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.