What did you go to see in Africa? There is no easy answer to such a question, as the sheer breadth of impressions defies broad strokes. The precise blueness of the sky, the birdsong, the scents in the air all carry a subtle distinction that undercut any pretense of similarity. And that difference enhances the pulse of life here: sunrise and sunset never linger; a pounding rainstorm gives way to violent heat before the last drop has fallen.
Traveling through the countryside, one sees now a lush hillscape verdant with flora of every kind, now a stark and endless steppe only occasionally interrupted by a lonely umbrella tree. The fauna rise to the occasion: a group of cranes wades proudly in a shallow pond, while you stop and stare at a monkey hanging from a branch in front of you, each wondering who is the more exotic.
The Pearl of Africa
Welcome to Uganda, “The Pearl of Africa.” It was here that Christianity first arrived in the Sub-Sahara, and it is here that the promise and perils of the Church’s future coexist in high relief. Like the infant Church it is, Catholicism here exudes a joy, an energy, an innocence, a growth and a vulnerability that one finds hopelessly irresistible.
My host, Bishop John Baptist Kaggwa, is visiting a rural parish today, and the journey is rough. The town has shut down for the day; homemade streamers line the trees in humble greeting, as children run and cheer their bishop’s arrival. As we walk toward the church, I am moved by the sight of old men, dressed in their finest, kneeling to kiss their bishop’s ring. The bishop returns this affection with such warmth and love; I see a shepherd and his flock.
The entire village has turned out for this Mass, and remains for its four-hour duration. And while that Mass is universal, it finds here a local flavor all its own. A young religious sister conducts the choir, whose blend of African rhythms, drums, and ululations at once enthralls, inspires and intoxicates. A line of schoolchildren, bedecked in furs and feathers, begins the offertory procession with a native dance, preceding gifts of bread and wine, roosters and goats, fruits and grains. The music builds to a crescendo, the people sing and sway, and I glimpse what David must have felt leading the Ark into Jerusalem. Moments later, as the bishop elevates the consecrated host, the kneeling worshipers erupt in joyful applause, for God is now here in their midst.
God is Now Here
The Mass comes to a close, and all make their way to the nearby field where lunch is served. The women of the village have been awake all night preparing and cooking this meal, and there is more than enough for everyone. I am treated here like an honored guest, and their eagerness to serve and to please is so humbling. I become slightly embarrassed, for I know that I cannot possibly repay their goodness to me. When the early Christians referred to each other as saints, they must have felt something of this collective holiness. I am a better person by simply living among them.
‘Why Do They Allow These Things?’
There are many tours. The Secretary of Education takes me to visit about a dozen schools. Here, I see the best and the worst, the hopes and fears of Uganda’s future. We first visit the diocese’s elite boys’ prep school. I speak to the senior class, which peppers me with questions about America’s moral crisis. “Why do they allow these things?” As I struggle to answer, I urge them to learn from such failings. I encourage them to become great leaders, to bring their society, in all its facets, closer to Christ, and never to entertain the dangerous divorce between knowledge and truth. There is more than one measure of wealth, I remind them, be it of persons or nations.
The day wears on, and I have by now visited with and spoken to thousands of students, from small classrooms to full assemblies. My bag of religious goods is much lighter — I have distributed hundreds of rosaries, scapulars, miraculous medals, and holy cards. The children, and adults, barely contain their excitement in receiving these gifts. Fatigue sets in, but the day is not over. We visit one last school, and it pulls at the heart. Here, in the most remote field and miles from any other structure, stands a lone brick building. The tiny classroom is filled with students squeezed onto wooden benches. A large hole in the wall lets in sunlight — there are no windows or doors. A chipped and cracked chalkboard hangs on the wall, with basic English sentences carefully written and illustrated.
The teacher comes out to greet us, the many children following behind. I am told that the children are all orphans, and this is all they have, literally. Their parents have died or abandoned them. The children look up with such searching, yearning eyes. You want to hug each one, and give them everything you have and let them know how precious they are. But all you can do is smile, and pray, and know how inadequate your meager efforts are. And in this loving teacher-mother I meet another saint. I am quiet as we drive away, and think, “My God, the things we complain about!”
I am given a tour of the seminary, and it occurs to me how deep the culture of faith is here. To pray the noonday Angelus in a chapel filled — filled — with seminarians is a minor thrill. I want the moment to last, as the memory does. After the Angelus I address the student body in the chapel, and tell them quite frankly how much their mere presence encourages me.
A Joy that Seems to Laugh
Other days I spend visiting the hospital, where I see babies being born and babies fighting for life, people of every age and illness, and a joy that seems to laugh at the mere wonder of being alive at all. Or accompanying a parish priest on his house visits to the worst slums of the diocese. He goes methodically from house to house, gathering the vital statistics of each family. If they are Catholic, he offers a blessing, and gives some moral encouragement.
The entire scene is shocking. The homes are cement cubicles, the size of a large closet. The many children run around, naked or in rags, playing on mounds of garbage. One reads about such poverty and sees pictures, but the lived experience is another thing entirely. I am unprepared for it, and an uneasiness sets in. I am uneasy that such poverty is right here in front of me, and uneasy at my powerlessness to do anything about it. The people are eager to welcome us, but their courtesy masks a certain hardness, a resignation. Life here is very difficult, and they are under no illusions to the contrary. It has been a trying day, and I reflect that these people will be living and working like this, every day, for the rest of their lives. My uneasiness lingers. . .
Toward the end of my journey, I gather my thoughts and anticipate the question with which I began this reflection. I am helped by Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala, with whom I share a parting stroll. Many seminarians and young priests should come to Uganda, he tells me, should come and see what life is like here. Come and see. . .
Was I able to do some good in Uganda? Perhaps. Perhaps my words will be long remembered, my deeds long fruitful. But this is not likely. I do know, however, that Uganda was able to do some good for me. “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Here I have witnessed, and have come to know, a life lived at the extremes — faith, love, poverty, holiness. I have seen and lived among a truly Christian culture, where the local sundry store is named for Jesus and the church is more home than home; where social, family and religious life are so intertwined that one would never think to unweave them — they rise and fall together. Here, one never stops to look back and ask how things got this way. If Africa remains the Dark Continent, it hearkens to the approaching dawn. Indeed, that dawn has come, the light of the world. And knowing that such a place exists, that such promise is possible, gives me a share of that joy and that hope. And it may be in coming times that Africa, the child Church, will teach, inspire, console and lead, as children so often do.
As I return to America, I see again in my mind’s eye those beautiful people along the dirt roads — sitting, walking, working, living — as I drove past them. They would invariably look up, and smile, and wave. It was a greeting and farewell in one. But the farewell was never needed. For I have not left you, my friends; you remain with me still. TP
FATHER GRAEBE, a priest for the Archdiocese of New York, is parochial vicare of St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish, LaGrangeville, N.Y. He wrote this article as a seminarian at St. Joseph Seminary, Dunwoodie, in 2008.