if it’s ok to share this with you, but i think she’d be glad about that.
super interesting. i wish there were accompanying photos, but hopefully she’ll have some when she gets back…
So last night I’m sitting at a wooden table. Across from me is Sister Anne Carlino. Our conversation is held by candlelight, as the electricity has been out for the day and we don’t know when it will come back on. We are each drinking a Kilimajaro beer from a glass bottle, and she is telling me about what it was like to work in a Cambodian refugee camp during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. We’re in a kitchen in a convent in Kemondo, Tanzania. I’m fifteen miles from the nearest town, and thousands of miles from home. And all of a sudden I am suddenly aware that I am listening to a living, breathing saint who has no idea she is one. Someday this woman’s face is going to be on a medal they bless at the Vatican. I don’t know what I did right to get to visit here, now, but I am grateful to God.
If I had to pick a theme for my Tanzanian experience thus far, it’s that I have never visited a place where the people, the Church, the animals, and even the land are so alive. The people here don’t live long — the average life expectancy is only in the late 40s/early 50s. They live day to day, meal to meal, and although no one here seems to be starving, they can’t be described as having more than just enough. Yet…they exude a peace I have never felt in the “industrial” world. A few days ago I found a little boy — no more than six years old and his sweater so torn and unraveled it looked as though someone knit the arms and gave it to him like that — sitting alone on a bench outside the dispensary. I asked Sister Deepa what he was doing. He hadn’t paid his lunch money for the week, and so the school sent him home. Alone. He walked probably a half a mile to San Damiano because his mother works here. It would be a few hours before she would be done, so he patiently waits. No one feels sorry for him. No one calls the school yelling about safety or danger or self-esteem damage. It is how it is. So he waits, happily, and the two of us take turns drawing trees on a piece of scrap paper I am using as a bookmark. He’s left-handed, and suddenly has an inspiration. When it’s his turn next, instead of drawing a tree he writes “AEIOU” and holds it up for me to see. I laugh and smile and say, “very good” in Swahili and he sticks out his chest, not trying to hide how proud he is of his clever idea.
I don’t think anyone in Kemondo has ever, even once, glanced at a wrist watch and said, “Oh my God — have you seen the time? I have to hurry up and get going.” There’s nowhere to go. And there’s nothing that could possibly be more important than what is happening right at this minute. Whether it’s listening to endless tributes at a funeral, enjoying a late afternoon lunch in the hut, or waiting for your mother and drawing trees with a strange white woman who happens to have a pencil and a scrap of paper tucked in her book.
Yesterday, as I said, we were without electricity. Last week we were without water. A vandal broke the pipe from the spring, and so Sister Preethi and I hiked about a mile up the side of the mountain, in the wilderness, with the men who were going to fix it. The terrain here is unlike anything I have ever seen. There are red dirt “roads,” few of which are passable even with a land rover, and paths shoot off them into wilderness that seems to be a cross between the Amazon and New Salem park. We hike up and up, and finally across, and I could see over all of Kemondo and the surrounding villages, out to Lake Victoria. If I didn’t know it was a lake, I would think it’s the ocean. I can’t stop looking out, but try to look down at the same time because right before we left Sister Anne mentioned the word “snake.”
The Church here pulses with life. The people sing and pray — no hymnals, everything by memory. The kneelers are wooden, no pads, and at first it killed my knees but within two days it was nothing. There are seminarians at the church now. They are young, smiling, fun guys and in prayer you can feel the warmth of their spirits. They speak English, and I have learned enough Swahili to ask them how they are and thank them. The priest, Father Justus, is a young man who is full of life. What I love most (among many things) is how young the Church is here. The Indian Sisters and I made fast friends, and there are children and people my age. After Mass everyone greets everyone. Can you imagine us doing that? It is wonderful — I feel loved by people who don’t even know me. They shake my hand vigorously, shouting “Cristoo” (Americans are not the only ones who talk loudly at people who don’t understand our language) or some a shy “good morning,” and I smile like an idiot. I now know basic greetings and responses, and they laugh with delight when I try to say something in Swahili.
Many of the people in town, especially the children, believe I am one of the Sisters and that’s not hard to understand why. I’m white, I’m living at the convent, and I wear long skirts. My first day here I was taking photos with my iPhone when a group of children, the tiniest probably no more than two years old, came running to me proclaiming, “Seestah, Seestah!” I felt like Fraulein Maria when she returned from the Abbey. I tried to say, “No…Erica,” pointing to myself. They looked puzzled and repeated, “Seestah, Seestah.” So I shrugged, and took pictures of them with the iPhone, and then showed them themselves and they screamed with laughter at the novelty of it all. By the time we were done, at least twelve kids were there. I taught them to high-five and move photos with their index fingers. Both were equally new and exciting concepts for them.
And finally, because I can’t in just one paragraph explain to you the impact Sister Anne and Stefanie Koester have had on this community, I will try to tell you in a single story. There is a woman who helps clean and cook at the convent in the mornings. Her name is Nasita, and she speaks only Swahili. When Sister Anne and Stefanie came here in 1993, she was living in the hut behind where they would build the convent and dispensary building. Nasita was a prostitute. A few years ago, after delivering a stillborn baby that would have been her eighth child, Sister Anne (who had taken Nasita to the hospital) took the woman’s hand and said, “You don’t have to do this anymore. We have a job for you.” The Sisters from India taught Nasita to cook using photos — as she neither reads nor writes — and today Nasita supports her children by working here. She is competent, dependable, respected, and obviously happy in her work. Each day I try out a new Swahili phrase on her, and she smiles and shakes her head as if to say, “You crazy white woman…we are glad you’re here.”
This is the difference that San Damiano has made here. It’s not just a “charity” — although the poorest here benefit from free health care, education, and Church life. The Sisters, and the priests, are members of the community who live and work in equality with those they take care of. Amid the poverty, and unimaginable circumstances many people face, a quiet joy remains. There is a hope the people can change their own futures, even though that evolution will be gradual and require a stubborn persistence.
On the other hand…
I could paint a paradise, or I could paint it a hell — and if you’re stuck in the Western either/or mentality, as I often am, it’s hard to fight the temptation to constantly compare “us” and “them.” It’s true that poverty and AIDS ravage the people. Sanitation isn’t good, and fresh, potable water not readily available for most. People lack resources, education, opportunities. I thank God for the running water in my shower, even though it slightly smells like blood because of the rust in the pipes.
If you look at is as a both/and situation, though, you see we have quite a bit to learn from the “third world.”
The people here don’t spend the majority of their lives in offices doing work that sometimes feels it is made up only so there is more work to do. They spend leisurely afternoons with friends, in the sunshine, laughing, talking, chewing on some part of a banana tree. They don’t understand what it means to be “stressed out.” They are never inconvenienced, as nothing is ever convenient anyway. No one worries about what will happen to them in ten, twenty, thirty years. No one frets over bills, health insurance, or taxes. No one ever thinks, “If I could only lose fifteen pounds…” or “Why can’t I be as successful as my high school friends I see on Facebook?” In short, all the things we obsess over daily (or at least I do) are simply not present here. They feel as far away as a McDonald’s, and I for one don’t miss either.
However, I do miss all of you and hope you are well and happy. I’ll look forward to seeing you again soon.