Fifty Years in Africa

By Fr. Geoffrey Sweeney W.F.

 

Map of Tanzania

Map of the Dioceses of Tanzania based on material from AMECEA

Some Notes on Tanzania

The article below was written by Fr. Geoffrey and in it he remembers the fifty years which he spent in Tanzania, up until he returned home a few years ago. This time spans the growth of an independent country, Tanzania, and the development of the local church there setting the foundations for the new millennium.
 
I was ordained a priest in Edinburgh on the 19th. June, 1943. As it was wartime it was impossible to go out to Africa, so I was given various appointments in the Province. Eventually, in November, 1945, I was appointed to the Tanganyika Territory (present day Tanzania) and managed to set sail with an Irish priest for Uganda on the Isle de France, a 45,000 ton ship from a French line. There were near to 10,000 people on board most of them soldiers returning to South and East Africa. Our cabins, intended for three or four people in peace time, were shared by a dozen. The four or five wash basins between two sets of cabins had to do for over twenty people. Our meals were served in metal trays, but we did sit down to table.
 
We did over four hundred miles a day and took about two weeks to reach Mombasa via the Cape. We spent a day in Cape Town and were amazed at the abundance and variety of goods available. A South African priest took me to his parents home where we were very warmly welcomed. One piece of advice which we were given shocked us: "Do not shake hands with Africans in public!" We went up Table Mountain and had a splendid view of two oceans - the Atlantic and Indian.
 
We left the Cape for Mombasa and once there our travel (mine was to Tanganyika, the others to Uganda) was organised by a Goan. At that time they had many of the important jobs on the railways and Lake transport. We entered Uganda by Kisumu where we took a boat to Port Bell, and then by car to Kampala. The White Fathers welcomed us and at the first meal of 'matoke' (plantains) we were told that if we could stomach them we would be all right as it was the staple food in the area to which I was going. From Kampala to Entebbe by car, then by boat to Bukoba where I arrived on the feast of St Francis Xavier.
 
Bukoba was a small town on the shore of Lake Victoria. As in Nairobi, nearly all the shops were made from corrugated iron sheets. I don't think there was a single two-story building in the town. I received my appointment at Kashozi - the residence of the White Father Bishop - after he had consulted with the Regional Superior. I was delighted at what I thought was my first mission but very quickly learned that where I was sent to was Kajunguti Secondary School. I had brought a second hand motor bike with me, which I had been practising on in England. A Canadian White Father met me and showed me the way to Kajunguti. It took me several attempts to climb the hill out of Bukoba town but eventually I managed it.
 
Kajunguti was typical of schools in many other parts of the country. At that time the top class was Standard IX or Form III. Later we added Standard X which was largely for boys training to be teachers. The school was built on a high plateau 4,500 ft. above sea level and about forty-five miles from Lake Victoria. The pupils came from all over Bukoba Diocese. Some of them walked for many hours twice yearly. Such was one of our boys who took two or three hours to come from the lake shore daily, Monday to Friday. Nearly all of the pupils were anxious to learn and so it was a pleasure to teach them.
 
The staff of Kajunguti was made up of two Dutch priests, a Scot, a Canadian, a German Brother, two or three African lay teachers and myself. In the centre of the compound was the chapel. There was a wing of classrooms, dormitories for about a hundred students and the Fathers' House was in-between. The toilets were deep pits and on one occasion a wall collapsed - fortunately no-one was in at the time. Very little cement was used in those days. The building had formerly been the Senior Seminary and needed some repairs. I arrived during the Christmas holidays and there were no students. I said Midnight Mass in the seminary. I did not then know that I would spend a good number of years on the staff.
 
For the health situation in Kajunguti school there was a small dispensary in the school and a bigger one in the Parish with a Medical Assistant. More serious cases were taken about thirty miles to a mission hospital by motor bike and side car. Several medicines in the villages were made from the bark or root of trees and some were very effective. One of our boys was cured of Blackwater Fever by using such remedies when other medicines failed.
 
The academic year began in January, 1946, and I taught English, Maths and Geography to Standards VII to IX. Lessons were given in English, which was not so easy, but by the end of of their Secondary education the boys were fairly fluent in 'plain' English. One year the English examiner, who was based at Tabora, noticed the high standard of papers he received from certain parts of the country - one of them was from Kajunguti. When a government school inspector was due to visit we were warned by telegram, but unfortunately sometimes he arrived before the telegram! One reason for this was that our post only came once a week. On Monday a man would set out with a metal trunk on his head to Bukoba. By Wednesday night we had our post and newspapers. Another form of 'post' used by the local chiefs and their officials was to send a handwritten note - held in the cleft of a reed and delivered 'by hand'. Motor cars were rare and if we heard one at school we knew that it was either the Bishop or the education secretary coming to see us. As I had been appointed specifically to teach English I did not have the chance to follow a course in the local language. I had to pick up what little I could from books and the students. Nowadays all newcomers begin with a language course.
 
At Christmas and summer the students went home for holidays. Some of the priests on the staff spent that time helping out in parishes. Often I went to help out in Bugene Parish which was about a hundred and twenty miles from Kajunguti. I travelled by motor bike which I then used to go to the outstations. One such excursion was an eight-day safari on foot. We went to a mine called Kyerwa by motor bike, where we left it with the mine overseer. He who would send it to Kyaka on the Kagera River in one of his lorries while we continued on foot. The first time I went with an experienced priest to learn the ropes. We covered five or six outstations and we would stay in a mud and grass hut, usually at a bush school. One end of the building would be partitioned off with cloths to be our bedroom. We had four or five 'porters' for the two of us. One 'porter' would carry our mattresses and blankets, another the portable altar, and another the cooking equipment.
 
The area was very hilly and there were no roads. One outstation was far away and the journey to reach it was typical of others. We left one place at about l0am. and reached the next at about 6-7pm. - only having some cold coffee and an egg or two as a meal on the way. We passed a natural hot spring called 'Butagata', 'the hot place', which had a small swimming pool-like area where the chief used to take his bath. When we arrived at a church we would find people waiting for us. If it was too late there would only be one or two. There would be a long line of gifts for us, such as pots of water, calabashes of local beer, hens, maize, millet and vegetables. The people were very generous giving plenty of the local produce to make sure we were well fed.
 
It could be very cold on the mountains so we took plenty of blankets and warm clothes. If you wanted a hot bath you had to boil water, pour it into a banana leaf which was pulled off the stem. When heated over a fire the leaf would curve and this served as your bath or wash basin. Many of these places would have a village school up to Standard VII and a bush school where the children learned a little about religion and the basics of reading and writing. There would be six or seven children sharing each book and they would read from all angles. When asked to read they usually managed something, but I think many knew it by heart and saw where you were pointing to in the book.
 
For the Christmas eve Mass one of our Kajunguti boys walked for a day to get there and a day's walk back. In those days people travelled a lot on foot. For example, when the Catechumens came for instruction it was common for them to walk for two or three hours to the Parish.
 
In 1947 we moved from Kajunguti to Ihungo, which was part of Bukoba Town. For some time before we moved to Bukoba, we used to watch the progress in the buildings of the school. It was built by a Brother from Luxembourg who trained most of his workmen. When he went to the Parish he would busy himself in making lovely wooden objects, such as an altar, which were needed for the church. He must have never wasted time. The Fathers house was, I think, the first two-story building in Bukoba. There were also a pleasant chapel, classrooms and a dormitory. I don't think any cement was used on the walls - there was no money for it - and the consequence was that in the rainy season (of which there were two) a part of a wall would collapse.
 
The school was near enough to the town so that football matches could be arranged. It was also close to Lake Victoria with a nice stretch of beach. Occasionally we would be swimming with a hippopotamus just a few hundred yards away. We were never attacked but a visitor, probably teasing the animal, had a slice bitten out of him. Talking of the occasional danger - I once stepped on a leopard trap that fortunately went off under the sole of my shoe, without harming me. I had not understood the warning in the African tongue 'Oramanya' which can also mean 'You will know'.
 
Other scary things have been snakes of all sizes and shapes. One outstation which I frequently visited had a snake in the bedroom, one in the office and several in the school tool shed which adjoined the house. One day in Karagwe I was with another Father, on the same motor bike, coming from a bush school. It had been raining and as we neared a big puddle we changed down into low gear. Suddenly we saw a rhinoceros about fifty yards away. We switched off the engine and kept perfect silence. It was watching us continually but we did not move. Eventually it turned round, broke wind and went off. I think we were the only ones who have seen a rhinoceros 'breaking wind'!
 
Bukoba had at least four other secondary schools. One was mainly for Asian children with about 300 students. Now there is no Asian school as many of the Indians have moved out. There are two islands off Bukoba and sometimes I used to go there for a week or so doing ministry. Our meals those days seemed to be chiefly freshly caught fish. Breakfast was a sweet roasted banana, lunch cooked plantains (bananas) with fish, and the same for supper. Fortunately there are many kinds of bananas, indeed many kinds of fish. There were not very big Christian communities, but we gave all the services: Mass, confessions, baptisms and even confirmation. One difficulty was that the Catechist did not keep his books well and so his assurances that a Catechuman was ready, had to be checked out.
 
My next appointment after Ihungo school was to Buhororo Parish in the Bugufi region - to the south of the diocese. I was appointed there because I wanted to experience parish work. The language of the place was Kihangaza, or Kirundi, which is very different from Kihaya or Kiswahili. My teacher was a primary schoolteacher, who helped at odd times. The grammar has about forty positive tenses (many hardly ever used) and double that number of negatives - as subordinate clauses had different rules. The area was very beautiful hilly country, with a good rainfall and plenty of vegetation. The people grew coffee and bananas, and there was plenty of land for grazing. This is the area where Rwandan and Burundi refugees sought shelter after the recent massacres.
 
We visited the outstations by motor bike. Sometimes there was no real road, only a bush path. At one place I slept in a small grass hut which had been built for the occasion. It was about six feet high and not more in circumference. The grass was thin and I was plagued by mosquitoes. We often got malaria or jiggers because we were more exposed to the insects than at home.
 
The Parish was very near Burundi and we often visited the Parish of Rugali. At breakfast we were surprised to be asked how we would like our eggs - omelette, boiled etc. There the parishes were densely populated and most of the people were Christians. One Parish we visited had about 40,000 Catholics. If it were possible the sick were brought to the road side when a priest would pass. This was done because otherwise they would hardly have time for other ministry. To get to some places might take up to a three hours walk and about two on motorbike. I have assisted at over two hundred Baptisms of adults and youth. Another time our road was blocked by a fallen tree, but after a few minutes about a hundred people came and cleared it away. They were Catechumens on the way to the mission for instruction.
 
In Buhororo Parish the chief was a lapsed Catholic, he had changed to Protestantism to please the British administration. His father, the former chief, was a Catholic who had about sixteen wives which was quite common at that time for a chief before conversion.
 
There were class distinctions among the baHangaza. If there was a meal at a Parish gathering the clergy would eat with the Catechist and perhaps the chief and his sons. There would be a table for the baGanywa children, one for the baTutsi, another for the baHutu, and there was yet another class, with few Christians, they were the baTwa - traditional pottery makers and a semi-pygmy people.
 
Most of the people followed the traditional religion and there were many different practices. For example outside the huts were smaller grass huts, the 'endaro ya bachwezi', for the spirits of their ancestors. They also had special initiation ceremonies and once I came across them when at an outstation. There were medicine men called 'bafumu' who were consulted for cures, and 'Embandwa' who were the witch doctors. They did much harm, sowing suspicion and hatred among people. They were cunning and knew much local gossip so they could tailor their prescriptions to what they already knew.
 
Most of the outstations were fairly near so we returned to the Parish each night, but one was down in a valley and was difficult to get to so we used to stay there overnight. Six or eight school children would sleep in an adjoining classroom to keep us company. Then next day they would accompany us part of the way on foot. This is a common mark of respect to a parting guest and is called 'kusindikiza'.
 
Just before I went to Bugufi a plebiscite was held by the U.N. to see whether the people wished to belong to Burundi, who historically had been their overlords, but they opted to remain in Tanganyika. While I was at Buhororo we had to evacuate the church for several months. The roof joists had been heard to crack. The repairs cost more than the original price to build the church. Its beams had been carried on back by teams of men from many kilometres.
 
In 1952 I was appointed as bursar and to teach at Rubya Seminary. The bursar who had been there many years was appointed to Dar es Salaam. Feeding the hundred or so seminarians involved buying beans from the local people. We needed about a hundred and fifty sacks for the year. The beans had to be covered with mud and then dried to keep out insects. The staple food was a thick maize flour porridge at lunch and evening. A more liquid form was used for breakfast. The usual accompaniment was beans or perhaps, once a week, meat or dried fish. The students rarely complained, but if the flour was too old they would rightly complain. The maize flour had to come by lorry from town. Much of it was a gift from the U.S.A. but not all. There was very little sugar for their tea and, as nearly all had a sweet tooth, that was one of the more regular requests at staff meetings.
 
I was appointed to the seminary on four or five occasions, sometimes broken by homeleave or by appointments to a parish. While I was at Karagwe the Rubya staff heard that Bugene was to be in a new diocese, they called me back. When at Bugene I asked permission for a motor car because it was difficult to use a motor bike on the very muddy roads. I was refused and told to leave out the impossible journeys. Another example of how strict the rules used to be was when I asked permission to go to the Holy Land during my holidays I was refused. Apparently, White Fathers did not do such things. A few years later things began to change and all were encouraged to go for a Bible session and Long Retreat.
 
Itahwa was another Parish where I was for a short while. It was near Lake Victoria and, of course, we used to go swimming there. A notice was put up about the danger of bilharzia, but as the town doctor allowed his own family in so we saw no reason why we should not swim. Many of the buildings had a lot of glass in them and so it was fairly easy for thieves to break in. One night I woke up with a thief in my room but he ran off as soon as he knew I was awake.
 
In the outstations we used to pay house visits to our Christians. Many lax Catholics promised to make amends but after a few Sundays were back to where they had been. I once visited a lapsed Catholic who had become a witch doctor. He refused to let me in his hut until I pointed out that according to African customs a guest was always welcome. He then put on his witch doctor's regalia - leopard skin and other equipment - and let me in. The local chief, 'omwami', was a non practising Catholic who went to church occasionally. He was friendly with us and wanted prayers for his soul when he died.
 
For my silver jubilee I asked the Cardinal to appoint me to a parish and so, for a few months, I went first to Kashozi - the first parish to be established in the diocese. It was called Marienberg as the Fathers had to try seven places before being allowed to settle. At Bunena I was with two African priests in the Parish both of whom I had known in Rubya. My main task was to teach religion in two secondary schools giving over twenty periods a week. I also worked in the Parish which was the cathedral. The church was a very beautiful new building, with a great expanse of glass, and largely paid for by African-Americans. The Cardinal was the first African Cardinal and one of the first African Bishops. I got my first car - VW Beetle at the age of fifty. After homeleave I was appointed to Kasambya Parish on the border with Uganda. As there was tension on the border, we European priests were replaced by Africans. There was a shrine to St. John Mzee - one of the Ugandan martyrs - in that Parish. At the time of his death this part of the country was in Uganda.
 
I then spent seven years at Ichwandimi. The church was a new one and the Sisters' convent had been built largely with money from a parish near London. As there were many outstations, some of which were difficult to reach by car, I had a small Honda motor bike. When there was talk of building a new parish some miles away collections were made to get the parishioners involved. The Jehovah's Witnesses had just started their propaganda in the Parish. At the Corpus Christi procession the Parish Priest gave a lengthy sermon exposing their errors, to prevent Catholics from being deceived. 'Small Christian Communities' were just being encouraged by the East Africa Hierarchy. We three White Fathers went around the villages, saying Mass in a central place and explaining about the Communities. Many followed the instructions and in some places there was a communal meal to celebrate.
 
From Ichwandimi I went to Rukindo near Rubya. The outstations were much closer. There were four or five parishes, all not more than six miles from one another, in a very Christian area. When there, I was asked to volunteer for a diocese with less African priests. So with a Belgian Father I was sent to Singida where there were only about ten African priests.
 
After two or three years in Mwanza Diocese I was appointed to Chemchem Parish. It is in Singida Diocese and the people are mostly waIramba though there are a good number of waMbulu. Many were Lutherans and when one wanted to be a Catholic it could be impossible to get their baptismal certificates. The country was very hilly and a four wheel drive vehicle was essential, so I exchanged my Toyota for a Suzuki. Occasionally we took very sick people to a hospital about twenty-five miles away. We had to cross several rivers and sometimes wait until the water had subsided to below the bridges. On one occasion I had a marriage, then a Mass in another outstation. I told the Catechist that I could not stay. After the wedding they said "Fr. Sweeney will stay for the meal," so I said, "F.r Sweeney will not." He then told them that I would make a short speech at the reception and again I had to tell them that I would not. In the end I won and went off to the other station.
 
I was then appointed to Itamuka Parish which had been without a resident priest for over a year. We were welcomed by the Bishop and parishioners and given a first-class meal. It was only then that we found out that our cook had been the previous Pallotine Bishop's cook. The buildings were in a rather dilapidated condition but there was beautiful woodwork - made at Tabora by German Brothers. There was a dispensary run by a Muslim rural aid with the help of a nurse. We had to go from time to time for medicine to Arusha - two hundred miles away.
 
Many churches in the outstations were made of 'tembe', a low wood, reed and mud affair. You had to stoop to enter, and the altar was a rickety table of uprights with reed table. As there were very few Christians in many places the 'tembe' were quite appropriate. They were quickly replaced by cement block buildings. Some of the schools had about ten Christians out of an enrolment of over two hundred. The teaching of religion was a grave problem as there would be ten pupils divided between all the classes. Theft was also a problem. One man even stole our fridge, but he was caught with it and was kept out of circulation for a time. On release he stole window panes from the church. When caught this time he escaped from the local prison. Most of the outstations had a small bank account in the town. But, with rampant inflation, we advised the people to buy goods needed in the church and help pay their catechists. To get at this money - a few pounds - two signatories had to go to town. Their fares and food came from the accounts and often enough they had to return either because they had not the proper signatures or because they were late.
 
From Chemchem I got a letter of appointment to Singida Town. I was asked to contact the retiring Parish Priest and meet the new one. The Assistant Regional heard that I was not too pleased about the change and he came all the way from Mwanza to Mwanga (an outstation of Chemchem) to see me. He brought a couple of bottles of beer with him so that we could talk it over calmly. It was understood that I would not have the difficult outstations (I was well into my sixties). My Swahili was far from perfect - so I did not have things like conferences, or talks with those well schooled. The ordinary villager was easy to get on with - and their Swahili was not much better than mine. We had most of our parishioners in town, quite a lot was done with Masses in the Small Christian Communities. Some churches were nearby, others up to fifty miles away for which I had a driver. The diocesan headquarters was next door to the Parish, and we met the staff and the Bishop from time to time - especially at feast days.
 
My golden jubilee began with Mass and a meal enhanced by presents, songs and dances. It was at a convent where I sometimes assisted with Confessions and Mass. Then there was Mass at the cathedral with the priests from the deanery and the White Father Assistant Regional. There were presents including some from the parishioners. The celebrations continued in Scotland with the confrères who were ordained with me. It continued at my sister's who got in an outside caterer, then at my brother's. One of their parishioners - a market gardener - presented me with a 'taste of summer' a glorious selection of fruit and vegetables which he had grown. It ended at the White Fathers' Reunion at Totteridge. In 1995 I came home for a cataract operation, and fell sick. After correspondence with my Assistant Regional in Tanzania, it was decided that I would be better staying in England. So now I have ended up as chaplain to a Nazareth House old people's home in Hammersmith, London. In joking, after a missionary exposition in England, I said I would like to end up in a house like the one of the Sisters where I was lodged. It has at last come true!
 

Foot Note: For further information on Tanzania see: pages 13-15 of this issue; pages 4-12 of issue no. 323, August-September, 1995; pages 6, 7 and 23-25 of issue no. 347, August-September, 1999; pages 13-15 of issue no. 348, October-November, 1999.


This article appeared in "White Fathers - White Sisters" (UK), issue 350, of February-March, 2000.

The article may be published freely with due acknowledgements to the "White Fathers - White Sisters" magazine.

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