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Roni Schweyen

Reflections on a visit to Africa

March 2012

Sr. Veronica Schweyen, who spent decades in Tanzania (see photo at right) and who joined the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in January 2011, was able to return to Africa in February 2012 for an extensive visit. In addition to Kenya and Tanzania, she was able to visit Maryknollers in South Sudan and Zimbabwe. Following are a few notes from her trip:

Peace and solidarity in South Sudan

The Justice and Peace Commission of Wau Diocese in South Sudan works for peace, reconciliation, freedom and justice according to the mission given to all in the Church. For nearly 20 years, diocesan Justice and Peace coordinator Natalina Mambu lived in Khartoum as a refugee – she fled Wau during the war when her young daughter was shot in the leg. In Khartoum, the family was helped by the Catholic diocese, and Natalina was able to get a job on one of the diocesan peace teams. She returned to Wau in 2008, and now works for Bishop Rudolf Deng Majok, who is actively involved in promoting peace.

Natalina works with two colleagues on a peace team, carrying out activities in various places and parishes, in civic education and human rights. All of the activities were done ecumenically and in collaboration with the different religious denominations in the diocese.

At present, each of the diocese’s 33 parishes has a peace commission. These teams have outreach to the youth in all of these parishes. I was able to attend a seminar in which the youth from some of the colleges and high schools took part in a peace day. The sessions were conducted in Arabic, which is the language most of the students study in. At the end of the seminar the students were able to produce a statement which was presented at the Peace Day gathering in Wau at the end of February.

The following is based on an interview with Sr. Mary Anne Williamson, a medical doctor and a member of the Franciscans of Mary congregation.

Solidarity with South Sudan, a consortium of more than 200 religious congregations, trains teachers, nurses and pastoral personnel throughout the region. The group was formed after two gatherings of religious congregations – in 2004 and 2005 – raised the prospect of working in Sudan.

In 2009 the Solidarity group went to Wau and developed a plan to re-open a nursing school there, hoping to address the region’s severe shortage in medical personnel. (The original school had been funded by Misereor, part of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, but the school had been abandoned during the war in the 1980s.) After obtaining the approval of the government, the school had to be renovated, a huge project since the buildings had fallen into ruin during the war. In 2010 the first 18 students were accepted.

Now there are three-year students in attendance at the Catholic Health Training Institute (CHTI) – 60 students in all. It is Catholic in identity but students of all religions are accepted. Maryknoll missioner Fr. John Barth joined the staff as administrator in November 2011.

Challenges in running the school include occasional loss of electricity (due to fuel shortages) and limited water supply.

One of the school’s snags is that the students still study in Arabic in secondary schools, but the nursing college teaches in English. The South Sudan government is now endeavoring to change the language of study to English, but the South Sudan school system has very little money, and will have to buy all new books in English and provide English language training to most of the teachers in the country.

Despite the challenges, however, the nurses’ training college is seen as a ray of hope for the future of the people.

A need for new hope in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe, a beautiful country so richly endowed with natural resources, animals and history, is now undergoing many hardships and a lack of development due to the governance in the country. When I visited Zimbabwe 15 years ago, I experienced a very different country. The people in the capital city of Harare in the mid-1990s experienced good economic conditions and the agricultural sector was thriving. At that time many types of fruits, vegetables and grains – grown and harvested in Zimbabwe – were available.

Since then, farmers in Zimbabwe have faced forced takeovers by the government – many farms were given to people who had no knowledge or capacity to manage them. Due to this, vegetable, fruit and grain products in Zimbabwe have dwindled to practically nothing. When I visited stores and supermarkets on my visit, I saw that the fruits and vegetables were imported, mostly from South Africa.  Also, when I saw the cereals, the majority were produced outside of Zimbabwe. The few cereals produced in Zimbabwe were higher priced than the ones that were imported. Canned goods had South African labels. In the coffee section, there were no coffee products grown in Zimbabwe.

According to Cathy Buckle’s letter Eating stolen fruit, published on Africa Files on February 11, “[p]lanting of the main crops was down between 30-50 percent [last year]. The president of the [Zimbabwean farmers’ union], Donald Khumalo, said we could expect to see a deficit of one and a half million tons of maize this harvest. Shamefully Zimbabwe is expected to have only produced enough food for one quarter of the population. Khumalo said, ‘[W]e have basically lost direction as a country.’ His counterpart in the [Commercial Farmers Union], Charles Taffs, said the country should brace for a big disaster.”

When talking to people in Harare, I experienced a sadness as they spoke. People all remember when the country could be proud of what was being done and the results of their industry and farming sectors. Now, they are not able to speak of their country with pride. A taxi driver told me that he doesn’t see Zimbabwe as being able to survive economically as all the businesses and mines are controlled by the government and there is just no way to penetrate the walls of subterfuge that are set up. The population cannot question what the government does, as if they do they can be arrested and charged with treason. A man described the situation in Zimbabwe as being a controlled police state.

In 1980 when Zimbabwe became a new nation, tremendous joy spread among the refugees from Zimbabwe who were in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I recall the exuberance which was evident as they danced down the Tanzanian streets. The remembrance of that time of liberation may be able to bring Zimbabweans the hope that they can change these structures that now hold them back. 

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