Learning their language, made me love them more
I was ordained priest on 20th January 2007 and thereafter posted to South Africa only to return for rotation on 17th March, this year 2016. For the past nine years, I had a series of experiences. Arriving at the Johannesburg O.R. Tambo international airport that morning, I was overwhelmed by its level of development and vastness. I felt I was back to Europe where I had been until seven months ago. Different from the European airports I had been in though was the fact that as I was about to arrive at the arrival lounge, I met one of the workers who wanted me to give him some dollars, lest he would check through my entire luggage. Being met by then our Provincial Superior, I was again awestruck as we drove out of the airport through the big and elaborate freeways from the airport to the posh part of Johannesburg, Kensington, where the provincialate is located. At the provincialate, I was excited finding a clean and attractive swimming pool. I love being in water and therefore, spent a lot of the time swimming.
After a fortnight of visiting the other communities and places within the provinces of Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, where our missionaries are, I was eventually driven by the Provincial to the community of Mount Frere, in the Diocese of Kokstad, in the Province of the Eastern Cape, where the Xhosa people live. Along the way, especially after leaving the KwaZulu-Natal province, I could clearly see the differences that are there in terms of the public infrastructures and the private houses. This is one sad reality of South Africa: the former “whites” territories are highly developed while the “blacks” territories are still underdeveloped
The community of Mt. Frere was started in 1990 when the Comboni Missionaries swapped places with the Franciscans. The Parish itself had been founded in 1894 and had only been run by expatriate missionaries i.e. the Mariannhillers, the Franciscans and the Combonis. I was the first black non-South African to be assigned to the community and to work in that parish. Whereas there are plenty of materials for learning the Xhosa language, at that point in time there was not a single person ready to teach me. The Precious Blood Sister who had hitherto taught many missionaries had just died.
I arrived at Mt. Frere on Friday, 30th March 2007, which was the Friday before the Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday I was excited and happy with the lively celebration, especially as the youth received the World Youth cross, which was going through the diocese. The celebration, however, soon turned into loneliness during the buzzes of the Holy Week. The reason being that I couldn’t understand anything since everything was in the local language, isiXhosa. That has been the moment I’ve most felt lonely in my life.
I had to learn the language on my own, given the fact that there were many highly developed and well prepared materials. Overtime, I came to know the people and reality; I liked and loved the people and place for who and what they are. The parishioners are committed and sincerely want to practice their faith. They are also open-minded, welcoming, accommodative and accepting. The South Africans are open to ecumenism. This is seen especially at the funerals where all denominations come together to bury the dead and prayers are even shared.
I was very glad to experience a very highly committed and educated group of the old people in the outstations/chapels. Although they are not highly educated and don’t speak English, they are able to read their language. Thus, they usually take the readings in liturgy, unlike in Uganda, where mostly it is the catechists and school children who know how to read.
It is was not only a bed of roses as the saying goes, but there were also some thorns! First of all, as mentioned above, I was the first black non South African to work in the community of Mount Frere. They couldn’t understand why a black person like them could not understand nor speak their language. Kind of, I was rejected, for not being serious, whereas it was understood for my white confreres that they are different, and are foreigners. The matter was exacerbated by the fact that there was no teacher for the language at my time, i.e. someone who could teach it as a foreign language. The teachers in the school around could only teach to the speakers of the language and they found it hard to innovate or improvise for an adult who is non-speaker!
In the wider society, black South Africans have become widely known for xenophobia. Although as a priest I felt privileged and protected, I still witnessed the ugly face of xenophobia. When at Mt. Frere I had to escort some other African nationals to the police station for protection when they were being hunted out of the communities in which they were living. I would always play on the fact that the black south Africans have developed a word to describe the black non-South Africans, viz: ikwerekwere/amakwerekwere, meaning when they speak, the languages sound as if they are saying, ‘Kwere kwere kwere’!
Xenophobia is felt in predominantly black, poor communities. In South Africa itself, there is still the unfinished reality of racism, which I felt and experienced more when I moved over to Pretoria, where the different races are sided. Sometimes even in church, one could feel that some remarks and reactions had no bases other than the fact that the people saying or doing them are simply racist. It is so hurting to realize that one is rejected or mistreated not because of some faults of their own, but simply on the ground of their being who they are: different from the xenophobic and/or racist person. Ours in Uganda is rather tribalism which I believe equally hurts as both xenophobia and racism.
Whereas the communities are generally vibrant in liturgy, the depth of Christian living was rather shallow. The celebrations of the Sacraments are limited almost exclusively to the Eucharist, Confirmation and limited Baptism. The other sacraments seem non-existent. In the nine years I lived and work in South Africa, I validated two marriages, one in Mt. Frere and the other in Silverton. There are fewer and fewer people celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation! So is it with the Anointing of the Sick and the Holy Orders. In fact, the most difficult moment of my time was when I was in the formation house, where formation was not the matter of accompanying convinced Christians who want to serve God and the people in a special ministry. It was rather like re-evangelization of an apostatized community, or a primary evangelization of an adamant community that is resistant to, and suspicious of, changes and/or being challenged. Whereas in Uganda, at least at our time, the vocation promoters would look for the cream of the candidates, in South Africa I was constantly confronted by guys who had apparently tried all other possibilities and failed and then would turn to religious priestly vocation as a last resort. In fact, wealth corrupts!
Wealth corrupts and we can rightly say of the Western society of today that has become irreligious. South Africa being one of the strongest economies in Africa is unfortunately along that line. Whereas almost the whole population still profess some form of Christianity, but it’s a far cry from the radical discipleship that Jesus demands of his followers. The youth, as a consequence, are rather difficult. Youth groups in places where I’ve worked want to be anything, but Catholic. Yes, everyone is unique, but underlying all is the fact that we are human and Christian Catholics. So, there is no ground for total individualism or relativism.
The South African society is such a multifaceted society. Of the 54 million people living there, it is estimated that only eight percent (8%) confess Catholicism. This, however, is the biggest group of one single Christian denomination. Besides the conventional Christian denominations there are also typically South African groupings. Notable among them is the ZCC, Zionist Church of Christ, which combines elements of Christianity and traditional African societies. The men of this denomination, for instance, are allowed to marry as many women as they can afford. The presence of such brands of Christianity certainly confuses other denominations and actually the whole population. One finds that the Catholics are also tempted to, and, indeed; do water down our high Catholic ethics and doctrines.
There is a high level of inequality in South Africa, some people own fleets of planes juxtaposed with those who still starve to death because they cannot afford to get food. The high crime and violence rate in South Africa is also well known. It is estimated that everyday at least 50 people are killed in violent crimes – a scenario worse than a battlefield. I had two experiences in both places I worked. My car was stolen at a supermarket in a spark of minutes; in Pretoria I decided to assign some work to a beggar for the food he was receiving, the gentleman removed the inspection covers for water, sewage etc. that dot the courtyard. He also desecrated the wall of remembrance with ashes of some people interred there.
So, looking back, after nine years I am very grateful to God and the Church through the Institute of the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus for allowing me to have such a myriad of experiences, ones that both strengthened and challenged me to grow to be the person I am today.
Fr. Robert Ochola MCCJ