PROVINCIAL CURIA—For the first time, Fray Dionisio Selma, OAR, Prior Provincial of the St. Ezekiel Moreno Province, stepped into the African soil to visit the two Recollect communities in Sierra Leone, West Africa, from July 29 to August 2, 2016 and the OAR contemplative nuns in Makueni County, Kenya (East Africa), from August 3-4.
The renewal visit to the communities of Kamabai and Kamalo was partly dictated by the Constitutions of the Order which directs the major superior “to know…, to re-affirm…, and to correct…” anything related to the religious life and the conduct of the mission. Also, it was partly meant to collect relevant data that will form part of the Prior Provincial’s Report during the 55th General Chapter in October in Rome. On his way back to the Philippines, he took advantage of the opportunity to drop by the Recollect nuns’ Monastery of Our Lady of Consolation in Wote, Makueni County.
After the 9- or 10-day journey, many lessons were learned and some plans, framed.
An arduous trip
The 39-hour trip from Quezon City to Kamabai began on July 27, 2016. The Father Provincial accompanied by the Provincial Secretary, Fray Jose Ernil Almayo, OAR, checked in at the NAIA 2 Terminal for the Manila-Bangkok flight at 2:15 in the afternoon via Philippine Airlines PR736. After three hours and a nine-hour lay-over at Suvarnabhumi International Airport, the two braved again, this time, the longest of the 5 installment flights to the final destination: an eight-hour-plus haul from Bangkok to Nairobi. On board KQ887, they arrived in Kenya the following day at 7:10 AM local time.
The foggy morning of July 28 as seen from Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport augured a bumpy ride to the next landing stations. Taking the KQ504 flight en route to Accra (Ghana), the two Filipino passengers confirmed the earlier hypothesis in their five-hour flight to the southwest, and later touched down at Kotoka’s Terminal 1 at 11:30 AM. (Note that Ghana, as well as Sierra Leone, is three hours behind Kenya’s time zone which is, in turn, five hours behind that of the Philippines.)
After the unloading and loading of passengers and cargoes, the same plane with newly-labeled flight number, KQ5595, left at 1215H for Freetown (Sierra Leone). More turbulence was expectedly felt within the 1476-km arial distance and at an altitude of 38K feet above sea level. Thankfully, at 2:40 PM, Father Provi arrived safe and sound at Lungi International Airport. The plane was on time. Frays Russell Lapidez and Enrico Nacorda, both of Kamabai community, welcomed the new arrivals who had their first dose of “something for the big boss” at the customs. When they had gone through all the usual procedures and were able to get through the crowd, they traced their way to Kamabai with Fray Russell on the steering wheel. It was almost a 3-hour drive along asphalted Lungi Hi-way that snakes towards Lusar town and connects to the road to Makeni city up to Kamabai.
Welcome to the headquarters
The brothers of Recoletos de Kamabai community warmly accorded the Father Provincial the usual Filipino hospitality. After settling down, the visitors who were total strangers to the place enjoyed the exchange of pleasantries with the missionaries. The convent which has been considered the Recollect headquarters of the Sierra Leone mission, and chronologically older than the one in Kamalo, is home to four brothers with Fray Lapidez as the prior and head of the Mission, Fray Vincent Cadeliña as parish priest, Fray Mark Prado, and Fray Enrico “Bradex” Nacorda. The last two who were new additions to the community after its third member went back to the Philippines due to an aggravating illness have already contracted malaria, the cost of discipleship in this part of the globe. In fact, Fray Mark complained again of a fluctuating fever indicative of the early stage of plasmodium parasite attack, his second since he came 5 months ago.
July 29, at 6:00AM. While it was still dark and drizzling, the community with its visitors went to the parish church where, as practiced during weekdays, they opened the cool morning with the praying of the holy rosary, while allowing the mass-goers to trickle in, in time for the start of the holy mass. This day, Fray Enrico presided the mass, a lively one through the full participation of the people. The singing of the songs which may be in English or Limba (local language) with the favorite reggae tempo was like an incense rising up to God’s throne. Before the final blessing, the so-called “white men” who have just arrived (especially, of course, the Big Man, referring to Father Provi) were introduced to the parishioners who welcomed them with their thunderous applause.
Arriving home, the Fathers proceeded to the convent chapel for the Liturgy of the Hours (i.e., Office of Readings and Lauds). Then, to the “la mesa” for the first “lutong kumbento” breakfast, compliments of Fray Vincent “Enteng” Cadeliña’s culinary skill. (From the kitchen, Fr. Enteng hopped to the pastoral center for his speaking engagement with the linguistically mixed group of Limba- and Loko-speaking parish catechists.)
At midmorning, Father Provi gave an inspirational talk to the assembly of catechists who listened attentively both to the English and the Krio-interpreted version of his message. Shortly after, the catechists had photo-op with the Big Man from the Philippines.
Meanwhile, at the backyard of the convent, a smoke was billowing from a sort of “dirty kitchen”. The lady cook was preparing the Sierra Leonean national dish called “plasas”, consisting basically of cassava leaves (or kring-kring leaves, better known as saluyot/ tugabang/ tagabang in RP), fish or meat, and palm oil. It would be served with rice during lunch for the catechists.
Visit to the bishop
Before heading for Makeni, the local prior brought Fr. Provincial to an edifice originally intended as a vocational school for local students. It is equipped with high-end facilities donated by a Spanish agency. He also showed him the Recollect-built St. Thomas de Villanova Junior Secondary School near the parish church. (By the way, Sierra Leone has 13 years of Basic Education: 6 for Elementary, 3 for Junior High, and 4 for Senior High). And a brief detour to Kamabai town proper was good enough to catch sight of its usual quotidian scenario. Then, off the four—Father Provincial, Fathers Tol, Bradex and Russell—went to the Bishop’s House for a courtesy call on the newly-installed local ordinary, the Italian Bishop Natale Paganelli, SX (Society of the Xaverians).
The cheerful bishop welcomed the Recollects to his humble office. They talked about the state of the mission in the diocese, the contributions of the OAR missionaries, the challenges and problems encountered, and some plans for the future. The bishop switched from English to Italian when talking to the Father Provincial whom he knew studied in Rome. He later showed and described to the visiting Fathers the other structures in the premises.
Arrival in Kamalo
Right after the private audience with the bishop, the group moved northwestwards, from Makeni to a silent town named Kamalo which, like Kamabai, belongs also to the Bombali District (one of the 14 districts in the country). More rustic views, with the ever-present palm trees studding almost everywhere, as the car rolled for an hour and a half. Bafas (those uniquely designed houses thatched with palm leaves) and “poda podas” (or public transports similar to a V-hire in the Philippines) added local color to the sight and experience. (And, yes, what used to be a 4-hour trip from the city to Kamalo is now significantly reduced to 90 minutes, thanks to SLRA, equivalent to the Philippine DPWH, which prioritized the road improvement project. It is common knowledge that one major reason for this was that it’s the way to the President’s residence and the SLRA officer’s home.) At the arrival station, namely at the convent garage, the welcoming party under the tutelage of Fray Jamers rendered their well-rehearsed song-and-dance number… One could not be mistaken to guess: Sierra Leone got talent!
At 2:30PM, it was indeed a late lunch already, with the emblematic “plasas” partaken with much gusto… The table was obviously filled with joy with the presence of the brothers meeting each other again. More so, because it was the father of the Province visiting the community! The seemingly endless conversation continued at the garden area where a 7-foot tall tomato “tree” stood. The happy community of Recoletos de Kamalo is composed of Fray Dominador “Patik” Mercado Jr. (prior), Fray Jose Prudencio “Dennis” Castillo (parish priest), Fray Jess Marco Sanchez (school manager), and Fray Jonathan “Jamers” Jamero (project/social action in-charge).
Fray Jamers who is a religious brother attends to the environmental management of the community. He has what one would rather call a mini-zoo, a “collection” of exotic animals at the backyard like the 4 monkeys and a pair of boa constrictors in addition to dogs, cats, fowls and a different breed of sheep. His vegetable garden (composed of plots of taro, mung beans, corn, ginger, corchorus or saluyot among others) is well taken care of. It is worth noting that the altar servers, during vacation, would come and help clean the convent premises. And the girls/ladies who would come to also help or play, would feel at home in this neutral ground where they can really feel they are co-equal with other people. Sadly, when they go home, they go back to submit to the socially imposed understanding that they are simply “second class citizens.” But the Fathers continue to work on these in their homilies and catechetical instructions.
At 6PM, the customary Friday holy hour at the parish church attended by a handful of parishioners, mostly children and teenagers, was officiated by Fr. Jess Marco, the school director of 45 RC schools in the entire St. Paul the Apostle Parish. (RC stands for Roman Catholic to distinguish those that are Wesleyan which are also mushrooming everywhere.) Afterwards, the religious proceeded to the convent chapel for the vespers and complines prior to dinner. At the other side of the convent chapel were some children who, after joining the holy hour, were excitedly waiting to watch a movie. One might curiously ask whether they had already taken their dinner. Well, ordinary Sierra Leoneans take their meals once a day only, usually between 2 and 3PM.
Visit of renewal in Kamalo
July 30. Actually, the original schedule of renewal visit should have started in Kamabai. But in order to accommodate some unforeseen commitments, the brothers who had known better the situation suggested an enhanced version of the schedule to the Father Provincial who favorably approved it.
And as a fitting way to jump-start, a concelebrated mass was held at 6AM at the parish church with Father Provincial himself as the presiding minister and homilist. A pose for posterity and interaction with the parishioners followed after the mass. The Office of readings and lauds were prayed at the convent chapel during which the opening rite of the renewal visit was integrated.
Breakfast at 7:30AM. Two hours later, Father Provi made an individual dialogue with the brothers. Meanwhile, the Provincial Secretary checked the official books of the community as well as those of the parish, seeing to it that they were ready for the final checking and signing by Father Provi.
Lunch at noontime. Thanks again for the new taste of plasas partnered with organic chicken. Siesta. Then, at 3PM, resumption of the dialogue. The community consolidated themselves at 4PM in the sala de recreo for the final conference. In the evening, during vespers, the closing rite of the visit took place. Dinner at 7PM, and preparations for the Sunday masses to the outstations.
The school apostolate
Adjacent to the convent of Kamalo is the parish church of St. Paul the Apostle. And a stone throw away is its eponymous primary school under the directorship of Fray Jess Marco who boasts of its having passed the national government standards namely: aside from having classrooms, library and admin office, it also has a water well, and toilets for girls and boys. Interestingly, it also has a canteen, a light structure with palm leaf roofs. Nonetheless, the said primary school with 6 classrooms and home to 600 pupils is still, in the words of Fr. Jess, “top of the line”, for being recognized by the government as “center” for national examinations. Not all schools can have that distinction!
To have a reference for that phrase “top of the line,” the Provincial Secretary joined Fray Jess to an ocular visit to Kamaranka town where other RC schools were located. Initial assessment results in Rowuli school around 2 kms away from the town proper for instance revealed that: Fifty pupils belonging to two grade levels are being crammed in a classroom of 6m x 4m! Only 5 or 6 wooden benches measuring about 1.5m long x 1’ wide were there inside. More interestingly, in the town proper, there were bigger classrooms but those were meant for three grade levels. Two blackboards were mounted at the opposing sides of the rectangular room while the third at the center; no walls divide them. Basing on the current Philippine standards, at least (cognizant, though, of some worse situations somewhere in the archipelago), one cannot help but say a little prayer for these children.
July 31 was a Sunday, a good day for adventure. Father Provi dared to explore the interior of the parish by agreeing to preside a mass in Laminaya chapel which is located some 27 kms from Kamalo proper. Fray Dennis and Fray Jamers, the driver, and a platoon of altar servers accompanied him. The father of the Province saw for himself the kind of terrain where his missionaries are deployed. The notoriously inhospitable paths required patience and dexterity and a good quality of vehicle. Rocky roads and winding slopes characterized the area renowned for black diamonds (remember di Caprio’s movie? The place belongs to our parochial jurisdiction.) Going back, they stopped at Makale chapel where Fray Dennis presided the mass. All in all, the experience was unforgettable: Father Provi got to meet the section chief who invited them for lunch. He tried, for the first time, how a monkey afritada tastes like. During the offertory procession, those brought to the altar included: a buck (male goat), 6 chickens, 1 bunch of banana, and a gallon of puyo (the equivalent of tuba but this one is harvested from palm trees). And how can the group ever forget being stuck up for more than half an hour in the brook down the slope, that was made even more complicated by the endless drizzle? It could have been worse if it were of lower grade than the Land cruiser!
Meanwhile up north, Fray Jess Marco coached Fray Tol in the nitty-gritty of the celebration at St Peter’s Church in Kamakwei: a stand-up interpreter in the Krio language would interpret the homily, and at times the interpretation was much, much longer than the original; the typical dance moves of the offerers, literally inch-by-inch, during offertory procession would take them longer time to reach the altar… But the whole liturgy was alive; the mass-goers’ participation exceeded 100%!
Similar ambience in Katiri chapel which is 12 kms away from Kamakwei, to the interior towards the border of Guinea. The rugged road was friendlier, though, by comparison than that of the first group. Fray Jess, who had a lot of fans here, young and old, presided the equally lively mass. The two took lunch with the people, enjoying the specially-prepared plasas and puyo. Going home, they brought a cauldron of cooked rice and a canister of stewed beef given by a Lebanese friend. As in other occasions, the snap (short for “snapshots”) was always part of the program.
Transit to Kamabai & Renewal visit
About 4:00 in the afternoon. After a brief rest from their rendezvous in the outstations, and having put their luggage in the car and posing for a community picture, Father Provi and companions sped up to Kamabai, next stop of the official visit. Fray Patik steered the car, and in an hour and twenty minutes, despite the patchy drizzle, they reached the convent. (Somebody has yet to beat that record!)
The following day, August 1, the scheduled renewal visit took place.
As in the first day Father Provi arrived here, the day commenced at 6:00 AM with the usual hyperdulia to Mama Mary at the parish church, and followed by the Eucharistic sacrifice. Fray Lapidez presided the concelebrated mass. After which, the community went home for the Office of Readings and lauds at the convent chapel. The rite of the renewal visit was integrated in the morning prayers. Breakfast ensued.
At 9:00 AM, Father Provi dialogued with the brothers individually. The Provincial Secretary took charge of checking the official books of the convent and the parish. They were later checked also by the Prior Provincial himself. Both affixed their signatures in those books.
At 4:40 PM, the brothers gathered at the sala de recreo for the final conference with Father Provi. During vespers, the closing rite of the visit was inserted. It was hoped that, like in the other community, there would be authentic revitalization in the Life and Mission Project of the community, starting from each person of the missionary.
Sidetrip to Bawbaw
At 4:00AM of August 2, the visitors together with the 3 friars of the Kamabai community left the convent for Bawbaw Village in Freetown. The more than 220-km distance was a three- and-a-half hour run for the two cars: one driven by Fray Russel and where the visitors were boarded, the other by Fray Mark with Fray Bradex as his companion. The latter brought seedlings of fruit trees to be planted in the 6-acre lot in Bawbaw.
Upon arrival, Fr. Mark dominated the kitchen in preparing the breakfast. Father Provi inquired from the brothers about the background of the place and the 4-room edifice furnished with a kitchen, dining hall, sala and other basic amenities per room—enough to accommodate a three-member community, just in case. The caretakers, Timô and Bobô, were ready to help for some errands.
After breakfast—around 9:00AM already, Fray Russel together with Father Provincial and the Provincial Secretary headed to the airport. Despite a detour at Port Loko to have a glimpse of the “city center”, they reached the airport at 12:35PM, three hours earlier than the scheduled 3:45PM flight to Nairobi via Monrovia (Liberia) and Accra (Ghana).
Touchdown in Nairobi and a road trip to Wote
After a total of ten hours of travel from Sierra Leone to Kenya, Father Provi touched down in Nairobi at 5:40 AM of August 3. With the intention to visit the Recollect nuns in Makueni, he applied for transit visa which only cost $20. The mother superior of the monastery, Mo. Ma. Jose Vila, OAR and Sr. Judith de Quiros, OAR, the lone Filipina in the community, welcomed the two friars. But they took their breakfast first in a resto along the highway as it was already past 8 in the morning.
What a happy encounter it was of brothers and sisters in the spirit of St. Augustine’s cor unum et anima una in Deo! The conversation continued as they traversed the 134-km countryside from the capital. For Father Provi, it was like a refresher course on the Recollect presence in Kenya—for example: that the OAR contemplatives of the Our Lady of Consolation Monastery in Wote, Makueni County belongs to the Spanish Federation whereas the St. Augustine Monastery in Lodwar, in the northern part of Kenya, belongs to the Mexican Federation. The latter has yet to have Kenyan aspirants.
On the one hand, Mo. Ma. Jose is a nurse by profession and also expert in various technical fields such as architecture, engineering, computer science, music, etc… The Antipolo-born Sr. Judith, the designated formator of the 14 sisters under formation (3 aspirants, 2 postulants and 9 novices—all Kenyans) is a BS Foreign Service graduate; now, she serves in a foreign land as God’s ambassadress of “sequela Christi”.
Thanks to the safe driving of Francis, the monastery driver, they reached home whole and entire. At the tolling of the bell, the Kenyan sisters including the 4 solemn professed, readied their welcome spiels. (With the permission from the mother superior to take pictures of the cloister and to later post them in the Facebook, the Father Secretary took shots of those precious moments and corners inside the off-limits area very rarely seen by the “outside world.” (That was purposely granted if only to ignite inspiration to some Filipino ladies out there to join the OAR contemplative family. No need to go to Kenya; they have a monastery in Bacolod.) Canela and Pancho, those two white Japanese Spitz, made some noise and waggling of tails to manifest their canine version of welcoming the new faces in their territory. After some short introduction, they all gathered inside the refectory for lunch.
In the afternoon after siesta, Father Provi was toured around the backyard of the monastery which is ensconced at a 5-hectare lot. It was a walk to remember and to see the dirty jobs the nuns were doing: that they live by working with their hands. In the livestock department, there were federations of chickens, pigs, rabbits and cows…The first three provide meat; the chickens also lay eggs—5 trays per diem; and the cows give 3-5 liters of fresh milk a day. The vegetable garden was another laborious area to maintain. The sisters had to fetch water from a catch basin some 15 meters away.
Fray Edgar Tubio who once spent a week here to give conferences to the nuns could surely remember that spot where the sisters used to play football, and he was then the referee… Speaking of a balanced life inside the monastic world.
August 4 was the appointed time to say “Tenke, Africa!” (Tenke is the Krio term for Thank you.) On this last day in the continent, Father Provi presided the holy mass in honor of St. John Marie Vianney who is the patron of priests, at the monastery chapel. The usual mass-goers, less than ten in number, were present.
The morning schedule was finalized: after breakfast, the sisters had to attend to their manual chores, and at 10AM, the formands together with the younger solemn professed would have their conference with the Provincial Secretary and the Prior Provincial.
Lunch was served at 1:00PM. After some preparations for departure, the visiting friars posed one more time with the OAR nuns. Father Provi gave a blessing to the community and bid them goodbye. At 2PM, Francis drove the visitors to Nairobi airport.
Father Provi’s visit to Recollect Africa gave him the chance to see first-hand the ACTIVE face of the charism, particularly in Sierra Leone, West Africa) and the CONTEMPLATIVE face of the same charism in Kenya, East Africa. Two faces of the same path to sanctity. They complement one another just as in the symbolisms of Martha and Mary.
On August 5, despite some delays and hassles, Father Provi and the Provincial Secretary arrived safe in Manila via Bangkok. Though tired, they heaved with gratitude to God and to all who had prayed for the success of the visit. Tenke boku.
FRAY JOSE ERNIL ALMAYO, OAR
August 10, 2016