Diary

08 November 2013

ISTOCK

Living and loving

FOR many days - "Thou art a God that hidest thyself" - the summit has been lost in cloud. Today, at last, the clouds part, the roof of Africa is revealed, and my spirit soars. Although the snows have receded since last I saw them 25 years ago, my exaltation is undiminished. One of the less familiar of the numerous heresies I espouse is the belief that the melting of the snows of Kilimanjaro is a sign that the end is near.

The hands press heavily on her head. But this woman is not being confirmed or ordained. These are not the hands of a bishop, but hands of bananas, many kilos of them. The woman has been carrying them since she set out, long before dawn, from her village high beneath the snows. She hopes to sell them in the market. At the end of the day she will retrace the many miles to her home.

We pass this woman, Pat and I, as we climb the road to the house of the Sisters of the Assumption. I used to visit the Sisters when I, too, lived beneath the mountain, teaching religious studies at the International School Moshi, in Tanzania. (I taught there what I learned there, that while the lamps are different the Light is the same.)

We are greeted by the sisters with grievous news. Sister Marisina died just ten days ago. Later, we pray where she rests. Sister Marisina used to drive down to our campus once a week to sell us fresh vegetables.

The Assumptionists grow glorious vegetables, but theirs is primarily a teaching order. Over lunch, they share their vision with us. It is "to liberate the child's spirit" and "to Christianise the child's intelligence". I sense, too, what these radiant women do not voice: their conviction that living things flourish if they are loved. That would certainly account for their carrots.

 

Dancing Sisters

WHILE I was teaching in Moshi, Pat was working in primary health-care in Mbeya, 300 miles to the south. We are back in Tanzania to show each other the places where we lived all those years ago. We are based with another remarkable community, the Grail Sisters. (The mission of the Sisters is "to empower women to transform the world".)

We arrive at their house on the Saturday evening. After supper, Dan, from Texas, gets out his clarinet. His plaintive rendering of "Will the circle be unbroken" has all of us, Sisters and guests, dancing round the parlour.

At six o'clock next morning, we are at the cathedral for mass. We are there with 1500 others. I am struck by the intense attentiveness of the worshippers. This is not a C of E service. No one fidgets. No one natters to his or her neighbour. No one rummages in a bag. Here are people who know how to wait on God.

 

Rugged cross-bearer

THE Grail community in Tanzania was begun by Sister Imelda. Half a century ago, she took her final vows. She tells us how she ponders ceaselessly what it means to take up the cross. "I am not sure I can do so," she says, sadly, unaware that this is exactly what she has been doing these 50 years.

I am moved by the towering strength of these women. So far as I can tell, Sister Aloysia, who made our trip possible and who is looking after us so assiduously, neither slumbers nor sleeps. What wimps we men are.

 

Hospital visitors

THE car we hired would have been ideal for the school run, or a quick trip to Sainsbury's. It was less suited for our 2000-mile safari, mostly along corrugated dirt-roads. All we could do was to entrust our carcasses and back axle to our maker.

Under the Mercy we reached Mbeya and its hospital, the base for Pat's work in the villages. Our visit to the hospital left me with a slide-show of sharp images. On a bed in the paediatric ward a mother is prostrate in prayer beside her desperately sick child. An albino woman - many of her neighbours will believe she is a ghost - is on her mobile phone.

The male psychiatric patients, clothed - those who are clothed - in filthy brown shifts, are caged beneath a burning sun in a bare concrete yard. One of them, seeing us, howls the Gloria.

We return to Moshi along a cart-track, albeit a length of the Cape-to-Cairo road, through the wastelands of central Tanzania. A day or two later we say goodbye to the Grail Sisters. They gather round our car, raise their hands in benediction, and sing: "The peace of the Lord be upon you. We bless you in the name of the Lord." We are enfolded in their love, and the Love whence it flows.

 

Roughly translated

I LEARNED only a few words of Swahili in my time in Tanzania, but there is one I shall always savour. "Pole" is pronounced as two syllables: "po-lé".

Fr Christopher, a Roman Catholic priest who became my good friend, would invariably greet me with this one word. "Pole, John, pole," he would say tenderly as he approached my open door. Roughly translated, pole means "You and I, dear brother, know that ours may be a vale of tears, but, until the day dawns, we shall bear its burdens and embrace its tasks with peaceful hearts."

 

The Revd Dr John Pridmore, a former Rector of Hackney, has retired to Brighton.

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