Oblate Mission Associates

Musings on Tanzania by Norm Duerr

Oblate Mission Travel – Tanzania (March 2007)

Written by Norm Duerr, Humboldt, SK


Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger?” I answered, Here I am. Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8)


Since 2001 when first I went to Africa to work for Global Volunteers in Ghana, the call to come back has haunted me. This past January during a difficult struggle with a nasty viral infection complicating my convalescence from hip replacement surgery, I came across Oblate Mission Travel founded and managed by Vancouver lawyer Neysa Finnie….I made a telephone call, was informed that I could join a small group visiting rural Tanzania in March where I would have an opportunity to do some teaching in St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in the village of Ussongo. I had one week to decide.


That Sunday, a reading from Luke spoke of casting one’s net upon the waters. I heard the words “Be not afraid,” and in spite of health concerns made a decision to go.


Now, back in Saskatchewan as I drift to sleep, the dream of Africa persists. Heavy wet snow and cold winds still prevail here, and I long again for warm blue skies, hot sun, Baobab trees with elephant-leg trunks, thorn trees and acacia trees with storks perched in their crowns, the red earth, warm and vibrant like the people of Tanzania.


Memories flood back --- people smiling, friendly, hospitable, ever courteous, a people patient, strong, resilient ---voices like melted chocolate, children’s hands reaching, touching, as hearts reach and touch in a bond of brotherhood --- touching something deep within, the call from the cradle of humanity.


This is the Africa I have come to love.


The dream is ever there --- a kalaidoscope of images of rural central Tanzania: patches of scrubland interspersed with small fields, red roads snaking across the landscape --- roads rutted and potholed after heavy rains --- strange rock outcroppings with huge sculpted boulders spewn up from the bowels of the earth by some prehistoric volcanic eruption.


Around the village of Ussongo, small herds of goats and Brahma cattle move against a backdrop of verdant rice paddies and stands of maize drying under the hot sun. On the dirt road leading to the village, with bicycle traffic for taxi and transport,  women sheathed in khangas, reds and yellows shimmering against the green of roadside grass and brush, walk with perfect poise balancing plastic pails of water on their heads. From traditional African mud-brick and thatched roof huts small children emerge. In response to a show of greeting they smile, dark faces lit by white eyes and teeth. They wave happily and with shouts of glee rush back to the shelter of their huts.


In the church on Sunday tiny girls in ruffled dresses kneel ahead of me, their hands stretched up clutching the top of the backrest in front. They kneel patiently though they cannot see the altar. A small boy, hands in pockets, ambles up the aisle, then sits quietly, unsupervised throughout the service. During the week St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School students attend a daily 6:45 a.m. service. In white and dark school uniforms, some with royal blue sweaters, they raise their voices in African liturgical song. A few young girls begin the chorus, more voices join in, then the older boys’ bass drone follows. The beautiful 3 and 4-part polyphonic harmony resounds from wall to wall, ending at times in shouts of joyous jubilation.


At a Sunday evening benediction service, voices swell in song while thunder crashes outside and rain pelts the metal church roof. I experience a moment of transcendence, and am quietly moved to tears.


In the classrooms of St. Thomas Aquinas School students are respectful, well-behaved, courteous, solicitous. They thirst for knowledge of Canada, a land they can only dream of visiting some day. A Form 3 class of boys sing Tanzania’s national anthem; a class of girls ask me to teach them to sing “O Canada.”


I shall never forget one student --- a 13 year-old Muslim boy whose name is Kisamo. On the last day he tells me he is sad I am leaving. “May God bless you,” he says, then tears roll down his cheeks as he throws his arms around me sobbing. Later that evening he sends a message asking me to the Form 1 room where he is studying with other boys. He draws me apart from the group gathered around --- to a bench under a mango tree adjoining the soccer field. Taking my hands he gives me an Islamic blessing. It is a blessing from the God we both share and serve --- a double blessing of grace and of love, and in my heart I know why the Spirit drew me again to Africa, to a people I have come to admire and to love.


This is the Africa I want to remember.


There is another face of Africa where poverty and dirty streets with open drains and dust and hunger prevail --- crime in the dimly-lit streets of Dar Es Salaam, former capital of Tanzania; an attack on 4 tourists in Arusha; a growing tide of refugees from neighboring Rwanda savaged by civil strife --- scars on the face of a people scarred too long by the evils of slavery and Western colonial and economic exploitation. I see again images of two bodies sprawled on the pavement, recently hit by dangerous speeding vehicles --- bodies broken, lying in pools of blood, shrouded now by Khangas.


Tragically, this too is Africa. 


Back in Ussongo students at St. Thomas School eat their noon lunch. They line up at food stations outside a “kitchen,” a dirt floor half-wall pole and mud-brick structure with open fires and huge pots for cooking the food --- ugali (a corn-mash, starchy mixture) and beans. Each student clutches a plastic plate and tin bowl and receives a portion. They perch then on grass, piles of construction material (a new dining hall is being built), or mounds of earth and eat their meal with only their fingers as utensils. When I ask if it is good, they smile and reply, “Yes, it is good!” They will have the same fare in the evening with meat (beef) served only once a week. When asked if they ever get chicken they reply, “No, it is too expensive.”


Yes, it is good. A people content with little; a people schooled in patience; a disciplined people whose strength and resilience may some day forge a great continent that will put our self-indulgent Western society to shame.


We have much to learn from the people of Africa, and from the beautiful faces of her smiling, affectionate children.


The dream does not end. Africa is seared forever in my consciousness and in my soul.


Thank you, Neysa Finnie, for the Oblate Mission Travel experience, and the privilege of teaching at St. Thomas Aquinas School.


Asante sana, Africa! 


Norman Duerr

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