Dr. Paul O’Callaghan, born in Co. Dublin in 1980, spent three years living and working with VMM (Volunteer Missionary Movement) in four countries in East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
‘Haraka, haraka, haina baraka’ – there is no blessing in hurrying. This one maxim has come to epitomise for me the gift Africa has to offer the frenetic, tail-chasing world of the West. The continent that holds the cradle of humanity continues to teach us the art of stillness, through the beauty of its surrounding natural world and the emphasis its people place on spending time with others.
The gentle pace of life in Tanzania was thus a perfect location for a spiritual year of prayer, reflection and contemplation: a sacred space to discern the onward path of the beginning of the rest of my life.
Despite the panoply of religious options on offer and despite the natural competition that must exist between pastors, priests and sheikhs to hold onto their respective flocks, Tanzania is one of the most religiously tolerant and harmonious countries in the world.
Indeed, I believe that few countries would be able to emulate the level of respect for different religions that is so evident in this country. In this domain, I believe that Tanzania is a world leader and a shining example of how an officially secular state can also foster respect for all religions and the rights of people to freely gather, worship and choose for themselves what religion they would like to hold.
Long may this tolerance and respect continue.
The music here is rhythmically repetitive, choruses tend to be repeated many times over with different verses, but the singing is never tiresome or tedious. Instead, it is uplifting, even hypnotic, and certainly inspirational.
Faith is celebrated as an integral part of life, and the churches have achieved a seamless blend, mixing prayer with simply having a good time.
Take for example the New Year’s Eve midnight Mass, which began at the earlier time of 10.30pm so that Mass would finish at midnight. With the Mass finished an hour and a half later, the parish priest began the New Year countdown (in Swahili) from the altar: kumi, tisa, nane, saba, sita, tano, nne, tatu, mbili na MOJA.
Then, suddenly, the whole congregation erupted with spontaneous hugging, whooping, shouting, ululations and dancing. Aisles became impromptu dance floors as the blend of cultures and tribes got down to the serious business of dancing and having a good time.
Some of the young Masai men present removed their shukas (black and red shawls) and swung them in the air like revolving electric-fan blades, dancing with backs and shoulders perfectly straight, up and down, jumping higher and higher to the beat of the music.
Suddenly, amid the melee and general merrymaking, I looked down from the altar to see the parish priest crowd-surfing over the pews, supported on the hands of twenty people holding him completely horizontally and passing him down through the church!
It was a sight begging for a camera so I ran from the altar back to the parish house. By the time I returned, the crowd-surfing was over, but I discovered that my journey to the parish house had denied the fun-loving parishioners from carrying me around too, since the concelebrating priest and other novices also flew through the air, on wings of prayer and eager hands.
It was some party! The church was a perfect venue for dancing and singing and to cap it off, a trumpet player completed the festivities with the national anthem sung whole-heartedly and vigorously by the 500-strong congregation.
It would bring a tear to a glass eye just to see the pride and pleasure with which children as young as ten years of age sing their national hymn with such enthusiasm and enjoyment. ■
■ These two stories are extracts from A Road Less Travelled: Tales of the Irish Missionaries (edited by Aidan and Brendan Clerkin). It is available for the specially- reduced price of €5.35 on www.fourcourtspress.ie. It can also be ordered from the publisher Four Courts Press by writing to 7 Malpas Street, Dublin 8. The book is also available from all good bookshops, as well as by e-book.