On Dry Land, Oblates Experience the Real Reason for Visit to Zambia

Oblate Mission in Zambia

By Fr. Billy Morell, OMI

(Editor’s Note: Below is a “sequel” to last week’s article by Fr. Billy Morell about the trials and tribulations faced in his journey by boat on the Zambezi River to visit the Oblate mission in Lukulu)

The beached boat during Fr. Morell’s trip to Lukulu

Santa Maria Mission, Lukulu, Zambia: “getting there was a lot more than half the fun” – To see and to be seen,

Not the pleasant 3-hour cruise upriver I had been expecting, I lay there thinking. The trip was 10 hours of frustrating and uncertain river mishaps. In the silent darkness of my bed, I scratched mosquito bites and asked myself, why had I come here? 

Lukulu, on the upper reaches of the mighty Zambezi River, had been the landing place of the “founding fathers” of the Oblate Mission in Zambia. I had visited them the year after they had taken over the mission from the Capuchin Franciscans 40 years ago. I was back. Why?

The next day, Agnes reminded me.

(L-R) Fr. Billy Morell, OMI, Agnes, Fr. David Uribe, OMI

I didn’t remember her, but likely, I had met her at the same leper colony 39 years before. That was the first of my many  visits to Lukulu over the years.  I was all eyes, then. There was so much to see… the Oblates were just starting their ministry with the poor in this remote, backwater outpost. But the village for lepers which the parish maintained held a special place in my interest and imagination.  Who could look on lepers and leprosy itself without foreboding. 

Now, Agnes stuck out the stump of her hand to greet me back.

Now, she was alone. The total number of residents in the “leper colony” had been reduced to two. The program of diagnosis and treatment, the reeducation of the population about the disease and its contagion had ended the progress of the disease and the way villages and families had ostracized members who had contracted Hansens disease, as leprosy is now called. The deformities and mutilations so common then had been prevented by early and effective medications. Early detection and treatment had worked.  The leper colony at Santa Maria Mission had only 2 elderly residents who had been there for years and were unable to care for themselves.

The work of the leprosarium in early years had been a success. No longer needed was the treatment center and the clinic built by the Oblate lay missionary, Bill Fuller, a couple years after the four Oblate founders had arrived (Fr’s. Paul Duffy, Pat Gitzen, Jack Joyce, and Bro John Keplinger). In four decades, the work of the Holy Cross Sisters from Lukulu Mission Hospital, the collaboration of the Oblates, and the support they had received from benefactors had worked. The leper colony was no longer needed… demonstrating what seems to be a missionary principle: what we do best, we do together.

The work however, isn’t done. The needs of the local community still call on the resources, ingenuity, responsiveness, and concern of the mission — and its missionary partners and supporters. That was obvious in the detailed needs-list the Pastor, Fr Regean, OMI, and his associate Fr Bright OMI, presented to the visiting team I was part of. The team included Fr David Uribe, OMI, and Mr. Kevin Miller from the US Province’s Fundraising office and Fr. Emmanuel Mulenga, OMI, from the Province administration.  

One of four large lecture halls at the nursing school

The list reminded me of the two principal projects we had come to see, projects to build the capacities of the local population: the Santa Maria Nursing Academy and the crafts Training Center of Lukulu.

The group surveys construction at the training center

Several years ago, when the local bishop, Oblate Bishop Evans Chinyama, asked me what I thought about his idea to convert the abandoned hospital campus at the parish into a professional school of nursing, I said, “a pipe dream.” An accredited professional school in the Zambian bush, far – really far — from resources like qualified teachers, transport, teaching material… and in a dilapidated 60-year-old hospital campus! What a dream. Certainly, it would be life-changing for aspiring young people in the bush. But frankly, how to pull off such a project?  A daring hope but impossible dream.

What did I see at the Nursing academy in Lukulu?  Nothing short of a miracle of determination and collaboration. This year the academy will graduate the first class in its three-year program!  The school’s 150 nursing students are proud… and hard working. They are eager to fill the chronic shortage of nurses in rural Zambia. The Academy’s early success has given birth to new dreams. Since the nursing school, by government regulation, is limited to an annual in-take of fifty, it plans to expand to more students by offering 2 new and distinct programs: midwifery and public health.

(L-R front) Bishop Evans Chinyama, Sr. Pat Hanvey (L-R rear) Fr. Emmanuel Mulenga, Fr. David Uribe, Kevin Miller

When Bishop Evans asked me what I thought of expanding the school, the words “pipe dream” did not come to mind.  What did was the list of current needs the school director and principal miracle worker, Irish Sr. Pat Hanvey, had told us about… more classrooms and housing blocks, expanded dining and kitchen faculties, up-grades to the laundry, a security fence around the vulnerable property, and student scholarships. And now, they want to add two entirely new departments! it would take a miracle. I thought of the wall on the building in the center of campus. It named 20 or so donor organizations and individuals from all over the US, Australia, and Europe, including the Missionary Oblate Partnership of the US Oblate Province.  The Bishop’s dream, Sr Pat’s determination, her very competent faculty, and eager supporters had pulled off one miracle on the Zambezi; why not a couple more? In the Mission, all agree “what we do best, we do together.”

The wall with logos of organizations that have helped the Lukulu Mission

Our visit to the Lukulu Crafts Training School, run by Oblate Brother Max Mwakacheya, further convinced us of the possibilities for impossible dreams.  Here too the capacities of young men and women in the remote outback of Zambia are developed in much needed areas of expertise: construction arts, mechanics, carpentry, computer competencies, clothing design and manufacture. How is this possible so far away from resources? Decades of interested people especially from Ireland had contributed to helping the local community build the center and equip it. Now, as Br. Max explained, the equipment needs upgrading, a kitchen and dining room have become a real necessity now, and many students need scholarships to attend this center dedicated to changing their prospects in life.  

Why had I and the visiting team come to Lukulu?

Building exteriors are also undergoing extensive renovation

True, it was to meet local Oblates and community leaders – and to see what they had accomplished over the years and to see what further needs they had identified. But in my days in the village, I came to realize an equally important reason I had come… not only to see but to be seen.  We on the visiting team were in Lukulu so that the local community could see that their needs and progress are important to people worlds away from Lukulu who care about the wellbeing of the people of Santa Maria Mission.

The concern of distant compassionate and mission-minded people finds expression in their support of and donations for the projects I saw and for further needs the community had explained. I remembered everything that had been accomplished in conquering leprosy over the last 40 years was an example of that.  Yes, in Santa Maria and in all missions, the communities know very well: “what we do best, we do together.”