Sunday 29 April 2012|
Kairos Catholic Journal, Volume 23, issue 7
Kairos Catholic Journal, Volume 23, issue 7
FOLLOWING in the footsteps of Melbourne Christian Brothers who went to Tanzania and Kenya in the late 1980s to contribute to the education of impoverished local youth, our group of five young men and five young women enthusiastically embraced the people of Nairobi and Arusha and their culture during our four-week immersion in January this year.
This was not difficult, given the warmth of the welcome that we received from the African Edmund Rice leaders, and the common spirit that we share. The immense power of a shared spiritual reality was refreshing and in total contrast to the seemingly nihilist approach to faith evident in much of today's media, and portrayed as typical of young people in the West.
While our group seemed unremarkable and like any other group of young people externally, what happened internally accounted for a remarkable difference, and it will take a lot of reflection, unpacking and sharing before any of us can articulate our individual story.
Historically, nothing of what we did was unusual. For two millennia, women and men have been moved by the life of Jesus and the Gospel values he articulated to journey great distances on pilgrimages. But our experience must be viewed through the lens of the 2012 political and economic situation in Kenya and Tanzania and the extreme poverty and deprivation in those places.
The immersion was entitled Tutembee Pamoja, literally translated as 'We Walk Together', and our group had spent many months of saving and preparation. A heady mix of emotions—excitement for the young, apprehension for the elders, and uncertainty for both—surrounded the departing travellers as we gathered at Melbourne Airport on 2 January. Bystanders could be forgiven for puzzlement at our choice of destination. The saying 'for those who do have faith, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, no explanation is possible', probably encapsulated the general feeling. Why would 10 relatively privileged young Australians choose to sacrifice their Christmas holidays and their savings to immerse themselves in the poorest parts of troubled Africa?
Our group comprised 13 in all, 10 participants from Melbourne and Launceston, two young organisers and myself. A parallel group of 14 from Perth met us in Africa.
One aim of the immersion was, as the title suggests, to walk with and stand beside our Edmund Rice brothers and sisters in Nairobi and Arusha and to try to see life through their eyes. This program was initiated by young Edmund Rice leaders a few years ago to channel some of the hunger for justice generated from camps for disadvantaged children and to provide a spiritually nourishing personal cross-culture experience. It is certainly the most cutting-edge ministry that the Christian Brothers are leading, and one that has captured the support of Australian schools and old boys' organisations.
We arrived in Nairobi on 3 January, still bubbling after 20 hours travel. The next morning we were welcomed by the local Edmund Rice leaders in an energetic and memorable way. The shared spirit admitted to no barriers and very quickly new bonds were struck. The locals had committed to act as guides and mentors for the four weeks of our visit, and a detailed program had been arranged. We began with a couple of visits to local ministries, before the major immersion experience in the Kibera slum.
While the word Kibera rolls off the tongue easily, the reality is very daunting. The area straddles a grossly polluted river moving through a steep valley, and from the top all that the eye can take in is a sea of rusty iron sheds crammed together, with narrow walkways leading down. Australian farmers would be reluctant to house cattle in the decrepit buildings, and the stench from the river is dreadful. Running water is limited to a few taps to which children walk with plastic drums to be filled, and there is no rubbish disposal system.
First impressions of our surroundings were dismal, but fortunately they were only one part of the picture. The hesitant smiles of the local children soon gave way to shrieking and laughter as they swarmed over the visitors and all sorts of games were hastily organised in the dusty primary school yards.
Some schools are relatively small and have very limited space, apart from being of similar construction to the shanties with dirt floors and no glass in the windows. But for all the manifold disadvantages, the hunger for learning and respect for knowledge was astounding. The leaders were invited into classrooms and given the opportunity to work with the students, who were attentive and keen to answer questions. Kibera was both a confronting and very satisfying experience.
The missionary effort pioneered by the Melbourne Christian Brothers and now shared by the wider Edmund Rice Network, enjoys the wholehearted support of a wide coalition of groups and individuals. New facilities are being built and a new generation of African brothers are being trained. The Christian Brothers Foundation for Charitable Works forwarded $1.2 million in 2011, $180,000 of which was raised by the ‘500 Club’, an old collegians group inspired by long-time supporter Noel O’Brien.
Individual Edmund Rice schools make significant contributions from student fundraising efforts. The Cotton On Foundation in Geelong has also been heavily involved in supporting similar work in Africa, working through the Belmont parish. These three organisations would all welcome your support and donations, and there are other ways to assist.
A particular need exists within the Ruben Centre in Nairobi for volunteer help in their medical clinic. On the edge of the Mukuru slum, the free clinic sees 50,000 episodes a year, recently inoculating 12,000 babies and young children over four days.
An extraordinary range of volunteers from all over the world spends time there, particularly providing instruction to local workers in the use of modern medical technology. Medical professionals from Australia are able to access a recently completed, secure three-bedroom unit.
Further details: Terry O’Shannassy, Coordinator of the Edmund Rice Network, 9287 5570. www.rubencentre.org
Photos provided by Terry O'Shannassy