Newsletter from Lodwar - September 2002

Dear Friends,

It takes two days to reach Turkana over a very dangerous and rough road from Nairobi. When I first set foot in this desert, I felt I'd entered another world. It was like stepping back centuries. I have to admit I had a little weep.

The people and the environment are so radically different from what I have experienced. Perhaps the closest to them are our traditional Aboriginal people in the Kimberly area of Western Australia where I had the privilege to work for a period of time. At the same time, there are still radical differences.

Consider that Turkana district had been a closed district up to 1968. The encroachment of Western Civilisation had not disturbed the traditional way of living of the Turkana. On the other hand, the very first missionaries (St. Patrick's Fathers) who arrived here were shocked by what they found. An entire population on the verge of extinction. Several thousands of people died of starvation and diseases. It took the missionaries several years to help the ethnic group regain a little bit of dignity.

The big problem of a wrong acculturation approach was certainly there. Were the missionaries supposed to bring in Western medicine to alleviate the degradation and put an end to mortal infections? The basic human needs had to be met. So, also education had to be offered. What about nourishing skeletal communities? Their traditional food was milk and blood taken from their animals. But their animals had died out by the thousands. So, maize and beans - as food relief - began to be brought in. Most probably that was the only way to save the Turkana. But today maize and beans have become the staple diet of this ethnic group. It still comes as necessary food relief.

And the people have come to expect it. So, the sacrosanct duty to feed the hungry has turned out to be a "risk" because it creates high dependency.

The same holds true for medicine and education. You want to help the people as much as you can. You want to put an end to the dreadful statistic of 40% of children dying before they reach one year of age. You want these nomadic people to be able to sign the ballot paper and thus have a voice in choosing their leaders.

So dispensaries and schools are established. With the financial demands these acts of generosity (and social justice) entail, the situation arises where there are not enough resources to meet the demands. So to run a dispensary or a school is financially prohibitive. A 'western' treatment of any disease (malaria, typhoid, yellow fever, AIDS) is far beyond the financial capacity of the people. Most Turkana people do not know what a Kenyan shilling looks like, much less a 100 shilling note.

Lodwar Diocese has constructed over 130 primary and secondary schools throughout the District. We are encouraging as many children as possible (particularly girls) to attend school. But, then, how can we ask for a school fee, something quite outside their possible means? So, the Diocese ends up sponsoring almost everything. The risk of continuing the dependency syndrome is thereby perpetuated. On the other hand, what else can one do?

At times, things seem to begin to change. Heaven opens, the rains come, the bushes get lush foliage, the animals breed, the little stretches of land along the seasonal rivers are cultivated, and you begin to hope that dependency is on the wane.

But lo, a new drought comes that decimates the cattle and the people.

Malnutrition and anaemia, especially amongst children and pregnant women, reappear. Small agricultural projects along the seasonal rivers collapse.

Crops hardly produce anything. Lack of basic needs compels people to go back to the traditional way of survival, that is, plundering and stealing. Cattle raiding is "traditional" among these nomadic groups. If in the recent past raiders were armed with spears and arrows, today they sports rifles and AK-47's. When they attack a village, they cause havoc and many lives are lost.

One seemingly arrives back at square one. However we need to always maintain a long view approach to the many local problems. Our long term view must be in decades, rather than in years. Since 1964, when the four missionaries and medical sisters entered this district, things HAVE improved. The life of the Turkana is definitely better than before. There are hundreds of thousands of people who have gone through formal education. The population has increased from less than 100,000 to more than 400,000. Of course, this increase creates other problems, as you can easily deduce. But, on the other hand....

Each coin has two sides. Which one should I look at most? I have not decided. I have been here for too short a time to begin to know with any clarity.

One thing is clear, however. The needs are immense, poverty prevails, children are in rags and most of them are not educated. So, we continue to help them the best we can, constantly taking the risk of creating further dependency.

But another thing is also clear. The sharing of goods among Christian Churches is a mandate from Christ. Richer and more fortunate communities must become more willing to work for a just and equitable distribution of the goods of creation. As long as 14% of the world population consumes 85% of the world resources, we will always have places like Turkana.

Every day I attend Mass celebrated by our Bishop, Mgr. Patrick Harrington. He is an Irish SMA Father, whose first appointment was to the Freemantle Diocese in Western Australia. The Eucharistic prayers here are just the same as in Australia as well you would presume. And as I listen to those prayers there is a sentence that has struck me with greater force since I have arrived in Turkana:

"Father, hear the prayers of the family
you have gathered here before you.
In mercy and love, unite all your children,
wherever they may be".

The Turkana who, with me, surround the altar are God's family, are my family, your family, our family.




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