In the web of a disease: “Ingima?” “How are you?”by Victor Hoagland, C.P.
Arriving in Tonga in 1998, Father John, whose father was a catechist, fully expected to spend his ministry catechizing and building up the church through the celebration of the sacraments. Now, it’s the sacrament of the anointing of the sick he finds himself celebrating regularly, as he tends to those caught in the web of a disease that is decimating Africa’s population.
To begin with, the priest drives a four-wheel Toyota truck, the only means of transportation for most of his neighbors scattered throughout the countryside or in small villages. The visitor at his door often needs a ride to a clinic for a sick family member or friend and they turn to the priest, whose truck becomes their ambulance. “It’s also their hearse,” the priest says, “when they want to bring a loved one home for burial. These days I find myself driving for hours.” right: Fr John Nyaaga, C.P.
His efforts don’t end there, either. “Every other knock at our door is that of an orphan looking for food, school fees or other necessary items for life. They tell me that since they have lost their father, the one who provided for them, now I’m their father. So what can I say? They’re right; isn’t that what I say I am? --- their father?”
Besides aiding those who suffer from the disease as well they can, the Passionists of Kenya are helping the large numbers of widows and orphans in their regionˇ more than 1,000 of them in their four parishesˇand planning ways to empower them to become as self-sufficient as possible.
Instead of orphanages for the children, they are trying to settle children in the homes of relatives and friends when they can, to ensure that they be raised in a healthy family situation and learn a trade.
They encourage the many widows to undertake small businesses. “We are near the lake region that’s rich in fish,” Father John says, “and so we advise the women to buy some fish from the fishermen and sell it in the marketplace, to bring vegetables, onions, tomatoes, maize, beans and rice, to offer for sale. Just a small beginning is all we ask. Then, as they learn how to earn something for themselves, we urge them to help someone else learn too.” right: fishing boats, Kenya
Poverty caused by HIV/AIDS has led many impoverished African women into prostitution, which only aggravates the situation throughout the continent.
The community offers what resources it can. For the future, the Passionists in Kenya are looking for ways to establish a system of micro-banking to make some loans available to those in need to get on their feet and become independent.
Recently, Fr. John spent some months at Bonaventure House in Chicago, studying American methods for dealing with people with HIV/AIDS and managing the disease. He also met with government and non-governmental agencies involved in alleviating the pandemic. His hope is that drugs available in first-world countries become more available to the millions of Africans afflicted with the disease and that the funds provided do not get swallowed up in excessive government bureaucracy.
“As Passionists, we have to meet people where they are,” he says, “we are members of a religious congregation that sees the suffering face of Christ up close in the poor, the needy and the marginalized of our time. We preach a gospel of hope and that means helping people in their human needs.
“In my native language, when we say ‘Ingima?’ ‘How are you?’ we see a brother or sister there before us. We must open our door of our hearts to them.”