Fr. James Donohue
I had a sabbatical from the Mount in 2019-2020—the beginning of the pandemic—when I volunteered to serve as the temporary rector for the Resurrectionist seminarians in Tanzania. Our Tanzania Mission is under the direction of the Superior General of the Congregation of the Resurrection, who is stationed in Rome. Once I volunteered to return to the mission, I was asked to serve as the permanent rector of our (now) 20 seminarians in Morogoro. This past summer, I arrived in Tanzania, knowing that I would not be able to start my “real ministry” for almost a year.
Before beginning the role of the rector, I was asked to minister for a year in one of our parishes: St. John Paul II Parish in Buhemba, which includes a pre-primary and primary school of 320 students. My task was two-fold: improve my Swahili and learn more about the lives of the families from where our religious vocations come. I think that I have been more successful in the second task than in the first.
I have been to a countless number of homes to visit the sick and elderly, to eat meals after Mass at the outstations and to celebrate the Eucharist with small communities every Saturday morning. People are very poor, but they are so hospitable and generous with what they have. The most common Swahili word that I hear over and over is: “Karibu,” which means “Welcome.”
The small Christian communities—there are over 30 such communities that are part of the main church, as well as six outstations of various sizes—are the “heart” of the parish. Each is overseen by a catechist who has graduated from the Diocesan Catechetical School after two years of residential study, and by a small community leader. After Mass, parish news is shared by the leader, people are told about members who have become sick or have had some difficulty, and future events are planned.
I think that I have worked as hard as possible to learn Swahili but, as you might imagine, this is a difficult task. From the outset, I was told that it is a very difficult language for native English speakers to learn! I had a teacher for an hour, five days a week. I did not find this very easy.
While I don’t think that we “clicked,” I certainly learned a great deal from him. One funny thing that would happen is that he would ask me something, and when I would respond that I did not know, he would look at me with real disappointment and say, “But I taught you that yesterday!” I would get very stressed out about this and I would just have to remind myself to keep trying.
Interestingly, I began to see why my Swahili teacher seemed disappointed. Tanzanians and other people who live in East Africa are still, what we would call, an oral culture. For instance, the primary students have no books of their own
and only a small number of books that they share in class. Our seminarians who study philosophy and theology do not have any books. It is an old style of teaching, where the teacher summarizes material that he or she has read and “passes it on” to the students in three-hour lectures. The students take notes and then meet in discussion groups to study for their tests.
Their memories are great! For example, although they have no books, the people in the parish know all the words to many, many songs and all the prayer responses in Swahili. The students in our pre-primary and primary school are taught in English, and they know all the responses in Swahili and in English. I laugh sometimes because, occasionally, there is a long response to the Psalm at Mass, and after the reader gives the response, everyone knows it, no matter how long it is! Speaking of the children, they have been my greatest help in learning Swahili. There are about 80 altar servers who go to the Resurrection Primary School, and I see them all the time.
One of the priests suggested that I ask them to tell me one error that I made in Swahili at Mass each day. I thought that this was a good idea. So, after Mass, I asked a group of seven if I made
any errors. No one said anything. Then I looked at one boy and said, “Were there any words that you think I had trouble with?” He looked so serious as he said, “Almost all of them!”
So, how is my Swahili? I can carry on small conversations and usually make myself understood. I understand more of what others say but have a harder time responding in Swahili. I preside and preach in Swahili every day. I must read my homilies, but people tell me that my pronunciation is good. The most common and rewarding compliment I have received is that people tell me that I never stop telling them how much God loves us. It takes me a long time to prepare the parts of the Mass that change each day: the gospel and the prayers. But I am slowly getting better. As an example, tomorrow there will be a pilgrimage to the parish for Divine Mercy Sunday.
It is a big deal with the Cardinal from Dar es Salaam in attendance. But I will greet people in Swahili, preside at the Mass, and preach as well. I do not feel stressed about this, but I practiced for hours to make sure that I will do my best. There are many more stories to tell. There are challenges every day: the incredible poverty, the language, the inability to do in a different language
and culture what is so easy to do on your own, the fear when you get stuck in the mud or have a tire puncture on the terrible roads…but I have tried to keep
positive and to think of all of this as an adventure.
Donohue keeps a blog at www.resurrectionists.ca under Mission: Tanzania! with weekly updates. He and Dr. Charles Strauss are leading a Mount service learning trip to Tanzania in the summer of 2024 that will be open to students, faculty, and alumni.
Father Jim spending time with his new friends in Tanzania.