I was chaplain to a secondary school in Zambia from Easter 1975 to January 1982. This is the story of my work in this post.
One day, I was travelling from Chilonga, the parish where I was assistant priest, towards the Bishop’s House in Mbala Diocese (The diocese no longer exists, the northern part was transferred to the Archdiocese of Kasama and the other part – in the west – became the Diocese of Mpika).Chilonga to Mbala is more than 400 kms on what was a gravel road at that time. There was very little traffic and in the middle of nowhere, I met another car coming against me and which seemed in a hurry. We had just the time to recognise one another. It was the Regional Superior of Zambia. In fact, he was coming to see me in Chilonga in order to ask me to replace Fr. Michael Merizzi who had just been appointed Assistant Regional and who was chaplain, at the time, of Lwitikila Secondary School. Having already done some studies in catechesis and already worked with young people, I accepted without too much hesitation. I continued on my journey to Mbala to take part in a priests’ meeting. I do not remember if the Regional continued on his journey or returned to his office in Kasama. I do remember, however, when I was Regional, I carried out a number of consultations and made many appointments in the bush during my visits to the confreres.
The secondary school at Lwitikila
The secondary school of Lwitikila was (still is) a boarding school for girls belonging to the Diocese of Mpika. It was run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary from Chigwell in London. On arriving at the school, I was more or less told that I would not find it easy to be immediately accepted. It was an institution of 500 girls aged from 12 to 18 years. In fact, things went quite well. The girls relied on the kindness of the chaplain in a place where discipline was rather strict. But 500 girls!!! Some confreres asked me how I felt in the middle of all of them. I believe that they were concerned about my mental and moral health. I seem to remember that I replied something along these lines, that they were too many to be a problem! (But all the same, better not to be too sure of oneself!)
Very soon after my arrival at this big school, a group of girls came and asked me to resume the custom of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament on Sunday evening, which had been discontinued some time back. I refused. I refused because I thought that this devotion was not what they really needed. I invited them to be more creative and find something more meaningful for the end of the day on a Sunday. I quickly forgot about their request and my reply until, on a Sunday evening, I was going to the Chapel (it was already dark) and I noticed that there were lights in the sanctuary. I got closer and discovered about 30 girls seated on the ground around the altar, each one with a bible and a lit candle in her hand. It was a moment of sharing which took place every Sunday during the school year. On that day, I retreated on tip toe so as not to disturb this moment of prayer freed from any constraint or formalism.
At that time, being a chaplain of a secondary school meant being part of the teaching staff, which comprised volunteer lay people from the U.K. and Ireland as well as some Zambians newly graduated from Teacher Training College or University. It was a dynamic group, young and enthusiastic. As a member of staff, I was expected to teach on the same basis as the other teachers. Evidently, I taught the Religion courses with the help of some sisters and laypeople. The Religion course, which I found on arriving at the school, was a course of Bible Knowledge which was recognized for the purposes of the Cambridge exams. I quickly got tired of this type of teaching (in fact confined to the Acts of the Apostles). It was purely academic and learning by rote without any human or other formation. With a group of other secondary school chaplains, we decided to do look for other courses more adapted to young people and livelier. Happily, a new course had just been published in Kenya. It was remarkable for its methodology and its content. For the junior classes of the secondary school the textbook was called “Developing in Christ” and for the senior classes the title was “Living in Christ.” But the books were in Kenya. With the chaplain of a neighbouring school and the efficient support of the late Frank Carey who was working for the Ministry of Education, we decided to go and fetch them for ourselves, each one driving his own pick up; two tons of books, enough copies to launch the course in three or four schools. Leaving very early in the morning, we arrived in Nairobi just as night was falling. The following day, we loaded up the books and took a little rest and then we took the road back again to Lwitikila to arrive in the dead of night. It was quite an adventure involving the crossing of three borders of Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. However, we were still young, sight was still good and the backs were not yet giving any trouble. And then of course there was the pride of having made a worthwhile journey to start a new religious education course.
Lwitikila School was a Catholic Institution, but the admission process did not discriminate. The proportion was about 50:50, half of the students were Catholic and half were Protestant or others. On Sunday, the Catholics had Mass early in the morning whereas the others (UCZ, United Church of Zambia) had their service at the end of the morning which was led by a pastor from the neighbouring village. One Sunday, just before midday, I was in the school visiting the various groups (Young Christian Students, Vocations group, Bible Group, the choir…), which were holding their weekly meetings, when I heard loud shrieks coming from the hall where the Protestant community were holding their service. There was the sound of window panes being broken, doors being broken down and girls running in all directions and even jumping out of windows. What was happening? Perhaps a snake had managed to wriggle its way into the hall. Nothing like that at all! It just happened that, on this particular day, the usual minister had been replaced by a pastor from the Pentecostal church and it was his yells and cries during his exorcism exercise and healing session that frightened the girls, who were not used to this sort of thing. Hence the pandemonium. A few days later and not related in any way to these events, the school administration had to expel and send home to their parents about 15 students. They were “born again” Christians who refused to attend class during the hours of study and preferred to devote themselves to their religious exercises. These “born again” Christians could be a real pest and hindered the smooth running of the school. As for the Pentecostal minister, we never saw him again. Maybe, seeing the reaction of the girls, he got a fright himself, or perhaps he may have sworn to never come back to this Catholic institution which had caused the defeat of his healing powers.
Now, what else? The Zambian Government had ordered that each school have a productive unit. Lwitikila decided to dig a pond for fish farming as there was a river close by. I was in charge of this big work. We got some good results; two or three meals of fresh fish for the whole school. Unfortunately, we had to abandon the project very quickly. Sea Otters had come up the river and had vandalised the ponds. I also remember that the school was attacked twice by the boys from a neighbouring secondary school (15kms away!) As is often the case, it was the girls who had insulted the boys and there was no question that they were going to let it pass.
Finally what about the feasts and celebrations? At Lwitikila there is a big and beautiful church. The school gathers there for all the special occasions. I had asked the mother of one our confreres who taught domestic science at the school to cut, from local materials, vestments for those who served at the altar; the readers and the acolytes. They cut an impressive figure in their long albs with their vivid colours and African patterns. There were processions and dances and there were the 500 girls who, when they sang passionately and all together could make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. One hymn in English was very popular, “The Lord of the Dance” with words such as “Dance, dance wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the dance, said he!”
A couple of months after leaving the school, I was appointed Assistant Regional for Zambia. To go from a school with 500 pupils to directing a band of 150 or more Missionaries is not the most obvious thing. However, I had learnt and taught that life was change and to live life fully, one had to change often. In the course of my travels as Assistant Regional and later on as Regional, I sometimes met some former students. Some were already mothers of families, others were professed sisters. These encounters were always joyful. We forgot the moments of frustrations and what was left was mutual esteem and something akin to friendship.
Jean-Pierre Sauge, M.Afr.