African dream: my 17 years in Kenya

By Sister Mary Kerber, S.S.N.D. What I experienced those first months in Kenya is still my experience after all these years. The Kenyans are welcoming, hospitable, and extremely generous people.

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WHEN I WAS AROUND 10 YEARS OLD, I shared a secret dream with my younger brother, Mark. I told him that when I grew up I wanted to be a sister and a missionary in Africa. He thought it was a great idea and added that he could be a priest and go with me! Such were the dreams of childhood, but there was something rather unique about this dream. It did not get buried under the more practical plans for my life. When I entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1969, the dream remained with me. At that time we didn't have missions in Africa, but I felt so drawn to the S.S.N.D. focus on education and their spirit of community life, that I just knew it was the right place for me to be. Then in 1974, the Mankato, Minnesota Province to which I belonged, sent their first missionaries to Kenya. I was too young to go at that time, but in 1984, after completing my master's degree from the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, I boarded a KLM flight to Nairobi. My younger brother didn't join me, but his 4 year old son, Tony, made me promise to share all his hugs with the children of Kenya!

These past 17 years in Africa, most of them spent in Kenya, have held some profound gifts and blessings for me. When I arrived on August 17, 1984, the two sisters who picked me up at the airport advised me to remember my first impressions. This wasn't hard to do, and to this day, I will never forget the sights and sounds and smells. That first night sleeping at a guesthouse in Nairobi, it was the sound of a mosquito that I remember. The next morning, driving up-country, it was the sight of people walking and walking and walking, the smell of charcoal burning, the feel of humidity as we passed rainy Kericho with its patchwork of tea fields of the greenest green I had ever seen, and later the hot penetrating sun of Kano plain on the shores of Lake Victoria. I will not forget my own pensive mind wondering if this strange place would ever feel like home to me. It did not take long for that question to be answered.

Lasting impressions

What I experienced those first months in Kenya is still my experience after all these years. The Kenyans are welcoming, hospitable, and extremely generous people. They have taken me in as their own and shared their lives with me.

As the years have gone by, their own problems have become the concerns of my heart. Poverty, of course, is manifested everywhere. A part of that poverty is related to corrupt governments and more recently, the effects of globalization. There is a rising number of street children in all of the larger cities, and it is not easy for me to walk down the street and feel these children tugging at my skirt for food and money. A loaf of bread may stave their hunger today, but who will give them food tomorrow?

AIDS has touched absolutely every family. Many of my friends have died of AIDS. One woman in particular who was a very good friend left behind five children. The grandmother is trying her best to take care of them. There are other families who have as many as 20 to 30 orphans to care for. Of course, this is impossible, and many people are predicting not only a generation lost to AIDS but another generation lost because of neglect.

Nairobi is filled with refugees. For a few years I convened a support group of refugee women who were just trying to deal with the trauma of their lives. Their stories were filled with incredible courage and suffering. One woman tied her 8 children together so that they would not get lost in the long journey from the Congo to Kenya as they walked on foot. When she arrived, the Kenyan government refused to believe that they were all her children! Refugees are not allowed to get jobs in Kenya-and even if they were, there are not enough jobs for Kenyans. I know many people with master's degrees who have no job.

In the face of such mammoth poverty and privations, I have often felt overwhelmed. My most recent ministry honors both my charism as a School Sister of Notre Dame and my own inner desire to respond to such incredible suffering. The Institute of Social Ministry at Tangaza College in Nairobi (where some of our own young S.S.N.D. African Sisters are now being trained) addresses Africa's urgent social and developmental problems. In this Institute, we prepare pastoral agents to identify the social problems of people, make a social analysis, and work out an answer in the form of projects and similar kinds of initiatives.

Our students are from all over the world. Most are Africans, but we also have Asians, Europeans, and South Americans, most of whom belong to religious communities. Nearly all of our students, including laywomen and men, are Roman Catholics, but we also accept students of other denominations and religious traditions.

As I walk into the classroom of the first year students every year, I like to just study their faces. Many look fearful-some have not been in a classroom for many years, some have just learned English and are struggling to communicate well in it, some have never been taught by an American woman before, and some are uncertain that their intellectual ability will be sufficient to gain a diploma or a degree. Some look excited-they may have received funding to enable them to receive this education, or they may have been untrained social ministers who now have an opportunity to be educated in a field that is dear to their heart.

You are ready for this

My first words to them are, "Sit back and relax!" And as I see the smiles broaden across their faces, I continue, "You are ready to embark on an education that will not only touch your minds, but will deepen your souls. Don't worry, you are ready for it, and if anything is standing in the way, we are here for you and together, we will find a way."

As the weeks go by, those things that are standing in the way slowly come to the attention of those of us on the staff. One of the most common worries of our students is their lack of good study skills. So we developed a course in their first year to teach them the basics of study and research. We have also designed optional workshops for them in various topics of study, such as how to take notes, how to write a bibliography, and how to study for a test. One of my greatest pleasures is to see them grow not only in their abilities, but in their confidence.

A great concern, especially for our lay students, is lack of resources. The Institute has offered a number of scholarships for needy students, but some still lack basic needs. In quiet and unpretentious ways needs are met; a hungry student finds a bag lunch at his desk every day, a cold student is given a warm jacket to wear on brisk Nairobi mornings, a refugee woman student finds a Bible and an English text book in her bag.

Sometimes all a student needs is someone to talk to. Many of our students are new to Kenya and are experiencing culture shock and feelings of isolation. Of course, these realities can make studying very difficult. In the last few years, the college has provided "companions" who are staff members willing and able to listen to the struggles of the students. Being a companion to many of our students has been a tremendous gift and blessing to me. Listening to the painful situations of students has given me a greater appreciation of their indomitable and courageous spirits.

The ministries our students engage in are many times dangerous ones. Persons with convictions and programs geared toward the development of people are often not understood and therefore not tolerated. One of my special concerns is for the welfare of the minister. I have taught courses in human development and spirituality that enable the students and social ministers to reflect on their own lives, their perceptions of reality, and their worldview, the kind of spirituality that will sustain and nurture them especially in stressful situations.

Beyond the village

As I see my students graduate and move to different parts of Africa to engage in various social ministries, I pray that what has been unleashed in them in their years at Tangaza will be not only a blessing to those whom they serve but to the continent of Africa and to all the world. Recently I heard from one of my former students who is now working in a training school for the poor in Mombasa, Kenya. He wrote: "As I think of what has taken place this year, I count a lot of blessings. In a very real way, I have experienced a true companionship with our Lord." Another student excited about his first assignment after graduation wrote: "I have been appointed to Southern Sudan. After so many years of formation, the mission is here and I am a bit scared of what it might be. I am sure that I will have to correct many ideas and idealizations . . . but in any case I am very enthusiastic and happy to launch myself in this adventure at the service of God's people."

Letters such as these are a poignant reminder of the true value of education. The old proverb, "It takes a village to educate a child," tells only half the story. Once that child is educated, he or she passes on that gift of education to the village, to the country, and to the world.

My years in Africa have become a tapestry. Sometimes I get caught up in contemplating the individual threads of certain persons and places and events. But I also enjoy seeing how those threads have been woven in a pattern that is so dear to my heart. I see now more clearly that my childhood dream was an invitation to share in God's dream. How apt I find the words of Frederick Buechner which I happened upon one day:

"The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

Sister Mary Kerber, S.S.N.D. is a School Sister of Notre Dame who recently completed a sabbatical in the U.S. She served in Kenya for 17 years.

2003 © TrueQuest Communications

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