Welcome to Zambia

My name is Br Martin. I am a Capuchin Franciscan Student from Ireland and have just embarked on a four month mission experience in our Vice Province of Zambia. I will be keeping log of my progress and experiences on this blog over the next four months...you are most welcome to keep me company along the way

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Palm Sunday Reflection

We had the most fantastic Palm Sunday celebrations in Lusaka this morning. We began with the blessing of Palms and a procession of over two hundred people around the grounds and into the college chapel. African Hymns were sung along the way, drums beaten and seed shakers were shaken. When we reached the Church everybody took their places, palms raised high in the air, dancing and singing. African tribal cat calls rung out and filled the air.....Hosanna, Hosanna, make way for the King if Kings. The Lord was truly welcomed in great style and celebration.

We were asked to consider our role in the crowds we heard about, what do we shout for? do we cry for justice and righteousness or for death and division? Do we say one thing one day and another a few days later? Do we protect the innocent or condemn them? Do we shout for our needs over the needs of others?

Or are we like the donkey, who felt that the welcome and celebration was for him? Who went back to his mother, who we read he was tied to, and tells her of the great welcome he got, only to hear that that welcome wasn't for him, but for the One he carried. The same donkey who, when next he heard the crowds a few days later, ran on to the street only to be met this time not with branches and cheers but clubs, shouts for death. He ran away scared and his mother reminded him, 'without Him on your back, they don't want to know you'.

We hear of the follower in the gospel, wearing a loin cloth, who runs away naked and in doing so becomes symbolic of the extremes humanity is capable of. He symbolises the naked ambition of the Pharisees and the Jewish elders, the naked lust for blood of the crowd, the nakedness of the humiliation Jesus was subjected to, the naked heart-brokenness of Jesus' mother, the naked shame and fear of the disciples as they disappeared into darkness and denial and the naked  courage of Jesus as he fulfilled the will of the Father. He is a character often overlooked yet so rich in symbolism.

So as we tun the corner into Holy Week, we have plenty to consider in our own embodied experiences as well as the experiences of our sisters and brothers around the world.

This week let us suffer with, walk with, hunger with, weep with and be lonely, depressed and isolated with all our sisters and brothers wherever they are , just as Christ does every moment of every day.

Have a blessed day and week ahead.

Friday, March 30, 2012

You matter because.......

Hospice Website

A man passing a farmer, who was minding a field of 20 white sheep and 20 black sheep stopped to talk. After they exchanged greetings the rambler asked the farmer ‘which of the sheep eat the most grass every day?’ ‘The black sheep or the white sheep’, replied the farmer. ‘Mmmm, the white’ said the man. ‘The white sheep eat 10lbs of grass everyday’ said the farmer, ‘Oh, said the man, and what about the black one’s?’ he asked. ‘They eat 10lbs of grass as well’ said the farmer.

‘Well, how much wool do you get from a sheep?’ asked the rambler. ‘Which ones, the black sheep or the white sheep’ replied the farmer. ‘I don’t know, the black ones…’, said the rambler. ‘The black sheep produces about 2 bags of wool each year’, replied the farmer. ‘What about the other ones, the white sheep, what do they produce?’ asked the ever intrigued rambler. ‘Oh. They produce about 2 bags of wool each year too’, answered the farmer.

The rambler’s inquisitiveness got the better of him and he asked the farmer, ‘ why, when I ask a question do you ask if it’s the black sheep or white sheep and then go on to give the same answer for each?. ‘That’s easy’ said the farmer, ‘the black sheep are mine’. ‘And what about the others’ said the rambler hoping to get to the bottom of this, ’They’re mine too’ said the farmer!.

This is a story from Anthony De Mello and demonstrates how we divide when no division is needed at all. This week, I had the occasion to visit Kalinglinga Hospice (Our Lady’s Hospice) and it makes me recall the words of Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the modern hospice movement that "You matter because you are you, and you matter to the last moment of your life’. For any of us who have spent any time in a hospice this attitude of inclusiveness, hope and life is palpable.

The Hospice at Kalinglinga, built in 1993 and run by the FMDM sisters, is a testament to ground breaking palliative care. But it is also much more than this. The patients that come to the hospice are generally suffering (and I don’t use this word lightly) from HIV / AIDS and are at various stages of the illness. There are three main sections to the hospice: an out-patient facility for monitoring and the distribution of ARV’s (Anti Retro Virals), the in-patient facility which serves as a short stay facility for those needing some intensive care and as an end of life facility and a training centre incorporating a Physio therapy clinic.

The buildings are welcoming, smiles abound and people are happy to see you. In a place like this people are united either by the effect disease has on their lives or in an attempt to combat this disease. There is no difference here, people are just people who need care, support and help. People are welcomed in the spirit of Dame Cicely and valued as individuals, with their own stories, fears, hopes, sadness and joys, all because they matter, just because they are who they are. 

My visit was an impromptu one so I didn’t have my camera so I have attached a link to their website.
Hospice care in Zambia in under increasing threat of closure, please keep them in your thoughts and prayers. They do a value and valiant job with little support. One other hospice very close to where I stay has closed this year because funding has been cut off which in turn cuts very sick people off from either residential or home care. I visited there once and to see the wards empty and beds lying idle was both eery and moving because it meant that people where dying in the compounds in very poor conditions.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

The same, only different…

At home I never much thought about being different and, kind of, tended to see most people as the same, regardless of their colour, race etc. Now, I’m not trying to promote myself for any sort of humanitarian award…I just never really thought about it.

Coming to Africa, difference hit me right in my ‘not-the-same-as-everybody-else’ face. I was all of a sudden aware of difference in a most concentrated way. Walking anywhere I was aware of how  I resonated a different colour into this place, as if I had been dipped in some sort of bleach…..I stood out, whether I wanted to or not. We could ask if this means that we don’t have a choice in being different.

This experience of literally being able to feel the colour of my skin as I was walked round in it was, and continues to be, an extraordinary feeling. I began to feel that everybody was the same except me. At home I never noticed if I had skin or not, except when it rained and then I was usually thankful of it. But this is just obviously a superficial manifestation of my difference. I was also beginning to recognise that I was different at a deeper level. The way in which I processed what I absorbed from the world around me was different to the way the same information was being absorbed by somebody who wasn’t me. Of course this is true for all of us, in all situations but when the goldfish is taken from his bowl and plunged into the ocean, I am sure that stuff seems different.

But was I any different? Did I sound the same? Yes. Look the same? Pretty much. Was I recognisable when speaking to some body on the phone from home? Of course. But somehow I was the same but different and it was only by the experience of being placed in a situation which reflected this that I began to appreciate my differentness and, even, my uniqueness.

Why is this in any way either interesting or important? For the simple reason that in recognising my differentness I was able to, in some way, tune into the fact that the world doesn’t begin and end with my preconception of it, that the world in fact is an expansive, every changing series of experiences in which the differentness of each one is like a thread, woven into the tapestry we call life, by our shared experience of it. As I walk every face that passes me is, in some way, changed by mine and I in turn am changed by them, mostly, without ever saying a word.

When I return home I hope I can continue to see difference. But hang on, society tells us difference is bad, we should all be the same. Nonsense. We should all be respected for our uniqueness and difference but most definitely not encouraged to be the ‘same’. It’s our difference that enriches, colours, reflects and ultimately changes.

Here in the Friary, by recognising that the Brothers around me who I share this life experience with are different to me, to each other as, obviously, I am to all of them, I could begin to listen deeply to their extraordinary stories and they to mine, stories which I am sure we considered to be just the same. Stories which have changed me and shaped me and will continue to long after I leave this place.

Contemplating, appreciated, encouraging , caring for and respecting our difference is a deep hymn of thanksgiving to the Artist whose brush filled this world with the colourful strokes, of every shape and depth, that makes it home. It is in this multitude of difference and diversity that we are blended into the Divine Image we are called to recognise in ourselves and each other. May we always live our difference in respect for the difference of others.

Friday, March 2, 2012

You can't stay up there forever....!

On my first day as a student of Theology the head of the department said proudly, ‘Here we DO Theology!’. Great I thought, however I soon discovered that ‘doing theology’ still involved a lot of inevitable ‘studying theology’!

Since coming to Africa I have become interested in a branch of theology called ‘practical theology’, it’s probably best aligned to ‘Pastoral Theology’ in the Catholic expression of our faith.  It’s, as the name quite openly suggests, the practical application of theological theory. I suppose it could also be called ‘Applied Theology’ in the same way we have ‘Applied Social Sciences’ and ‘Applied Psychology’. Whatever it is, it is definitely ‘doing theology’.

The thing I have begun to notice about Practical Theology is that we are all really Practical Theologians. We are all called through our Baptism, in the Christian tradition, to make the spirit of Jesus Christ present in the world today in a real way and that’s what it’s all about. Now, I am not discrediting the academic branch of Practical Theology but rather to highlight that it is an expression of theology we are all involved in everyday as we engage with others with and open and compassionate heart, just as Christ himself did.
When our parents thought us to pray, where they not practical theologians? When a teacher thought us what was a good or bad thing to do, where they not practical theologians? When we serve others in our communities, neighbourhoods and families, putting their needs before our own, are we not practical theologians?

The Saints give us great examples of people who brought theology to life: St Francis of Assisi, St Don Bosco and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to name but three. These three giants of our tradition integrated the message of Christ and brought it to whoever they met: Francis tending the lepers, Don Bosco with poor children and Mother Teresa on the streets of Calcutta.

During my experience in Africa I have met countless people who are doing just the same. People who are practically becoming the hands, feet, ears and eyes of Christ, to paraphrase St Teresa of Avila. At home the same is being done every day in every community, family and home. We often do these things unaware of what we are doing and the trick is to begin to bring them into our consciousness so that when we do them, we can be conscious of our motivation as ‘Practical Theologians’ to be the hands, feet, eyes and ears of Christ.

We have all heard that we are all called to be Saints, for me this can seem a distant ideal. But I believe that we can begin, especially over Lent, to become more mindful and more aware of what we are doing, particularly when dealing with others. In doing this we begin to walk in faith with Jesus, begin to grow into the practical theologians we are called to be in this life and, you never know, we may even become Saints in the next life!

If we were to outline the model of practical theology what would it be? To outline the principles of practical theology, what would they be? The motivations behind practical theology, what would they be? There are countless answers and examples of this, the Gospels are just packed with them. I would like to briefly suggest on answer for each, that speaks to me.

A good model of practical theology for me comes in the form of Jesus coming down from Mount Tabor. Having experienced God the father and conversed with Him, Jesus knows he must return to those who await him at the base of the mountain. On coming down, I wonder how did Jesus see those we see around us today? The situations? The wars? The anger? and also the beauty and majesty of creation, the spark of which is in us all. To be a practical theologian in the world today is to endeavour, after being nourished by Christ’s Word and Body, to engage with the world that surrounds us, in such a way, that we see it and experience it as Jesus did when he came down from the mountain.

Some guiding principles to facilitate this move down from the mountain can be found in the words,’ I was hungry, you gave me food to eat; I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink; I was naked, you clothed me; I was lonely and imprisoned, you came to visit me’ ().  Here we are presented with some practical instructions and, I am sure we would agree, good things to do. But moving upwards through the needs of a human being these commands begin to take on a new dimension and challenge us to come further down from our mountains and deeper into the waiting crowd.  What are people really thirsting for today? What makes them hungry, deep inside? What strips them? What forces them to be bound, imprisoned and lonely? The answers are many but the next question is for us, ‘Are we ready to be there for them, no matter what their answers to the above questions are, just as Christ was and is through us?’

The journey to Calvary wasn’t an easy one and the journey to be a practical theologian in today’s world can be just as difficult, if we take it seriously. People have given their lives doing this for centuries. So what can motivate us along the way? One suggestion comes in the form of the Beatitudes or Be-Attitudes to see them another way. Seeing all those around us as Blessed is to see them as children of God and therefore our very brothers and sisters. The Beatitudes call us to see the weakness of others as their strength and the poverty of others as their riches. They call us to be salt and light, adding genuine flavour to the lives of others and to the world, just as Jesus did and continues to do through us today.

So now I have to leave my room to walk the way of the cross with the other friars. Today, I will try to make each step a conscious steps bringing me down from whatever mountain I have put myself on into the world, to be the hands, feet, eyes and ears to Christ, to be a practical theologian. 


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Back to Chibolya and the Way of the Cross

It had rained. Usually not a bad thing here unless, that is, you are preparing to go into a compound, which we were. Chibolya compound in fact on a return visit, this time to work with a group of 30 young people delivering the five day awareness (drug & alcohol) programme. This time we worked in collaboration with a wonderfully talented and creative organisation called ‘Barefeet’. Barefeet was founded by a young Irish man, Adam McGuigan, with the aim of working with street kids and kids exposed to all sorts of risks and dangers. Adam is a dramatist, who previously worked for the BBC, and is now Artistic Director of Barefeet. They are renowned in Zambia for their levels of creativity and enthusiasm and this accolade is not undeserved. I had met Adam the previous week at their office in relation to another project SHARPZ are launching but this week we are working with the equally mesmerizingly talented Michael and Martha….you can see them in the pictures and some video, which will follow as soon as I can get a connection fast enough to upload it.

For me Chibolya had changed (or was it I that had changed ?) in the weeks since my first visit. Don’t get me wrong it was still difficult territory but, this time, as we were welcomed by smiling friends, happy to see us and we in return most happy to see them, it was nice to be back. The first thing we noticed as we drove in were four lovely new water drums for distribution in the community. These drums each hold in excess of 5,000 litres of fresh water. Joyce, a lady in her fifties and one of the community organisers, told me that typhoid, malaria and cholera are rife in the compound and that she had been to hospital twice in that last 6 weeks. Fresh water will surely help this. The irony, attached to the drums, is that they were donated by Zambian Breweries. So What! To the Irish mind this is no biggy….sure Guinness do good stuff all the time and Dublin wouldn’t be half the city it is today without all the money St Arthur pumped into housing and social projects. I know...I said the same thing. 

However, this is not Dublin and the Breweries here have a very different modus operandi. Africa has a young population and is therefore the biggest growth market for international breweries such as SABMiller, Anhauser Bush and Diageo (the now owners of over very own drop). These companies aggressively market their products, specifically targeting young people in disadvantaged areas with low cost, high alcohol content drinks. Trucks leave the brewery on the outskirts of Chibolya with plastic drums containing thousands of litres of very cheap, very intoxicating ‘beer’ bound for other compounds and villages.  Alcohol, and its misuse, is now credited as the number one cause of HIV cross infection in sub-Saharan Africa. The irony of these four drums being there, as we began work with young people in the compound, was neither lost on us nor, possibly, even coincidental.

I was there for the first day of the programme and it was a great success. As we waited for our lift home we were treated to an impromptu performance from the Chibolya Cultural Theatre Group of traditional African music and dance. The sounds of the drums and whistles called children from all around the neighbourhood. Some stood and watched while others emulated the dance moves. A wonderful end to a fantastic day in the compound….. you know that place is starting to take a piece of me with it every time I visit.

On to more Spiritual things! Lent found its way to Africa on Wednesday as we donned our ashes. It was welcomed in style in the College Chapel as students and locals joined for a rousing celebration which gave the congregation a chance to dust off the Lenten hymns, which are always a joy to hear.

Friday saw the first Stations of the Cross through the grounds of St Bonaventure’s. It had rained (recalling the intensity of it...check out the video on my Facebook page… I feel ‘rained’ is hardly descriptive enough) and the grounds were lush and green as we made our way from Station to Station. Hymns were sung in English, Nyanja and Swahili and one of our college cats even joined in for a while before becoming distracted by a passing lizard and in turn a number of Friars became distracted by the distracted cat! The stations ended in the Chapel just as the sun began to set and the sky flamed red. The spirit of prayer and silence was maintained as we went our separate ways back to our respective friaries. Though I was in the midst of 160 people it was probably, for me anyway, one of the, most fraternal experiences I have shared in.

This week we prepare to return to Mazabuka to deliver the final two stages of the SHARPZ Child Protection Policy Development Programme and then we will have to see what March will bring and how St Patrick’s Day is celebrated in Zambia!!

And just to finish..this is the Gloria as sung in our College Chapel by 150 Friars at 7.00 am on a Sunday morning......amazing!! This is the sound of Zambia for me and of Heaven, I hope!


Friday, February 10, 2012

A real place of Hope ...

This morning I paid a visit to our neighbours in City of Hope school, along with some representatives of John Hopkins University who are funding a study and counsellor training on Cognitive Based Therapy (CBT).  City of Hope was founded, as Sr Richarda: a Polish Salesian Sister, tells us ‘under a tree, about 20 years ago!’. Today it plays host to over 750 pupils and 45 resident girls, who have been placed here out of abusive homes. It is a remarkable place. As you enter you are greeted by lines of children, in neatly pressed uniforms and sparkling white shirts, making their way along the dirty road to class. The classroom as traditional circular rooms mirroring many of the builds you see in the local villages.

The school has excellent facilities, is very well maintained and, in keeping with anything run by Sisters, is spotlessly clean. The offer classes up to grade 9 (Junior Cert Level) and hope to extend this to grade 12(Leaving Cert Level) when the new school building is complete.  In additional are skills programmes in catering, tailoring and design. They have a very well appointed computer room and teach basic skills. The accommodation for the girls is simple but clean and in excellent condition.

I see a number of white faces darting around the grounds and the Sisters tell me that the school is very popular with international volunteers. I met two, a young man from Germany who was teaching computers and another European teaching French. There is a very peaceful atmosphere in City of Hope, children played games, two young girls platted the blond locks of a German volunteer and there was a lot of smiles and laughter. This seemed to be one school children where happy going to.

The residential students have been placed in City of Hope by the Ministry of Social Welfare who have removed them from dangerous and violent home situations. These girls have had a very difficult time to now and suffered trauma we, most possibly, can’t imagine. But here is a refuge for them, they are given a chance of forming a good life and one sister tells us of the first City of Hope weddings they had last year.  From humble beginnings, literally in the middle of a field, has grown a vibrant, colourful, hope filled place whose motto is ‘joy, love and hard work’…all three elements are evident in abundance.

SHARPZ (the project I am working with) along with JHU will be introducing a programme of Trauma Focused CBT to City of Hope. Counsellors will assess children and provide CBT to help those whose lives have been affected by trauma of one kind or another. I have attached the link to the City of Hope website which has buckets more information and some great photos.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Mercy in Mazabuka

Click Here for Photos of Mazabuka
Photos of Handmade crafts from the Nchete Women's Centre, Mazabuka

Yesterday morning I was sitting in the very beautiful chapel of the Mercy Convent, listening to a baby in a neighbouring house making his desire for breakfast known to the world. As I listened I was lost in thought about the programme we were delivering this week: a child protection programme. Mazabuka, sadly, has the highest incidence of what the locals call ‘child defilement’ in Zambia. Children are used as commodities whether for sexual gratification or through neglect or even as part of a myth believing this defilement will cure HIV. The scope of child protection is wide and I hope that the people we worked with this week (all education people) will use their new knowledge to make Mazabuka, and all of Zambia, a safer place for children.

The town of Mazabuka is situated about 90km south of Lusaka on the road to Livingstone. It quite a bit warmer than Lusaka as it sits in a basin. The main business here is sugar cane production. Enormous plantations stretch to the horizon and this brings a mixed bag of blessings. Money means prosperity for some and an opportunity to slide further into destitution for others. I spoke with a police officer who told me that about 40% of the population are HIV positive and that the average life expectancy is 38, and indeed there are many young faces around and not so many older ones. I was most struck by this statistic whilst in a supermarket and started trying to work out 40% of the people who surrounded me…it’s a strange feeling indeed.

But there is hope and it comes in the form of the St Baghita Projects, founded by an Italian Priest and now overseen by our very own Mercy Sisters. The project provides a number of facilities to young people in the area, offering them a chance. Many of these, it must be noted, are orphans whose parents have died from AIDS, so this project and those associated with it become the only home, and family, they have. Others are there because of abuse in their homes, I met a young man whose face was horrifically scarred due to his mother poring petrol over him and setting him on fire. Stories of abuse of this nature and intensity are not uncommon.

The youth projects area includes a gym (open to local young people), recreation room with pool, table tennis, games and a big screen to watch football matches. When we arrived music was blasting, one young man danced around the fool while other played pool. There is also a well-stocked library but the recreation room seemed much more popular. On the site is a house for orphan boys and is supervised by two ‘mothers’. This house is well fitted out with a spacious common area with a TV. Here they also house volunteers who come to help out in the project from all over the world and  this summer a group are coming from Ireland.

Olympia compound across the road is home to four houses belonging to the Ark project. One of the houses is responsible for rearing some chickens. The boys move into these houses when they leave the safety of the ‘mothers’. Here they are supervised by in-house ‘uncles’. They learn cooking skills and are given tasks to help them take responsibility. Each house is home to seven boys and they leave here when they finish secondary school hopefully well equipped for the world that awaits them.

Whilst in the compound we called to greet Sr Philomena, an Indian nun of indeterminable age. She is a Mother Teresa-esque figure, small in stature but ‘large in love’ as my guide, Morgan, tells me (she refers to him as ‘my son’ as she supported him as he made his way through the project; he is now the project co-ordinator and studying for a degree in social care). Our final stop is to the Bethlehem Bakery, which provides fresh bread to the locality. We get a look behind the scenes and it all seems very professional. Morgan tells me that the ovens were donated by the Bakers Association of Milan. We ate bread form this bakery for breakfast where I stayed and it was excellent. Profits from the sale of the bread are re-invested in the community’s work.

So Mazabuka proved to be yet another source of surprise. It is a place marked deeply by the scars of HIV and sexual exploitation but there is healing available in the form of the great works the Sisters of Mercy and many others do.

Next stop Lusaka…..Jubilant celebrations as Zambia reach the final of the Africa Nations Cup and visits to City of Hope and the Barefeet Childrens Project. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Let go of what you think you know....

It’s Thursday evening here in Zambia and today we celebrated the Feast of The Presentation of the Lord, well in fact I celebrated twice, once this morning with Salesian Sisters, in the school they run called ‘City of Hope’, and then again this evening when the entire college came together to celebrate the Feast and to mark our call as Religious: two very different celebrations of the same feast. This morning, we had a small gathering with three Sisters and four young women, who are on a discernment experience, while this evening over 140 friars filled the College Chapel, lifting the roof with vibrant music and song. In this lays the beauty contained in our freedom to celebrate together as we are, where we are, and, really, that is what today’s Feast is all about. It’s about bringing ourselves to the Temple (God), as we are, where we are and, in presenting ourselves, we receive His light to renew and sustain us on our mission, to do His will, thus making present, now, the Kingdom of God, which is ‘Justice, Peace and Joy in the Holy Spirit’.

Since coming to Zambia there have been inevitable ups and downs as I try to navigate all the new sights and sounds that are bombarding me. Sometimes I can see them for what they are and, at other times, it’s not so clear cut. Our minds can become fixated on something, especially something we can find difficult or challenging, as we go through the cycle of denial, challenge to acceptance. This happens to us all, in some shape or form, everyday. Through these experiences I am learning to look-through, as best I can, what appears on the surface to what is actually going on underneath.

From a vocational and spiritual perspective, this mission experience has been, and continues to be, a source of deepening. I feel I am coming to know and understand more and more why I have responded to a call to become a Religious and, in particular, a Capuchin Friar. I am also coming to realise my dependence on God, daily, for the strength to do any of this and, probably most profoundly for me, I am realising that none of this (mission experience, vocation etc) is about me, it’s about Christ. It’s about being a vehicle to make Him truly present in the world right now. Everything I am doing here can be an opportunity to do just that and the same applies to us all.

I have noticed that at the times that I have felt most frustrated by something or the times that I have felt most out of place, it is in those times that I have been putting myself at the centre of this experience. When this happens it can take a little wrestling to work through the myriad of feelings to come to a place of balance, realisation, acceptance and prayer. In this place, peacefulness comes with the realisation that this is the Lord being presented not me and anything I do, I do it for Him and not me.

On Friday’s I join a seminar class given by our very own Br Philip on the ‘Anthropology of the Vocational Experience’. A fascinating topic centred on the work of Jesuit and Psychologist, Luigi Rulla. Rulla researched extensively the motivations for entering religious life, what sustains whilst there and if they leave, interestingly enough, he asks ‘what motivated them to join’ in the first place. He says that we are motivated by values and attitudes, centred on an ideal image of self and vocation which, if we enter into it, recognising that there are conflicts and inconsistencies in us and the experience, we can journey towards a state of self-transcendence. Self-transcendence means, for Rulla, going beyond ourselves in order to make Christ present. It also means to recognise Christ in us and our experience so that we strive to emulate Him and, ultimately, to bring about the Kingdom of God.

Why am I saying this? Well, it’s through this very process, of recognising a conflict in me or an inconsistency running in the back of my mind, that has acted as a catalyst and allowed me to enter into dialogue at a new, fresh and deeper level with this experience and ultimately with my own vocation experience.

So these are just some thoughts that have been crossing my mind with regard to the experience of experiencing oneself outside of ones ‘normal’ existence and how this experience, though challenging at times, can prove to be a source of light, illuminating past, present and future.

Happy Feast Day to All Religious and People of Good will and to all those seeking self-transcendence in order to make real the Kingdom of God.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

SHARPZ: At the cutting edge of drug & alcohol treatment

                                                    Click here for the Photos !!

The SHARPZ office is already a hive of activity as we arrive at 7.30am as the team get themselves ready for the day ahead. Sr Roda is off on another 5 Day Programme, Philip has clients for therapy all day, there is admin to be taken care of by Beth (a VSO Volunteer from Ireland) and new courses to be planned and designed.

SHARPZ is a harm reduction programme for people struggling with drug or alcohol addictions. The centre also offers family therapy and one to one counselling. It is unique in Zambia and it is indeed a forerunner and ground breaker. For ten years, Philip Baxter OFM Cap and his team have been helping the people of Zambia deal with addiction. Make no mistake, addiction is rife, especially alcohol addiction, and can be directly attributed to  the rise and spread of communicable diseased like HIV, Hepatitis and STI's.

SHARPZ has a number of irons in the fire at this stage: it campaigns for sensible use of alcohol and raises awareness of the dangers associated with misuse; it runs community harm reduction and motivational interviewing programme (over 75 have been run all over Zambia, with an average of 25 community workers on each course), they provide counselling and detox services; research trends and drug use as well as keep an eye on what the Government is up to and they have been know to apply a little pressure when needed. They were recently mentioned in a speech by the Minister of Health as 'pioneers in the field'. The energy and passion that Philip and his team put into their work should be harnessed and piped into the nation grid...it is truly enlightening.

Currently the team, of which I am very proud to be a short term member, are designing programmes which will train and facilitate the empower groups called Community Alcohol Teams through-out Zambia or CATZ. SHARPZ is also rolling out Trauma Focused Cognitive Based Therapy Training (TF-CBT) Programmes in association with John Hopkins University in America.

As with all projects funding is hard to come by and currently SHARPZ are looking to raise funds to purchase 5 acres of land to build a residential detox centre, a badly needed addition to the web of support they provide...... so if you know anybody who would like to help, I am sure they would love to hear.

Check out and 'like' the SHARPZ Facebook page and a website is on the way very soon.... https://www.facebook.com/pages/Serenity-Harm-Reduction-Programme-Zambia-SHARPZ/237167263024020

Saturday, January 21, 2012

St Bonaventure's College, Lusaka


                                                   Some Photos attached: Click Here!!

St Bonaventure's College is a joint venture between the OFM, Conventual and Capuchin Friars and is supported by the FMDM sisters who live and work here also, so there is truly a Franciscan feel to the place.The college is advertised as a Franciscan Formation Centre and specialises in Philosophical Studies. From here, the brothers, go on to Theological or vocation training elsewhere in Africa. The are over 130 students (including some external students) at present and the smooth running of the place is down to Br Mark (OFM Cap) who is the College Rector.

Our Capuchin community is based at La Verna Friary and numbers in excess of 30 friars, including the Guardian and Formators and is spread over two main buildings. Life here is quite regulated and reminds me very much of my days in Novitiate. The day begins with morning prayer and meditation at 6am, this is followed by Mass. Prayer and Mass are mostly celebrated in the Friary Chapel except for a couple of occasions during the week and at weekends when the whole college comes together in the main College Chapel.

Breakfast follows the morning prayer: it is a quick and simple affair (tea / coffee, bread and marmalade) then off to prepare for class which begins at 8am. The afternoons are taken up, for the students, with various activities: study, manual work in the maize field or coffee plantation, cleaning or sports twice a week. The Friars gather again at 18.15 for meditation, evening prayer and the supper. Evenings are very quite, often spent reading, revising or working on course assignments. Although, some brothers have a certain penchant for an African soap, similar, in various ways, to our own Fair City!!

There are 1st, 2nd and 3rd year students studying a mix of Philosophy, English as well as introduction classes to Theology, Psychology, Sociology and Franciscan Studies. The college has a well structured and equipped Library, with over 30,000 volumes and a very impressive electronic catalogue, all over seen by Sr Eileen, who has done, by all accounts, fantastic work getting it into shop and keeping it that way.

The meals are usually, in typical Capuchin fashion, noisy affairs, as brothers catch up on the day and talk shop! The food is to an African palate: Maize, rice, relish (soup like sauce for the maize / rice) and some meat, fish or beans. We have pasta on a Thursday evening....I need say no more (my calendar is circled!).

I have been welcomed and well received by the brothers here and am slowly trying to remember all the names. Coming from a small community ,in comparison, the numbers do take some getting used to but it does lend itself to some rousing singing, even at 6am!!

So this will be my home until I leave for Ireland at the end of April and I hope you enjoy the attached pictures of it.

From Zambia, until next time, Good night and God bless!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Compounding Experience

The day began as usual with my artificial cockerel crowing me awake at 5.15am. As I orientate myself within the cosmos, the need for coffee arises and is, following Philips welcome invitation of, ‘fancy a quick cuppa before we head’, swiftly satisfied. The roads are quiet as we head to the FMDM sisters across town, where Philip says Mass each morning. Their house is cool and welcoming. Six of us gather in a small oratory to begin the day in celebration and communion with Christ and one another (as the IEC2012 tells us). Mass is followed by some breakfast and nice conversation, all watched over by the convent cat, who has obviously seen it all before.
But today is going to be different. Today I head to Chibolya compound. A compound, in Zambian terms, is a name for an area of dense population, often with poor sanitation and facilities (could be described as a Slum but not on the scale of Kibera in Kenya or Calcutta but similar in many ways). Chibolya is no exception to this rule and, at first glance, may even be a standard setter within Lusaka. We (Sr’s Roda & Immaculata, Br Conelius and myself) enter the compound past, what appears to be, an industrial estate of sorts. It has rained recently and the enormous potholes have filled with brown, foul smelling water, like a nightmarish version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. We encounter a traffic jam at the entrance to the compound and with it two men who are charging vehicles 1,000Kwacha (about 17cent) to assist their passage through a series of water hazards. Just as my psyche was beginning to equate, on one hand, the audacity of this with, on the other, its sheer entrepreneurism, a man passes our vehicle dragging, what at first glance appeared to be, a dead pig. But as I am slowly realising nothing is ever what it seems to be here and with a squeal the pig springs to life only to be reprimanded in a most disturbing way by his custodian. My eyes traced their charted course and I could see that the pig’s fate was sealed and he would soon meet his executioner. The vehicle slammed to a halt. In front of us a barrow of recently deceased and dissected pigs had turned over, spilling, quite literally on to the road in front of us. As we slowly negotiated our course around this macabre scene, men pushed the barrow in an attempt to right it again but, in doing so, where covered in pig entrails; I smiled as I saw some small justice in this for the pigs: they had the final laugh on this occasion.
Feeling a moment of connectedness between pig and person, as two expressions of the same Creator, and an intense un-comfortableness in the way latter treated the former, I declared in no uncertain terms: ‘That’s the last time I’m eating meat!’, much, I might add, to the amusement of my African counterparts. Now don’t get me wrong, I would be hypocritical to go on a crusade about meat eating BUT this was different. For me what I saw was undignified and unethical: the animal was cruelly treated and brutally slaughtered. It was a mere commodity, to be used in whatever way the user saw fit and therefore, it became for me a metaphor for the ‘user-culture’ that exists in this place and many other places, not alone here but right around the world. My cry to abstain from meat was a cry of solidarity with all in this place, who have been used, treated cruelly or slaughtered at the hands of those you see life as a mere commodity. My crusade continues….
We met Pastor Joshua outside the Coptic Church. As we waited the vehicle was flanked by children interested to see who was coming into their area, cries of ‘Musungu’ (white-man) came from toddlers, to whom I obviously appeared far more interesting than I usually do. There is no hiding a white face here and again entering this experience helps me connect, in some small way, with all those who come to our shores looking, in hope, for a new life. I am very much an outsider here and I feel it. People stare and sometimes pass comments….just like we do. Geographical distance is obviously not a measure of distance between mindsets, we are more alike than we credit. The Pastor brought us to our venue for the week, the local civic centre, which doubles as a distribution centre for ‘Clorin’, a chemical added to water in an effort to increase its drinkability. Though one lady, Josephine, tells us that it’s a delicate balance, if the Clorin is too enthusiastically added, then it causes gastric problems. It comes in a stage little blue bottle with a yellow lid, which reminds me of the bottles of bubbles was got as kids….strange what passes through your mind!
We are delivering a five day drug and alcohol awareness programme to thirty community activists and workers. The group is diverse: housewives, a pastor, young men, old women and a police officer. They are an engaging and jovial group and inside these walls it’s easy to forget the reality of life outside, as the air fills with jokes, smiles, conversation and laughter. The course ran as any training course would anywhere: ice-breakers, tea-breaks and break-out sessions. The participants spoke openly about life in the compound and, despite the difficulties, of how proud they are of Chibolya. At lunch I spoke with three women who began to tell me of Chibolya’s success stories. Of young people who had graduated  from the local school and gone on to hold positions in the Civil Service, Air Force, Law and Medicine. They beamed as they weaved connections between themselves and these success stories, wanting to be associated with this good news….and why not, it is good news after all and should be celebrated by the whole community. In fact, by telling you about it, I too am associating myself with it and, as you tell others, so will you and suddenly 8,000km disappears as we celebrate this good news together.
They tell me that Chibolya is in a process of rejuvenation and renewal. The streets are, slowly, becoming safer. The Pastor says that a few years ago, they would never have dreamed of running a course like this because of the associated danger. This course, as I see it, is doing two things: firstly, it’s up-skilling the community on the dangers and risks of alcohol and drug abuse for the individual, the community and society as a whole. Secondly, and probably most significantly, it is beginning a conversation within the community. They are beginning to network with each other, support each other and listen to each other’s stories. They want Chibolya to continue to improve for the sake of their children, and based on their drive, energy and pride, it has no choice but to.
The journey home was to turn into an Indiana Jones style escapade. The rains had flooded the already saturated gravel roads of the compound so we had organised a taxi to bring us down-town. When it arrived, I could tell by the drivers face that we were in for something special. He had driven into the compound from the city, gotten stuck in a mud hole, had to pay some local entrepreneurs 35,000 K to get out and water had leaked into the interior of his car….all before he picked us up! His mantra for the remainder of the journey was ‘My first and last time to Chibolya! My first and last time to Chibolya!’. We went back, as the Gospel tells us ‘by another way’ as, I presume, the driver didn’t fancy another charge from the locals. The next 30 minutes was sheer insanity, as our poor chariot, a Japanese import version of a Toyota Corolla, struggled through enormous pot holes filled with muddy water, which came up over the bonnet in some cases. Bemused children played in the rain wondering what level of egit was driving past them. As we drove, our poor driver became more anxious and his mantra became more intense until we reached some semblance of a road and freedom….or so I thought. Our driver had had enough. He parked off the road and decanted us into what appeared to be a passing car; the Sister’s seemed to think this was ok, so I followed close behind. Our driver told the Sisters (in Nyanja: the local language) that his ‘heart was broken’ and that was the first person in his family to own a car and he feared it was ruined (considering it cut out three times in the middle of giant puddles, he may not have been far wrong. Fingers crossed for him that Japanese reliability holds firm this time). Our new driver, a young man, was pleasant and quiet and greeted me with the customary ‘Hello Boss!’.
We inched our way through Soweto Market, a cramped and disorientating series of shack styled stalls selling anything you could imagine. Between the traffic, rain soaked people weave their way home: business people, school kids, drunks and traders with overladen wheelbarrows . They bounce off the car as much as they rain giving an amoeba type effect, as we were swallowed whole into this place and time and there was nothing we could do, just sit, wait and be grateful that we were on this side of the car door. To distract my overactive imagination, I struck up conversation with our silent driver but this provided little solace as he seemed only interested in pointing out the worst (or best, depending on your outlook) spots for carjacking and snatching in the market and, it seemed that we were passing, painfully slowly, through all of them. But he assured us he knew all the thieves VERY well, which I think was supposed to put us at ease!
At last Downtown appeared on the horizon. As we waited to turn into our rendezvous point, I saw a local bus pass by. These ‘busses’ (converted HiAce vans) all have slogans on the front and back windscreen such as ‘Born to be Wild’ or ‘God Only Knows’ but this one said ‘Heaven, I need a hug’ and I said Amen! 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Myukwayukwa, Mushwala and More!!

Photos: Follow this link  Photos attached Here!!

The roads in Zambia are long and usually quite straight but it’s the gravel tracks that I found most exciting. Red gravel (dirt) tracks cut through the countryside linking towns and villages. There is a story of one of the early Irish Capuchins out here who cut one of the first of these roads through the bush from Mangango to Mongu (over 150Km). It took him and his team 29 days to go out and 3 days to come back on the new road. The dirt roads call for some expert driving skills and in Trensio and James we had two of the best. They  broke at the last second, in just the right places, to avoid, sometimes, grand canyon styled potholes. Trensio said you know if a Zambian is drunk if he drives in a straight line, a sober driver always swerves!!

Myukwayukwa is an UNHCR refugee camp housing Angolan refugees displaced following the civil war there back in the 1960’s. At its peak the camp (there are in fact 35 individual camps) housed over 30,000 refugees, today that number is down to about 7,000, most of which were born in Zambia (although one young lady reminds me: ‘we are Angolan’, when I asked if they were registered as Zambian’s…that cleared that up for me!). For many years the Friars provided outreach to these camps. The first camp we arrive at is Camp 1. On the way in we pass UNHCR tents and cross a well-constructed bridge, built by the Zambian Army. Children wave to us as we pass and the atmosphere seems as light and colourful as any other town we have passed through.

We arrive at the Church of the Assumption in the centre of camp one, with Br James, who is the Priest to the camp. The church was built in 1965 and is very beautiful in his simplicity. It is kept in excellent condition and decorated with colourful toilet paper draped from the rafters for Christmas! The back of the church is full of musical instruments none of which I have seen before – drums, homemade guitars, a double-bass type instrument and of course shakers – seed shakers are a backbone of Zambian music. James celebrated mass here on New Year’s Eve and said that the roof nearly lifted off when the band and choir were in full flight and, by the look of their equipment, I can well believe  it.Our hosts, a group of young people and an old man who only spoke Portuguese,  took us down to the Hydro- Dam, where people washed their clothes, fished and walked across the dam on the most precarious of ledges, some even carrying bundles of sticks on their heads!! The dam means electricity for the camp and also, quite obviously, it is a place of social importance too, somewhere to meet and connect. We left the camp enriched by the welcome and kindness of the young people who showed us around.

We drove through the bush passing herds of cattle and small clusters of mud and thatch dwellings. People went about their usual daily business. We made a number of short stops along the way as James reconnected with James reconnected with villages and villagers he had seen since before Christmas. We stop at one of the most colourful scenes I have ever come across.  A group of  up to 100 women and children are gathered outside a remote clinic, they are dressed in vibrant reds, yellows, greens, blues and purples. The scene resembles and ad for some washing power. The medic on duty tells us a familiar story. There is an outbreak of measles and malaria in the area. We ask if malnutrition is a problem, he laughs and says ‘look at them, what do you think?’…we did and chubby little faces looked back! Question answered.

On our way back to the Friary we picked up two sets of passengers: a woman returning home (15 km on foot) with her child who has malaria. He was very quiet and looked miserable. Our next passengers were three young women who were off to visit a woman from their village that had just given birth in another village. The distances people have to travel on foot for the most rudimentary of activities is astounding. Our final stop was to George and his wife Agnes. George is a retired school teacher who would have worked closely with our friars over the years. This couple, married for 57 years, have lost three of their adult children to AIDS.  Out here, and even in wider Zambian society, very few families have escaped opening the door of their home to this devastating visitor. But today George and Agnes smile and are surrounded by their grandchildren, who eagerly stick out their hands to shake ours. Life can be cruel but new hope is always emerging, eager to put its hand out to us…… we just need to take it.

Next Stop Lusaka to begin the process of settling into life at St Bonaventure's College.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Road to Mangango - Part 2

 Mangango Hospital

Mangango is a place of intense beauty but in the midst of this beauty lays the reality of a gripping and unforgiving poverty. This type of poverty is not like any I have encountered in Ireland. As a first world country we have, in Ireland, an abundance of facilities and services for those in need. I know we complain about them and wish they were better, but it is only when you experience a situation where these basic facilities are either absent or miles away from the people who need them, that you can appreciate how fortunate we are.

As we walked around the village we met a woman, Gloria, with three children, one grown up and three young children: one just a baby. Gloria is dying. She has to walk 40km to reach the clinic at Mangango and is in constant pain. She is just skin and bone and can barely walk.The pain of every step can be clearly seen on her face and in the worried eyes of her children. She and her children have NOTHING. When she visits the clinic she stays overnight in a very basic shelter in which they are open to mosquitos and in turn malaria. Gloria is by no means unique. The next day, she told us, she was to leave for Lusaka for treatment….I have a feeling she will never return to Mangango. Then what of the children…they cycle of poverty continues.

The hospital out-patients department is heaving with patients waiting to be assessed. Most are young women with babies. The medic tells me there is a severe outbreak of malaria and measles. Babies have their temperatures taken and are weighed. They then pass to the next room, where a technician takes a pin-prick blood sample to test for Malaria, if positive they are passed to the nurse and then to the Pharmacy for anti-malarial treatments.

We went to greet the director of the Hospital, a religious sister belonging to a Zambian congregation called the Daughters of the Redeemer. She is bursting with life and enthusiasm for her work and is very proud of the Hospital and all involved with it. This hospital was founded by our Capuchin Brothers and for many years run by a Franciscan Medical Missionary Order of Sisters (FMDM). The hospital caters for patients from Mangango and the surrounding villages. Like Gloria, patients often have to walk very long distances to be seen. The outpatients open at 9am but people are often seen queuing from 6am. Everybody has a copy book and in this is recorded their medical records. They bring this along with them making the waiting room seem more like a classroom at times.

The hospital has a children’s ward, male and female adult wards, a chest clinic, a Hansen’s disease clinic as well as a HIV clinic. It looks after both medical and surgical cases. More serious cases are referred to Mongu or Lusaka for treatment. It operates a number of ambulances and outreach programmes to villages. As we leave the hospital, we pass through outpatients and the rows of faces waiting to be seen as the room becomes more and more congested, the heat rises and I wonder how anybody could have a normal temperature reading when it comes their turn to have it taken.

Reflecting on my visit to the hospital, I realised that millions of people are in the same poverty stricken situation as those we encountered in Mangango and have no reprieve from it. It is a constant presence. There are no days off, no holidays, no plans…just today and the task of finding enough food to keep them going until tomorrow, when they get to do it all over again. But through all of this, they smile and welcome you as you have never been welcomed before. A genuine welcome that comes from their heart and for a moment our two worlds intertwine into a place of common humanity.

PS I am working with a very slow connection so apologies for no photos, will do my best to include them during the week ;-)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Road to Mangango....Part 1

Two days ago, I left Lusaka with Brother's Adrian and Trensio for Mangango. Mangango is one of the oldest Capuchin Missions in Zambia dating back to 1938 and is now a bustling village situated in the Western Province of Zambia. The area is a farming one and the village is surrounded by maize fields..the staple food here. The Capuchin Friars built the friary, schools (primary and secondary), hospital and Lepersarium and a strong community has ground around the Friars over the years.

We eventually got going after a 2 hour breakdown and a car change and when we arrived (after 6  hours of driving) we were warmly welcomed by our brothers, James Connolly (from Cavan) and Zambians, Matthew and Ackim. We may be 8,000 km from Ireland but our time in Mangango began with the kettle going on!! James took us on a tour of the village beginning with the water and electricity supplies. Water comes from an underground spring and its provision is a credited to friar Bruno McKnight, who sourced it over 30 years ago. Today it still supplies the fresh drinking water to the entire village. Next we were shown how water was used in a different way, to generate electricity. The friars commissioned the building of a hydro-electric generator over twenty years ago and today it supplies electricity, not alone to the Friary, but to the Parish Church, Halls, Community of Sisters who run the Hospital, the Hospital itself as well as many other local families who have the facility to receive it.

Walking from the 'hydro', as it is know locally, we met a number of locals who welcomed us warmly. Zambians hold themselves with great confidence and style ... standing straight, they look right at you and then comes the famous smile. Locals here clap hands when the meet you and for anything else that they are pleased with...they have a very humble and gentle way about them. Greeting is very important in Zambian culture, especially out in the bush villages, so we continued on our way greeting all we met.

Our next stop was to the Hansen's Village (or Leper Village as it was once known). There we met a group of the most wonderful and warm people all Hansen's sufferers, and resident in this village for many years. They exchanged stories of friars they had known over the years Br's Owen, Ronan, Edwin and Bruno to name but a few. They also took time out to give Br James Connolly some slagging about being an 'old man' as he brought a walking stick with him. After some photographs and some prayers with them we headed off.

On the way back to the friary we met three young men who had killed a black Mamba snake. Black Mamba's are highly venomous and kill many people each year. A young boy we were told was bitten by a snake in the fields last week and ended up in a coma. This kind of danger is a reality for people living here.

The day ended with a fraternal meal, and for me, a very early night.... the 5am start had caught up with me.

Monday, January 2, 2012

And so it begins....

We arrived in Lusaka after 18 hours of travelling, from Dublin, via London. It was 6.30am local time and already 28 degrees!! We joined what was to be one of many, queues... a very common sight in Africa, almost a national passtime. Once through border control, bags reclaimed, we met Br Philip Baxter who had kindly come to collect us and take us to St Pio's Friary, home to the Vice Provincial Noel Brennan.

On the way from the airport, I was immediately struck by the sheer number of people doing stuff by the road sides...walking, selling, sitting, standing, chatting. After a bite of lunch we moved from St Pio's to St Bonaventure's College..my home for the next four months. It's a big set up behind high ways and security guards...both of which are a common sight here. It houses friaries of the OFM's, Conventuals and Capuchins. They share a central Church for Sunday and Feast day services as well as lecture and library facilities. After some quick introductions, evening prayer and food...it was time for bed. We had a 4.45 am start to drive 7 hours to Livingstone the next morning.....day one.

The alarm went at 4.30am but I was already awake. The heat and humidity at night was crazy....no fan yet but it is now top of my priority list! We had Mass in the Friary Chapel at 4.45am and after a quick coffee we climbed into the jeep for our journey south to Livingstone.

Named after David Livingstone, the town is considered the tourist capital of Zambia due to his connections and the Victoria Falls. The Falls are over 1.7 km wide and spill 900,000 litres of water per second!! The spray can be seen from the ground up to 30km away, hence the local nae for the Falls 'Mosi-ao-Tunya' : The Smoke that Thunders.....and it does. After a decent soaking from the spray, the Good Lord was kind enough to send us some Zambian rain.

to be continued.......