Friday 12 February 2016
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Don Bosco in Eastern Africa: from Dream to Reality (AFE)


One hundred and thirty years ago, in 1875, Don Bosco expressed his dream for Africa in a wish: "What a memorable day that will be when Salesian missionaries sailing up the river Congo will meet their confreres coming up the Nile and shake hands, praising the Lord. [...] I see that already in Africa" (MB XI: 409).


It was Don Rua who sent the first Salesians to Egypt and to South Africa in 1896. The full flowering of Salesian works in East Africa, as in the rest of the continent, had to wait till the launching of Project Africa by Fr Egidio Viganò, the seventh successor of Don Bosco. He spoke of an African Don Bosco. "Don Bosco must be totally and genuinely himself but, on the other hand, he will truly possess the essential traits of African culture" (ASC 297).

While visiting India in 1979, Fr Viganò impressed on the Provincials that it was time for them to send missionaries to Africa. In response to his pressing invitation, the Salesian Provincial Conference of India accepted in principle to take up missions in Eastern Africa. The then five Salesian provinces of India together offered 15 confreres for Project Africa.

In January 1980, the Central Province of Italy (Turin) sent Fr Dario Superina to Kenya to find out the possibilities for Salesian missionary work in Kenya. In May of the same year, Fr Harry Rassmussen from the Mission Department at the Generalate and Fr Tony D'Souza, the provincial of Bombay, completed their first missionary journey to the Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania. They visited the dioceses in these countries from where requests for Salesian Missionaries had come to the Generalate. At the end of their journey and after studying their reports and the various options available, the Rector Major – Fr Viganò – with his Council accepted to take up missions in Maridi (Sudan), in Marsabit diocese (Kenya), and in the dioceses of Dodoma and Iringa (Tanzania). Fr Dario's trip to Kenya led to the decision to accept the parish of Siakago in the then diocese of Meru. Thus the stage was set for Project Africa to take wing in this part of the continent with the enthusiastic participation of Salesian India alongside that of the Central Province of Italy.

Don Bosco in Kenya

The first mission in Kenya, taken up by the confreres coming from the Italian Central Province (Turin), was the parish in Siakago, in Mbeere-land, which was under the care of the Consolata missionaries. Initially, Fr Dario stayed and worked with them in the parish of Siakago. Later, on January 31st, 1981 the Salesian Community was constituted and our presence was formally initiated. With the arrival of more confreres from Turin, in 1984 a second community was started in Embu and works began for what today is a gem of a technical secondary school—Don Bosco Embu. In 1988 a third community, with a parish and a technical school, was started at Makuyu. In these initial years the Salesian sisters moved alongside the Salesians opening foundations for the care of girls in tandem with the Salesians' works for boys. Thus the communities of the FMA were established at Siakago, Embu and Makuyu. In later years though, the trajectories of growth of the two institutes show differences in pace and priorities.


In 2002, owing to some misunderstandings with the Bishop, we handed back to the diocese the pastoral care of the parish of Siakago and closed down our community at Siakago. In the initial years of the Embu community, we made an attempt to develop a huge agricultural complex at Thiba. The vision that guided this project hoped to create a big farming cooperative where some of our past pupils, who so desired, could be gainfully settled. This vision was not accepted by the diocese. The place went on for some years as a good farm but eventually in 1995, the diocese asked that the farm be handed back to it. And so it was.


The three confreres who arrived in Kenya from India on October 14th, 1980, were assigned to the frontier mission of Korr, in the heart of the Kaisut desert. The Indian missionary team comprising Fr Mathew Vadassery, Fr George Padinjareparambil and Fr Thomas Punchekunnel, spent a few months at the Flora Hostel in Nairobi and were initiated in the new cultural and linguistic realities they were to face in their new mission. Eventually, on May 24th, 1981 the Salesians took up residence in this fledgling mission. It had been started by Fr Redento, a Fidei Donum missionary from Italy working in the Marsabit diocese. The challenges were immense. Korr was some 600 km away from Nairobi, the port of entry, reachable by a rugged and dangerous road, lacking means of communication, without water, electricity and other basic amenities. The desert weather was something they had to get used to and, more importantly, the searing loneliness, because of the very limited contacts they could have with other Salesians and friends and family.

Our missionaries faced these realities with exemplary missionary zeal and set themselves to the task on hand with great generosity.
The external conditions have not changed much after more than 25 years, but the ordination to priesthood on April 24th, 2005 of Fr Marko Lepakit, the first Salesian from the Samburu community, was an eloquent sign of the fruitfulness of the Salesian charism and of our missionary commitment in this remote part of northern Kenya. We attempted a second presence in the diocese and took up the care of an existing technical school in Marsabit. After a two-year stint, though, we handed it back to the diocese in 1985.We hadn't as yet mastered all the lessons of the cultural and pastoral reality of our new home!

The Salesian mission in Kenya today is articulated in 10 flourishing presences, including a technical secondary school at Embu, vocational training centres at Embu, Makuyu, Nairobi and Kakuma, care of street children in Nairobi, and of refugees at Kakuma and parishes in Makuyu, Nairobi, and Machakos. The pre-novitiate alongside the street children's project in Nairobi as well as the studentate of theology and the Marian Shrine at Upper Hill, Nairobi, complete the panorama of a rich and variegated Salesian presence in Kenya.

Don Bosco in the Sudan

The adventures of the first missionaries in Sudan bear all the marks of suspense and impossibility characteristic of a Hollywood thriller. The first mission in the Sudan was opened in the diocese of Tombura-Yambio, at Maridi, and the Salesians were very warmly received there by the Bishop. Fr Jacob Kizhakeyil, Fr Ernest De Gaspari, Fr Lawrence D'Souza and Fr James Pulickal formed the first group of Salesian pioneers to set foot in the Sudan. What began as a challenging yet promising missionary endeavour had to be abandoned under trying circumstances. Three of the four Salesians were unceremoniously bundled out of the diocese and the Sudan itself by their Bishop. Fr James Pulickal, who was kept behind by the Bishop, was eventually called away by the provincial. The first chapter of our presence in the Sudan ended on an unhappy note barely a year after it had begun. But that was not to be the end of the road. Soon the Salesians returned, this time in even bigger numbers and to two communities: one in the Archdiocese of Juba (in Juba itself) and the other in the Diocese of Rumbek (at Tonj).


When the Anyanya II movement took up arms against the government in Khartoum in 1983, our missionary presence was again under threat and the confreres had to live with the burden of anxiety and uncertainty. The state of insecurity around our mission in Tonj forced the confreres to move to the relative safety of the nearby town of Wau. This was the beginning of what would turn out to be yet another Salesian presence in the Sudan. Fr James however soldiered on, undaunted by the dangers surrounding him. He kept the Tonj mission going till he himself was abducted by the SPLA soldiers and forced to march with them and share the life of the guerrilla fighters through 18 harrowing months. After a good number of years, Fr James was able to go back to his beloved mission of Tonj, alongside his confreres and the Salesian Sisters, bringing solace and deeper meaning to the lives of the inhabitants of that area. During the captivity of Fr James, the fear of further abductions led the superior to close our community in Juba.
As the civil war raged on, more and more Sudanese from the South sought refuge in the capital, Khartoum. Whereas earlier Khartoum had but a sprinkling of Catholics, the onrush of refugees to Khartoum swelled the number of the Catholics in that city. So in 1986, it was decided that we open a new presence in Khartoum. Fr Dominic Padinjareparambil pioneered the move to Khartoum and was joined by Fr Jacob Thelekkaden and Bro. Francis Chinnappan. Fr Ernest De Gaspari kept alive the flame of Salesian Charism in the Deep South in Wau. Over the years more Confreres would join the pioneers and in spite of the ravages of the civil war and the hostility of the ruling Islamic leaders, the Salesians never let go of the hope of fulfilling Don Bosco's dream for Africa, in the Sudan.

In Khartoum, we received a rather run-down technical school from the Comboni Missionaries: the St Joseph's Technical School. Even as the confreres wrought marvels of transformation in this technical school, their attention was also directed to the pastoral care of the Catholics in the area and the parish of St Joseph began to take shape. After some ten years of our arrival in Khartoum a separate parish community was instituted. We had hopes of extending our services to northern Khartoum, but the Islamic leaders thwarted all our plans and efforts. At about the same time, invitations from the Diocese and Government leaders of El-Obeid convinced us to set up another technical institution in El-Obeid, currently the fifth presence in the Sudan.


We have a tryst with the destiny of Africa. One need only think of the remarks Don Bosco made to the chapter members in late May 1886 while he was speaking of his plans to send missionaries to Africa. "This mission is a plan of mine; it is one my dreams...Come let us go to the Cape of Good Hope, to the heart of Africa, to the Congo, to Khartoum Suakin" (MB 18: 142). Indeed we have 'promises to keep and miles to go'. Over the last quarter of a century Don Bosco's sons have made slow but steady progress in answering the many needs of the Sudanese people. Today, we have 6 presences in the Sudan: Khartoum (2), El-Obeid, Wau, Tonj and Juba (which was reopened in 2006, after being closed in 1986) including parishes, vocational training centres, schools and centres for refuges. Some of the works, like the assistance to young prisoners in Khartoum and the help to the young victims of the Darfur civil conflict or the assistance to the thousands of kids who flocked into Wau in the years of famine and death or the care of the lepers and the destitute in war-torn Tonj, would certainly have Don Bosco smile benignly on his sons working in these challenging situations.


With the dawn of the fragile peace in the South, the hope for a better future is lighting up the horizon and the soul of a people, long suppressed. The Salesian Family in the Sudan is gearing up to meet this unique opportunity and to offer to the young of the Sudan the gift of our charism. There is an urgent need for brave hearts, wise minds and strong hands to bring hope where there was only despair, light where there was darkness, and joy where there were only tears. The Salesian Congregation, deeply committed as it is to the Church in southern Sudan, is drawing up plans for evangelisation and development. While we proceed with our plans, we need to recognise the existence of a meticulously planned strategy that has been put in place for the "Islamisation of the Southern Sudan". It is a wake up call and a challenge to proceed expeditiously.


The Rector Major with his Council has evaluated the situation of the New Sudan and views it as a new Salesian frontier Mission. The Mission Department has committed nine confreres for the Sudan. The hope is that even more confreres will be available to take up the huge challenges that face us in this land. For over 50 years the people have suffered the ravages of war, poverty, sickness, the lack of education and health care and the total absence of spiritual assistance. We keep hoping that the political promises of peace will be more than empty words and we keep praying that our hearts will be stout and strong and a real match for the challenges ahead and the roads yet to be travelled.

Don Bosco in Tanzania

The pioneer Salesians in Tanzania, Fr Peter Fernando, Fr John Vellayil, Fr Crispin D'Souza, Bro. Trophy D'Souza, Fr Tony Fernandes, Fr Joseph Pulikkal, Bro. Tyrone Baron, Bro. Celestine Nathan and Fr Stephen Chemmalakuzhy, arrived in the country on October 13th, 1980 and received a warm welcome from the bishops and the people. After some months devoted to the learning of the national language, they commenced their missionary activities.


The first mission entrusted to the Salesians was the parish of Mafinga. On Palm Sunday, April 11th, 1981, the parish was entrusted to the Salesians and our pioneers – Frs Peter Fernando, Tony Fernandes and Joseph Pulikkal – launched out courageously without being awed by the challenges posed by the novelty of language and culture. For a second time, we were entrusted with a Parish that had earlier been taken care of by the Consolata Missionaries. They graciously welcomed us and one of them, Fr Sandro Nava, spent a whole month living with us in the community and introducing us into the ministry. In April 1981, Fr Dominic Padinjareparambil and the Co-operator, John Williams, joined the Salesians working in Tanzania. At the end of three years' stay with the Salesians, John Williams opted to join the Salesian Congregation and has stayed on in the province ever since. In August 1982, Fr Edward Liptak, the only Salesian to join the East Africa jurisdiction from the Eastern United States Province (SUE), arrived in Tanzania. He was to pioneer the setting up of our apostolic school at Mafinga.


At Iringa, Fr John Vellayil, Bro. Baron Tyrone and Fr Stephen Chemmalakuzhy were given the task of starting a work for the youth of the town of Iringa. For a year they were hosted at the Bishop's residence. The Diocese built a residence for the Salesians and on May 24th, 1982 the house was blessed and the Salesians moved into their new home and commenced activities. From lowly beginnings the work grew and developed into a flourishing youth training centre. At Dodoma too, a similar story would be played out. The confreres, Fr Crispin D'Souza, Bro. Trophy D'Souza and Bro. Celestine Nathan, faced many initial difficulties, but by late 1982, they too had a house to live in. Work was begun on a vocational training centre. Over the years the Don Bosco Technical Institute at Dodoma continues to maintain its position as a ranking institute offering quality technical education to poor youth.

About the same time, in October 1982, the Salesians accepted the responsibility for looking after a youth centre at Upanga in Dar-es-salaam. Soon we were asked to coordinate the CRE programme for secondary schools in the Archdiocese of Dar-es-salaam. It is a work that we have been doing with competence and dedication for over 20 years.


The pioneers were quick to start looking for local vocations and proceeded to set up a junior seminary at the Mafinga parish. From its humble beginnings, the junior seminary grew steadily and developed into a full fledged Apostolic School, the present Don Bosco Seminary of Mafinga. 1986 saw the beginnings of what was to grow into a strategic presence: the Catechists' Training Centre of Makalala. In the centenary year of Don Bosco's death the Salesian seminary at Dodoma came to birth. Three years later work would begin on what today is our novitiate and the international post-novitiate community at Moshi. In Dar-es-Salaam we also accepted from the Archdiocese the care of a vocational training centre at Oysterbay. The last of the present array of 10 Salesian communities of Tanzania is the secondary school at Didia in the diocese of Shinyanga. After a lengthy fact-finding mission, we initiated steps to open a co-educational secondary school at Didia. At the time, there wasn't another secondary school within a sixty-kilometre radius. Fr George Padinjareparambil, the veteran of many a pioneering enterprise, was there to get the work started. Given the co-educational nature of the school, from the beginning we enlisted the cooperation of the Notre Dame Sisters.
At present, the work has started to open a new presence at Morogoro: the buildings are under construction. It will be the new home of the Novitiate of the Province and will also have a Youth Centre for the young people of this flourishing town in central Tanzania
Today, from Didia (Shinyanga), in the north-western part of Tanzania to Dar es Salaam at the East coast, from Moshi in the North to Mafinga in the South, Salesian presences dot the landscape of Tanzania bringing succour to youth and doing honour to the hopes that our Father, Don Bosco, had for Africa. The Salesians are engaged in evangelisation, catechesis, pastoral ministry, education and technical training and formation of Salesians.

Don Bosco in Uganda

After the turbulent years of Idi Amin, the Salesians from Poland ventured into Uganda in 1988. Fr Bernard Popowski, Fr Henry Juszczyk, Fr Thomas Grzegorzewski and Fr Richard Jozwiak formed the pioneer team. They were soon joined by Fr John Marciniak and Fr Waldemar Jonatowski. Our missionaries pitched tent at Namaliga, a small village situated some 33 kilometres North of Kampala, on the Gulu highway The parish church that lay abandoned for several years was renovated, a vocational training centre was set up and later a senior secondary school.


In 1995 after looking around the dioceses of Masaka, Mitiyana and Jinja, we accepted from the diocese a village polytechnic in Kamuli, some 60 kilometres North of Jinja. The Salesians have transformed the village polytechnic and at the same time do much animation work among the youth in Kamuli and the surrounding areas.


In 2005, we accepted to take over a project for street children at Namugongo, near the Shrine of the Ugandan Martyrs, some 10 kilometres away from Kampala on the Jinja highway. The project had been initiated by a Jesuit Priest and a Comboni Sister, who – due to a series of reasons – were looking for a congregation of educators who would take care of it and possibly expand it.


On August 15th, 2006 Uganda was united to Rwanda and Burundi to form the new Vice Province of the Great Lakes region (AGL). Thus the AFE Province was reduced to three countries: Kenya, Sudan and Tanzania.

A Unified Salesian Presence

Up until 1994 the communities in East Africa continued to work supported and guided by their respective provinces of origin. At this stage though, the further growth of Salesian presence here demanded the unification of all these presences into one juridical entity. Overcoming the nostalgia, the emotions, the security and comfort deriving from the links to one's province of origin, the vast majority of the confreres pitched in to form the Vice Province of Eastern Africa. A few opted to leave. Four years later we became the full-fledged Province of St John Bosco, Eastern Africa (AFE).


The growth of the Province of Eastern Africa in the past 28 years has been truly prodigious. Today, out of 171 Salesians working in the Province, over 80 are indigenous to the Province. Don Bosco comes to Africa! There are 26 communities spanning the three countries. Several of these communities have a scope and an outreach capability that make them strategic presences. The studentate of philosophy at Moshi and the study house for the students of theology at Utume have become international communities open to Salesians coming from all the jurisdictions of Africa. The studentate of philosophy at Moshi is an affiliate college of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, while the students at Utume attend the Tangaza College which in turn is also an affiliate college of the same Catholic university.


The Institute of Youth Ministry (IYM) at the Tangaza College
in Nairobi is run by Salesian Sisters and Salesians in partnership. The IYM imparts knowledge and skills in youth ministry at a tertiary level, and it has the potential to spread the Salesian charism among a wide and qualified population.

In the Kakuma Refugee Camp, situated in the far north-western part of Kenya, the Salesians have a parish that cares for over 60,000 Sudanese refugees and a vocational training centre that imparts technical skills to over 300 youngsters, both men and women, from among these refugees. Even as the repatriation process of many Sudanese refugees is under way, the centre continues to offer technical education to a changing crowd, in which the number of Somali refugees is increasing, adding the challenge of working with members of the Islamic faith.


The Bosco Boys Kuwinda, already in its 16th year, is a success story of how street kids can be motivated to become honest citizens and good Christians.
The Catechetical Training Institute of Makalala in Tanzania has been the pioneering institute that has trained a great number of catechists for several dioceses of that country. The Development Office of the Province has enlisted the help of USAID and launched the Life Choices Programme. The aim is to create awareness of the HIV and AIDS pandemic and to encourage young people to opt for behavioural change and positive living. The Programme engages full time trainers in each of the communities of Kenya and Tanzania and it is expected that in this manner we can impact a very large number of young people, since the trainers work with the youngsters in a large radius around our presences.


Another significant initiative is the setting up of the Bosco Eastern Africa Multimedia Services (BEAMS). Through this project we seek to harness the powers of the modern media for education and evangelisation.


In July 2006, the Delegation of Sudan was created by the Rector Major. It is juridically linked by its Statutes to the AFE Province and at the same time enjoys a special connection to the Rector Major himself (particularly as personnel and finances are concerned). Fr Jacob Thelekkadan was appointed as the Superior of the new Delegation. The Province therefore was faced with the new and exciting challenge to learn how to operate, having been entrusted with a Delegation. In this way, the Sudan has been given a wonderful boost, as the Congregation made it its missionary frontier for two consecutive years.


At the end of August 2005, the Rector Major graced, with his presence, the Silver Jubilee celebrations in the province. The Jubilee aroused a new enthusiasm and a new energy to rededicate ourselves to the original dream of Don Bosco. Echoing his sentiments, the Rector Major spoke to the Salesians in Eastern Africa: "Dream of a Salesian Africa, capable of living in solidarity with the poorest and the destitute, offering the best we have – Jesus and his Gospel, Don Bosco and his educational charism – to the young, believing that a better world is possible and therefore, giving our best to make it a reality". The fertile mission of Eastern Africa beckons the daring, the brave and the generous to join ranks and make the dream of Don Bosco for Africa a vibrant reality. Trusting in Divine Providence and confident of the Maternal Assistance of Mary, we gaze with thankfulness and appreciation at what has been: the congregation that has been a bastion of strength and support, our confreres who, after a life-time of dedicated service, have gone ahead of us to the Father's home, our benefactors whose generosity and sacrifices supply us the wherewithal for all our developmental works, and our people themselves who have formed and shaped us even as we sought to be of help to them. At the same time we eagerly grasp the opportunity of the present moment and reach out to the challenges of the future. Duc in altum.


"The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep."
Robert Frost

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