Trying to Understand

(New Zealand Tablet, about 1978)


The Holy Spirit plays practical jokes. You don’t believe me? Read on. A young friar asks his Provincial for a transfer to a friary where he can live a more intensive community life than is possible in a university chaplaincy cum suburban parish. He’s transferred to a bush mission station with one other friar, the nearest friaries being 300 km on one side and 410 km on the other. The funniest part of it all is that he not only survives it but actually enjoys it. I hope the joke lasts!

After one year in Zambia, it’s possible to look back and re-assess. At this stage the most difficult settling-in is over and done with, and thank God for that because it was hard. The most frustrating thing at the start was not being able to speak the language. To be quite unable to communicate at even the most elementary level is an experience of deprivation that is a blunt, rough reminder that indeed no man is an island. The biggest help in that difficulty was the helpfulness, encouragement and courtesy of the people. They were very kind, and their support made an enormous difference. Thank God that problem is behind me now, and I can bubble along reasonably confidently.

The parish I’m now in, Sichili, had as its resident priest between 1937 and 1946 Father Agathangelus, who was parish priest of Northland in Wellington from 1958 to 1963. He was a giant of a man. Coming to an area with no schools whatever, he set up a teachers’ training college and built schools, so that, within five years, a government report was able to describe the parish as ‘one of the best schooled areas in the whole Protectorate’. That was truly a staggering achievement. The Church built 170 primary schools in Livingstone diocese and carried almost the entire burden of educational work until 1974 when the system was transferred to State control. This was done on the Church’s initiative: compensation was neither asked for nor received. The general consensus was that it was the right thing to do, and, at this point, no one asks for a return to the former position.

The abnormal very quickly becomes the normal. Seeing the evidence of poverty, disease, under-nourishment and ignorance day by day quickly becomes a matter of routine. The sight of lepers still gives quite a jolt, especially when they are facially disfigured, but otherwise you don’t bat an eyelid. At times you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this callousness, or is it a necessary self-protection?’ I don’t know, but one of the good things is to know that you have saved quite a number of lives by the simple coincidence (or is it the Holy Spirit again?) of going to a village on a visit to find that someone urgently needed transportation to hospital. I haven’t yet delivered a baby but there have been some near misses. Delivering calves on the farm in Donegal may yet come in useful!

Check the confessional for snakes. They like those cool, dark corners. That was one bit of good advice I got, and, though I haven’t found one there yet, I still check, especially when we found a 7 foot long cobra in one of the bedrooms. A local man called Forward (he got the name when he was on a football team), who was as drunk as a lord, came staggering into the room with a bamboo rod while the rest of us just stood there looking at it, wondering what to do. Before the snake could even pull itself together to spring, Forward had beaten it to jelly and then wobbled off, looking like Andy Capp on his way home.

We have electricity for about three hours in the evening, provided by our own generator. We don’t have TV, and I’ve never missed it. Being without these things has some interesting spin-off effects. I’ve read more books in the last year than I’ve read in any year since ordination, and that’s a good move. Saying Mass in the dark in the early morning gives practical as well as symbolic meaning to the candles on the altar and in the Easter liturgy. It doesn’t strike you when you have lights. Those candles amuse me. They’re made in Communist China. My principle is that it doesn’t matter whether the candle is capitalist or communist as long as it honours the Mass. Beijingo! I’m sure the little man in the said capital would appreciate that bit of wisdom!

One very welcome change from NZ is the absence of committee meetings in the evenings. People here are not night people, so, in the evening, your time is your own, and that’s a real treat. We’ve had a curfew for the last few weeks so we can’t go out after eight anyway. The curfew was imposed after a series of Rhodesian air-raids just before the April elections there. Casualties have been heavy. I spoke to a doctor who told me that she was in Lusaka when 300 men were brought into hospital with burns over 90% of their bodies after one raid. Fortunately, all that happens a long way from Sichili.

I got a closer view of things recently when I went to visit Sioma, on the west ban of the Zambezi, where I started off in Zambia. Returning to Sichili, I saw a Zambian army truck which had been shot up by South African jets on the previous Saturday. I counted 13 bullet holes in the windscreen and 10 in one of the doors. The back of the truck was like a sieve. The two soldiers in charge were lucky enough to have got out just before the attack. A few miles further on I saw a civilian truck burning on the side of the road. It had a load of mealie meal and salt in the back, as well as one drum each of diesel and paraffin. It had been attacked by South African planes that morning and the drums of fuel had caught fire. I finished the journey with one eye on the road and another on the sky. The two Kalahari Bushmen who were travelling with me didn’t understand any of it, but, judging by their reactions, they must have thought it was the funniest thing ever. They couldn’t stop laughing. It brought back memories of books by Laurens van der Post.

What are the people like? Well, I find them friendly, hospitable, courteous, respectful, easy to talk to, with a relaxed gentle sense of humour. There isn’t a trace of coldness, cynicism or hostility among them. They forgive easily, which is a good thing for us, because they have plenty of scope for it. Their name for a white person is mukuwa which is the name of a white berry which turns red in the hot season. I like that touch. These warm, human qualities make them an easy people to get along with. However, despite all this there are big problems in communicating. Knowing the language is only a first step, and really only a small one, in coming to understand and appreciate how people think, what their presuppositions, feelings and reactions are. The language of real communication is love, and that demands a high price.

An example of the difference in thinking came one day when I told two men who were travelling with me that one of the Sisters in the hospital had cancer and was not expected to live long. They laughed. I was furious and would have told them what I thought of them only that, at the time, I didn’t have enough Lozi to be able to say it. It was only later that I came to realize that, even in adults, laughter is sometimes a cover-up for feelings of embarrassment. They didn’t know what to say, they were embarrassed, so they laughed. Another example is that when things go wrong, whether it’s the failure of a crop, or an illness, or especially an unexpected death, the people reaction is not ‘What caused it?’ but ‘Who caused it?’ They believe that it was caused by an enemy who used magic against them. Sometimes they’re right, because there is a lot of recourse to witchdoctors to settle personal scores, but the almost automatic assumption that they are behind it makes it difficult to lead people to look at ordinary causes and then act accordingly. So, for example, people come to hospital for treatment, but also go to a herbalist, or a diviner, or a witchdoctor to be on the safe side. Recently a man being treated for an eye infection turned up with the sight of that eye destroyed. The African doctor had packed cow dung into it as ‘medicine’.

The attitude that I find it hardest to adjust to is that of a stifling apathy, a feeling of hopelessness, and the uselessness of making an effort. Many attempts to lead people to take one step forward end with the statement in Lozi, ‘That’s the way it is’, meaning that life has always been like that, and nothing will change it, so there’s no point in trying. This attitude is a great inhibition on efforts by Church, State and other bodies to try to bring about change. One practical instance of this is in farming. Near us there are two black Rhodesian farmers who came here about twenty years ago. They have good herds of cattle, good fruit, vegetable and seed crops. All round them, on identical land, are poor farms, with little or nothing except cassava or millet, without cattle, fruit or vegetables. I asked the Lozi farmers why there was such a difference. Their answers were that the other men had good medicine, or greater intelligence, or that God looked after them. I don’t know whether they really believed those answers, or whether they had thought the matter out at all.

What’s the reason? I can only have a stab at it, though I must admit that I really don’t know what the answers are. One reason may be that the individual does not seem to have emerged from the tribe. Thinking and action was done collectively in the tribe. Now that the tribes have lost much of their influence, especially since Independence, for political reasons, the individual seems to be a bit like a hothouse plant pushed out into the cold. He hasn’t yet adjusted. Group action is stronger than individual initiative, which is very hard to find.

An impression I have is that the older cultural attitudes were geared more to relationships than to functions. The qualities that people regard most of all are the human ones of kindness, patience and so on, whereas modern influences, largely European in origin, emphasize the value of getting the job done. Our language illustrates this. Europeans respect the person who ‘gets things done’; ‘we want someone who delivers the goods’. The people here would prefer someone who would sit down and talk with them. For example, people remember Father Agathangelus not so much for the schools he built as for his human characteristics. Maybe I’ve overdrawn the distinction between the two approaches, but I think there’s a kernel of truth there.

In addition, the old culture in which people had self-respect and self-confidence has been weakened and a new one has not yet developed to replace it. Christianity has only partly filled the cultural vacuum, but it is still a long way from having created a new culture. The State is trying to fill the gap with an official philosophy called Zambian Humanism, which is a combination of Christian ethics and traditional African values. This philosophy is promoted by a Ministry of National Guidance, which, however, is not nearly as Big Brotherish as its Orwellian names suggests.

One African writer has described an African view of time as like a river flowing into its own source. This cyclical view, perhaps related to the seasons of the year, where there is little substantial change from one generation or even one century to the next, lends itself easily to the fatalistic view that there is never any real change, that things are as they always have been, and will always be. This is in contrast to a Christian view of time, which is linear, having a definite starting point in creation and a definite finishing-point at the end of time. So, for instance, the Christian doctrine of heaven, often misrepresented as a pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die idea, really has the opposite effect because it means that life has a purpose. It’s going somewhere, not around in circles. I think that a different view of time, which is probably more unconscious than articulated, has a great influence on how a person sees life.

I think something similar applies to a view of nature. The people here seem to be dominated by it. For example, this year the rains have been light, and consequently crops have been small. I have seen maize die of lack of water within yards of a stream, yet no one seems to think of irrigation even though the Government has dug small irrigation canals to show that it can be done. A Government agricultural adviser, who is willing and able to help, finds that few ask for it. There seems to be a passive acceptance that nature always wins and you can’t fight it. A Christian view, on the other hand, is based on a mastery of nature, not in an exploitative sense, but in the healing sense which we see in Jesus’ control over nature.

Ordinary physical factors, such as under- nourishment, disease, especially debilitating ones such as bilharzia, can create a vicious circle. People haven’t the energy to work long hours, the return on the crop is small, and the person is back to square one. I think also that ordinary laziness is party of the picture as well. But when all’s said and done, what I understand, or think I understand, is only a small view of the tip of the iceberg.

In the middle of all the struggles to understand what was going on around me, a welcome break came with the arrival of Father Peter Cullinane from the Pastoral Centre in Palmerston North. It was great to renew contact with NZ through him. I think he enjoyed himself although he told me at the start that his one fear was not of snakes, elephants or leopards, but of rabid dogs. We spent a few days visiting one of the outstations, sleeping in a tent at night. When we arrived, the people mentioned casually in the course of conversation that there was a rabid dog running around which had bitten a girl a few days previously. I don’t know whether Father Peter slept too well in the tent after that! But we didn’t meet the dog, or even a leopard.

One other reminder of NZ was a letter from the Inland Revenue about PAYE relating to money The Tablet gave me for the last article I wrote. Truly, only two things are inevitable, death and taxes. I don’t know if the Holy Spirit has much of a say in matters of taxation, but somebody in NZ’s Inland Revenue has a sense of humour!