I just got back from a somewhat unexpected trip, which put my postings behind by about two weeks (sorry!). I started in Pietermaritzburg with the Dominican student brothers of the South African vicariate (which is soon to cease becoming a vicariate – the last “congress” of the world-wide Dominican Order got rid of vicariates! It will shortly become something else).
In Pietermaritzburg, I spent a week with the brothers, doing various things with the poor. My first day there, I spent some time familiarizing myself with the parishes in the area of Pietermaritzburg. Father Joe and I spent the morning visiting about 20 parishes to give them bulletin notices; this served as a useful tour of the city. I spent the afternoon on a walk with a Dominican student brother, who took me about 5 miles around the town! There is a university in the area with which the OPs have a chaplaincy (one of my own province is the chaplain!).
That was Tuesday.
On Wednesday, I had a visit to an agency in Pietermaritzburg called the “Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness.” They do advocacy work surrounding social issues with the poor in the area. After that, we visited – just to see it – the center for distribution of “social grants.” This is essentially the welfare agency of the country which – given the high rates of poverty and unemployment – is constantly overcrowded with claimants, etc.
Thursday was a very interesting day of visits to the city of Durban, about 45 minutes away from Pietermaritzburg. We first visited a center called “Diakonia” which was set up by the late, well-admired Archbishop Hurley of Durban. It is a center for social activity offices. Inside, we visited a UN agency which dealt with refugees from other countries and were introduced to their work. I met a fellow – Philip X. – who was from Canton, Ohio, working with the Mennonites (but not himself a Mennonite).
Afterward, we visited another office devoted to legal counsel for human rights law. In this office, I met a few legal aides from the US! Two of which will be at Washington University (where I will be doing ministry in the Newman Center thereof next semester! I asked both to come visit me!). There was also a rather interesting guy who was doing mandated service from Germany (in place of military service); he spoke perfect American English, as he had been raised in Texas! A small world!
Afterward, we visited the local Daughters of Saint Paul bookshop. The sister present was a very friendly lady, and it seems that their order is doing quite well here in SA. Lunch followed, at which I had a wonderful curry “wrap” sandwich. Sadly, I did not get to try the famous “bunny” of Durban. “Bunny chow” or “Bunnies” are a particular kind of sandwich served by putting curry and meat into a hollowed out quarter-loaf of bread.
Lunch was followed by a visit to Durban’s Emmanuel Cathedral (Catholic)
We also went to visit an “Indian” market; it was a market run mostly by Indian traders, serving curries and other things in a large covered area near the Cathedral. I almost bought a sack of curry, but considered that customs might not be so kind to it and that it might make all of my luggage a nice red color. So I think I’ll wait till I’m home again in STL to make any curry. I did get some recipes though! (Shake in fear, Dominican brothers reading this post!)
On the way home to PMB, we went along the coast and visited the famous stadium built for the key World Cup matches – a very beautiful sight.
Friday – the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart! – was a very interesting and rewarding day. I left with a student brother to see the Dominican Sisters of Montebello, a Zulu Dominican congregation. As opposed to the other Dominican sisters here in SA, the Montebellos are a vibrant community with a fair number of new inquiries and novices. Their Zulu style and outreach, along with a fairly traditional religious life and liturgy, seems to be an example of true inculturation of the age-old ideal of religious life. In particular, their singing was magnificent! I love the spontaneous breaking-into-polyphany that accompanies African worship! If only we in the US could have half the musical brains (and heart) these folks do, our liturgy would be immeasurably better. Most of their singing could be something composed by Tallis!
I was very impressed, too, by their work. The sisters run a bevy of activities on their campus (in the middle of nowhere!): they have a large orphanage (mostly for AIDS orphans), a clinic for the mentally ill (large and crowded, but well-managed!), a primary and secondary school, AND some sisters work at a nearby hospital (it used to be theirs but was nationalized by the gov’t; some sisters still work there anyway, for the gov’t). The mentally ill were grateful to see the sisters when we arrived, and it was wonderful to see the work the sisters were doing with those who often go unnoticed and uncared for.
We had Mass and dinner with the Montebello sisters before heading back to PMB for the night.
Saturday was a free day – and in a wonderful celebratory moment, I went out to the mall for a movie with some of the Dominican students (it was Kung Fu Panda 2, which is not all that bad actually). You must know, however, that malls in SA are a rather different thing from America. Each competes against the others to be the most ostentatious in the province – each gets more extravagant than the next! Also, without exaggeration, there is a mall about every two miles in any direction! It looks like a state planner sat down and said there needed to be a school, hospital, and mall in every residental zoning area. The SA citizens LOVE malls with a passion unparalleled in the free world.
Lastly, Sunday was an interesting excursion into real poverty. I went to the house of the Comboni Missionary Fathers. I had Mass with the Zulu-speaking parish that they run:
After Mass, I left with K’gomotso to travel around the area. We visited the nearby “township” of Sobantu to see the folks there and how they live – most of the parishoners are from that township. A word of clarification: “township” is a named for the suburban areas of the town that were formally, under apartheid, “black only.” “Suburbs,” in a South African context, means a white, Indian, or “coloured” suburb (coloured meaning mixed race).
We visited one girl and her family, who told us about the recent crime and gangsterism that was popping up in the area. Similarly, we were told of the political mongering that was occurring to pressure people into voting for a corrupt set of officials – a very typical strategy in poorer areas.
After Sobantu, we visited the squatter camp that was in the backyard of the Comboni house, stretching a few miles around.
We went to one lady’s home and chatted with her about her life. Her daughters were going to school, at least, and she continued to go to church. She had moved there from the initial places that apartheid had settled people far outside the town. The poor did not have taxi fare to make it into town to where work is, so even though they might have property outside town it is really only affordable to live and work in town itself. As property near the city is expensive, they squat on public or vacant private land. It’s rather complicated, as you would imagine, to respect rights of these people and to respect private property law (otherwise, there would be complete chaos in the camps’ growth – as happens when trying to offer something like an amnesty to the squatters).
I also learned of something I intend to write more about – dowries or lobolla. The groom must pay the bride’s family a dowry in oxen before he can marry. It is about R10,000 at minimum, or $1,500. But it is often much higher than that. As one can imagine, for a poor groom, that sum can be impossible to pay. What ends up happening is that people start cohabitating or seeing each other intimately, leading to pregnancies. What then happens is that the guy can’t pay and they just go on like that, living in sin, until somebody cheats or God-knows what. And, because neither has a job, or a very low-paying social grant, nobody can ever work up enough money to pay. Or, as happened in this squatter camp (as it did in the ancient world), maidens that could not get a dowry (or a big-enough dowry) are forced into prostitution by their parents to help feed the family. And here, in South Africa, I saw it happening.
One of the more colorful stops was to the local “traditional healer” or Sangoma. She lived in the camp and performed magic rites, invoking the ancestors, to “heal” people’s diseases (mainly cancer, she said), or to bring them luck or love. She mixed this with Christianity, belonging to one of the many “Independent” Christian, or syncretistic, churches. So, she claimed to be a priestess and would do her rituals with holy water (which she had to steal from the Catholic church, because only THEY could “make” it, she said) and God-knows what else. One common spell, from what I hear, is a “magic fence” certain ethnic groups cast around their wives after they are married. The witch casts a spell over a knife which the husband places in a scabbard. He puts it in the house somewhere. The spell is supposed to affect any adulterous lover of the wife, so that his member gets “stuck” like the knife blade and he is revealed when the husband gets home (magic is not very much like Harry Potter here in South Africa!). To be a bit fair, I don’t know yet whether Sangomas perform this spell, or whether there is a distinction between them and “witch doctors.” Sangomas come in a variety of flavors, I am told. And here is one particularly nice one:
After that, we headed back to the Comboni’s so that I could meet Fr. Joe to head back to Joburg.
Then, I left to come back to Joburg for a workshop with the J&P (Justice and Peace) diocesan coordinators. This workshop picked up immediately after I got back, without even time to unpack! I went with the coordinators to a nearby Anglican retreat center run by a wonderful group of Anglican sisters, the Community of the Holy Name:
The conference was quite interesting, dealing with how to gain access to the municipal action plans (IDP), information about land reform in South Africa, and conflict resolution. I won’t bore you all with the details, but it gave me a lot of time to chat with ordinary folks and to pray (even with a heavy, time-consuming schedule of meetings!).
The interesting thing to me was the internal conflict in the Anglican diocese. The white communities in the churches were very progressive/liberal theologically. Given their community status, these people tended to “run” things or at least to be heard most often. They were losing members left and right – generally, the white congregations were quite small. On the other hand, the black communities were very faith-filled and active, but, due to a lack of literacy and power, they were not heard much in official discussions, I thought. Thus, these Anglican sisters, when I asked them about the Episcopalians’ decision to ordain homosexual bishops or women bishops, were flabbergasted and said that no Christian in their right mind would accept that sort of thing! But the white bishops and priests obviously were not in agreement, as one could tell from their publications that they supported blessing homosexual unions. But this was another thing that the sisters did not see as acceptable! This conflict was expressed country-wide as the Anglican conference in South Africa was so divided that they tabled the matter of whether to cut communion with Canterbury over the issue, because they could not reach any consensus!
Anyway, that’s a “little” update of my past couple weeks here in South Africa; I hope you enjoyed reading it!
Yours in Christ,
Br. James Dominic, OP